Holiday ’16 Nonfiction: The Most Wonderful Time

written by Wendy Fontaine

On the Skyway Sleigh we can see the entire park, from the Reindeer Carousel to the Polar Theater, all the way over to Snowball Mall. The monorail glides through the treetops, high and quiet, away from the summer crowds, away from double strollers with screaming babies and doting grandparents with over-stimulated pre-schoolers. My daughter and I use the time to plan our afternoon at Santa’s Village. Should we go on the bumper cars or is the line too long? Will we ride the Peppermint Twist? Maybe we should have lunch first. Burger Meister Court or Dasher’s Delights?

Every trip, I think this will be the year Angie loses interest in Santa’s Village, a park named after a man she no longer believes in. But even at eight years old, she wants to come. She wants to celebrate the myth of old Saint Nick and see if her name is printed on his nice list (it always is). She wants to feed baby carrots (five for a dollar) to Comet and Cupid, real reindeer with velvet on their antlers. She especially loves to decorate freshly baked gingerbread men with icing (vanilla, please) and sprinkles, then eat them from head to toe.

Near the end of the sleigh ride, there’s a camera tied to the branch of a pine tree, next to a sign urging us to smile. We make silly faces instead. In two minutes, when we disembark, a woman in a photo booth will try to sell me the photograph, either tucked into a cardboard frame or emblazoned on a coffee mug or a keychain. I might buy one. Or maybe I won’t. If only it were that easy to stop time, to hold this moment like a fossil trapped in amber.

**

Every summer when I was a kid, my mother and father packed the car for a two-hour drive west from Maine to Jefferson, New Hampshire. We zigzagged through the White Mountains, over narrow bridges and bumpy roads, past falling-down farmhouses, cow pastures and stinky paper mills. My brother and I sat in the back seat antagonizing each other just to pass the time. Our parents worked first-shift at the local shoe factory, and we weren’t the vacationing kind, so two hours in a car with no air conditioning was the most we could bear. When we finally arrived at Santa’s Village, we were restless and cranky, ready for a little excitement and maybe even an ice cream cone.

The park was a very different place back then, smaller and simpler than it is now. There were playgrounds, picnic tables and a pond with ducks. There was a wishing well, a nativity scene and a merry-go-round. My brother and I climbed the giant Frosty the Snowman statue near the entrance and sat upon his open mitten. We crawled inside a concrete igloo and pretended we were at the North Pole. At the petting zoo, there weren’t reindeer but there were regular white-tailed deer, something we saw all the time as kids growing up in Maine. In the fall, they gathered in the fields around our town to eat. In winter, they bounded across snowy roads and darted for the forest, trying to hide from orange-clad hunters.

But now, in the middle of July, there they stood, golden brown and slender, with big eyes and twitching tails. My dad put coins into a machine that dispensed cracked corn. I remember being afraid the animals would bite, that they would mistake my fingers for food, but my father took my hand in his and held it out for the deer. We waited, still and quiet, for one to approach. When it did, I felt the wetness of its mouth and the bristle of its whiskers as it grazed from my open palm.

**

I first took my daughter to Santa’s Village when she was three years old, after her father fell in love with another woman. At the time, Angie and I had our own apartment in the town where I’d grown up, not far from where the deer still gathered to eat. With two part-time jobs and a broken heart, I tried to do everything right for my daughter, to make every day special so she wouldn’t miss her dad. If I could make her happy, then maybe I would be happy too.

On my day off work, Angie and I packed the car and made the drive west, through the mountains, past the farmhouses, over those bumpy country roads. When we finally got there, she climbed out of her seat and looked at the park, from the flume ride to the roller coaster. Just over the treetops, we could see people riding a Ferris wheel. Where’s the snow, she asked. There’s no snow, I told her. This is where Santa lives in the summertime.

Once we were inside, Angie said hello to a talking Rudolph, amazed that the red-nosed reindeer we had read about in books was speaking directly to her. She was too scared to ride the merry-go-round or feed the deer, but she did climb onto Frosty’s mitt. We rode the train, drove the antique cars, and waited in line to tell Santa what she wanted him to bring her. We found her name on the nice list, right there on the first page. We got fresh doughnuts and ice cream cones that melted faster than we could eat them. And just before we left, we stopped in the gift shop to buy an ornament to hang on our Christmas tree.

**

When I was three, my mother drove me to Wilson’s department store to see Santa Claus for the first time. The line snaked through the aisles, past rolls of glossy giftwrap and bags of jewel-colored bows. I have no memory of this visit, of course, but my mom wrote about it in my baby book. She also wrote that I loved Bozo the Clown and Cinderella, and that my favorite song was “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

When our turn finally came, I marched up to Santa, not shy at all, and plopped onto his lap. I want a new Barbie doll, I said to him, and my daddy wants a six-pack.

I do remember one thing about that holiday, or maybe I’ve clung so closely to the story my mother has told over the years that I am merely repeating it. On Christmas morning, I awoke to find that Santa had left his red velvet hat at my house. My house. There it was, splayed on the arm of our old russet-brown couch, next to a stack of presents and a pine tree covered in silver tinsel. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, my special luck. Of all the children in the world, out of all the kids on his nice list, I was the only one with Santa’s hat.

