115. She met her first Santa Claus at a Nashville neighborhood Christmas party.

FROM THE JOURNAL:

PHOTO SLIDESHOW AT BOTTOM OF STORY

When I first saw her she was standing by a wooden fence at the edge of the outdoor Christmas fair that Ryan Bult had organized in the parking lot of the West Nashville Dream Center. She stood beside her brother and sister and looked around as if she was unsure if they were invited. All three kids were unusually thin. Two adults accompanied them, but whether they were parents, guardians, or merely babysitters was difficult to tell given their lack of attention or affection for the kids. 

The whole group had the appearance of being lost. And it was their appearance that grabbed me. 

First there was the woman. She seemed to be an indifferent boss. She was heavy and tall and dressed in black leggings and a black fleece pull-over, the fleece covered in lint balls. I don’t know why but the lint balls struck me, like they have a meaning I don’t yet comprehend. She never stopped eating the whole time we interacted. I approached her and introduced myself but it might as well have been me introducing myself to a mannequin. Her attention was on the food and she ate hot dog after hot dog while I tried asking polite questions. 

The man, thin like the kids, also ate as I tried to engage him. He was almost movie-star handsome except for a total lack of grooming and a vast emptiness in his eyes. I extended my hand to greet him and he just looked at it for a second then limply shook it but without making eye contact. He was dressed in stiff gray work pants factory-pressed with a forever crease but aged and wrinkled and wore a thin vest over a 1980s-style multi-colored shirt-jacket that looked as frigid as it was shiny (in another circumstance I would have suspected he was being ironic). He seemed to be trying and not trying simultaneously. Like a contradiction of pride and hopelessness. Or more likely he had picked out his best clothes to wear to the Christmas party.

The girl stood out more than all of them, at least to me. She wore a dated and dirty puffy coat, unzipped even though it was cold (until a volunteer approached her and closed it). She was a head taller than her two younger siblings, but the younger ones seemed to be in charge. If not in charge, at least not under her authority–for she was so meek as to appear empty of any power. Her hair was an uncombed explosion that was clearly not by choice of style but by neglect.

A volunteer invited the children to follow her to the tables set up with games and crafts. The girl moved with her siblings like a feral creature back and forth between a game of pin-the-carrot on-the-snow-man and the food craft tables like she was in need of a thing she could not find, like she was experiencing something for the first time.

Then it happened. This moment I am trying to comprehend.

The girl yelled, “Santa!” 

I looked up with the crowd to see a Santa Claus coming across the parking lot. Children ran to him. 

She ran to him, but stopped short.

Maybe she was being polite. Maybe she was allowing the other kids their turn to greet Santa first. Maybe she was contemplating something. She just stood in her dirty jacket in the hard afternoon glare staring at Santa. After a moment Santa noticed her and motioned her forward.

The whole universe slowed. I felt the trees take a breath. I felt the lungs of the concrete parking lot go still. She stepped toward Santa and with her short arms she hugged him. Then she quickly stepped back. But Santa motioned for her again and she returned, hugging him a second time. This time longer. This time she held him in a fit, gripping him with her little arms. 

She backed away a second time and remained facing Santa. Again as if contemplating. Her eyes wide with surprise. She stayed like that until the crowd was too big then she moved rapidly away toward the other side of the parking lot. 

Speaking, to no one, to everyone, as she moved, she said: “I didn’t know he was real.”

She had never seen a Santa before. 

An eight-year-old girl in Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States of America had never seen a Santa Claus before in person.

It took a moment for it to register because it was so shocking. 

But is it also beautiful? Yes, it is painful to recognize someone is so lacking in such a commonplace experience. If she has never seen a fake Santa in person what other things has she never seen? A shopping mall? A new dress?A swimming pool? A bank? A dentist? But it might be beautiful because in a moment she is also shocked, but by a possibility. “He is real.” If Santa is real what else might be real? Maybe now every fairy tale the girl never believed is suddenly a possibility. 

“I didn’t know he was real.”

The smoke cleared. Santa laughed. No one noticed the girl. No one but me, the trees, the wind, and the concrete. 

BELOW: CLICK WHITE ARROWS TO SEE HER MEET SANTA

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