**

After we leave the monorail, Angie and I make our way to the Hot Shots Fire Brigade, where she rides a miniature fire truck and uses a real water hose to put out make-believe flames. She soaks the front of her t-shirt, but no worries: the July air is hot, and her clothing dries quickly. Then we go to the blacksmith’s shop in the center of the park, where a white-haired man in a red shirt uses a hammer to pound horseshoe nails into rings. Good luck rings, they are called. When he has the sizing just right, he slips a metal ring onto Angie’s finger. She wiggles her digits to see how it looks.

I can’t be sure, but he might be the same man who made horseshoe-nail jewelry when I was Angie’s age. His white hair and warm smile look familiar. But what are the odds? More likely, he’s the man who made my ring on that first visit when my daughter was three years old. No wedding band?, he’d asked that day. It hadn’t seemed appropriate to tell him that my band was good luck, or that it was back home, stuffed inside the sock drawer where no one would see it. Santa’s Village is a happy place, and that wasn’t a happy story, so I simply shook my head. He slipped the ring on my finger and wished us a merry Christmas.

After that, Angie and I returned every summer for five years, which means there are five nail rings of varying sizes rattling around inside her baby box. The box sits on a high shelf in the hall closet, over the winter coats, next to the tree ornaments. Sometimes I take it down and look through it, my collection of amber fossils. There are dozens of drawings. There are report cards and picture books and plastic spoons she used to feed herself rice and pureed peas. There is her first teddy bear, which plays a song when its belly is pressed, and her first pair of eyeglasses, tucked inside a purple plastic carrying case.

Underneath everything is a tiny photo album with Santa and Frosty on the cover. Time has yellowed the edges and humidity has made the pages tacky, but inside the album are photographs from our initial visit. There’s Angie, on tiptoes talking to Rudolph. There she is eating a candy cane, lips and fingertips sticky and pink. And there she is sitting on Frosty’s palm, her arms outstretched in a silent plea for me to help her down. In my favorite shot, though, she’s asleep in the back seat of the car, wiped out by all that merriment.

**

When I was about ten years old, friends of my parents showed up at the front door late one Christmas Eve asking for help. They had nothing to give their children, a boy and a girl close in age to my brother and me. My mother knew just what to do. All year long she squirreled away trinkets and surprises, from colorful notebooks with markers and crayons to Star Wars figurines and little Transformer robots. She nodded to our guests and walked silently down our long hallway to her bedroom closet, which probably contained enough presents to satisfy every child in town. When she returned, she had two plastic shopping bags stuffed with treats. I no longer believed in a bearded man who delivered gifts on a deer-driven sleigh, but I knew every child deserved something special on Christmas.

**

I don’t recall exactly when my family stopped going to Santa’s Village. Maybe it was when my father switched jobs and began working nights and weekends. Perhaps when the factories and paper mills around town started closing. Or maybe it was me. Maybe, to my parents’ chagrin, I just grew out of the Christmas-themed amusement park. Either way, I don’t remember our last trip. Did we feed the deer? Did we get  rings? I wish I knew.

Sometimes I wonder if my excursions with Angie to Santa’s Village are about her childhood or mine, if I’m trying to savor her happiness or reassemble my own.

**

The first year on our own was rough. While Angie went to daycare, I went to work, filling prescriptions for eight dollars an hour and doing office work at the local university. I filed for divorce, petitioned for child support, and applied for food stamps. When Christmas came, there wasn’t enough money to buy decorations or presents, and I wanted to give my daughter a celebration, one that would erase the sadness she must have been feeling, that we both were feeling.

One day, I plucked the ring from my sock drawer and stopped at a pawn shop near the university. The jeweler offered a fraction of what the ring was worth, but I cashed his check anyway and drove straight to the department store, where I loaded a shopping cart with holiday goodies. Shiny glass balls and wrapping paper. Colored lights and candy canes. An artificial pine, about four feet tall. In the toy section, I found a baby doll and a highchair, plastic dishes, magic markers and crayons, and enough chocolate to fill a dozen stockings.

At home, we set up our tree in the living room, next to a borrowed couch, blue not brown. We strung the lights. We arranged the glass balls. We sang “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” And we hung that ornament from Santa’s Village front and center.

On Christmas morning, my daughter’s face sparkled with the light of a thousand diamond rings.

**

Each trip to Santa’s Village ends in Ho Ho H2O, a play area with waterslides, a splash pad and a giant bucket that spills freezing-cold water every ten minutes or so. When Angie was younger, she was afraid of the bucket. A signal bell would sound, warning that the next spill was imminent, and she would run for cover. But these days, she runs toward the bell. She loves the feeling of danger and anticipation, of the cold smack of falling water on a hot summer’s day.

At the end of our vacation, Angie will turn nine, which is halfway to eighteen. She’ll graduate, move away, and leave me behind. Then what? What is it she’ll remember about these trips, about our years together? She and I can come back to this place in New Hampshire whenever we want, but we can never come back to this place in time. These moments are vanishing, one by one. As soon as they appear, they are gone. That’s the tragedy and the beauty of raising a child. Everything is trapped in amber.

As Angie waits beneath the bucket, I notice the park has built a new attraction: Joy Ride Slides, a series of water tubes bigger and twistier than the ones my daughter enjoys now. I assume they are for the older children who are growing up and losing interest in smaller attractions and things named after Santa Claus. I ask Angie if she wants to try the new slides, if perhaps she’d like to ride down them together.

She shrugs. Maybe next year, she says.

We both watch the bucket, wondering how much time we have left.

____________________________

Wendy Fontaine is a Pushcart-nominated writer and professor in southern California. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Readers Digest, Brain Child, Passages North, the Huffington Post, Role Reboot, Literary Mama and elsewhere.