“Mom, I have to tell you something important,” Claire said to me in late November. “I know Gingee isn’t real.”
I froze, a bit. Gingee is our elf. She’s actually just a stuffed doll that Shawn and I got when Claire was 4 or 5 during the elf-on-the-shelf craze (Claire named our elf Gingee at the time.) For years, we pretended that Gingee would show up during the month of December to watch over the kids and “report back to Santa at night.” Because Gingee had to fly to the North Pole when everyone was sleeping, she often ended up in a new spot each morning.
I found the elf a bit annoying (I remember saying that I did “not need one more thing to remember to do!”) so Shawn was in charge of it. He did hilarious things with Gingee, including surrounding her with the kids’ toys and making her pretend to eat all of their snacks. When he was dying in the hospital he constantly reminded me to make sure someone moved the elf.
That last sentence may seem insane, but Shawn was a man who was dedicated to keeping the magic alive for our children. He loved Christmas and everything that came with it. He dressed up as Santa every year for our Christmas party, making hilarious jokes for the parents and putting on just enough of a show that even the kids who weren’t quite sure about Santa definitely believed in him afterwards. He spent loads of time telling the kids long stories about the reindeer he had once seen on Christmas Eve and he always made sure to leave a thank you note from Santa for the cookies we left.
So when Claire came to me and told me that she didn’t believe in Gingee’s magic anymore, my heart broke. For me and for Shawn.
I mean, I knew it was coming. She’s ten and a half, and very socially aware, so I had researched and practiced what I would say when the moment came.
“Okay,” I said, “you know that Gingee is actually a stuffed doll, right?”
She nodded. “I know,” she said, looking at me with big eyes, waiting to see my response.
“So now that you are older, you get to find out more about what ‘magic’ really is,” I said. “Gingee doesn’t fly to the North Pole every night. But it’s not that the magic is dead. It’s just that Daddy and I made it for you and your brothers. Now that you’re old enough, you get to be the magic-maker for them.”
Her eyes got really big and she started to smile. “So I get to move Gingee at night?”
I nodded. “That’s awesome!” she said, a huge smile now on her face. She did a little dance and let out a squeal, and I saw both hold old she was and how young she was in that moment.
A few nights later, on December first, we went downstairs and placed Gingee on the tree. “She needs to start on the tree,” Claire said, “but then we can do funny things with her.”
“You remember!” I said. “Daddy loved to make Gingee do the craziest things. You remind me so much of him, you know. He loved making magic.”
“And I do too!” she said.
It was the start of a nightly tradition. Even when I was tired or out with friends, Claire dutifully moved the elf, and the next morning would act surprised when Tommy or Austin found Gingee in a new place around the house. But she didn’t just move the elf. She also made sure to play up the magical qualities of the elf, and I found myself smiling when I heard her say things like, “Oh my gosh, look at where Gingee flew!” and “Tommy, don’t forget she’s watching you!”
Tommy, of course, still believes in everything. He thinks that Gingee is truly magical and that Santa might bring almost anything on Christmas morning, including a new motorcycle or a visit from his dad. Austin is a bit more skeptical. In his Christmas card to me, he wrote me a love note, but he also made sure to include, “I bet Tommy is not going to get $10,000 or any super expensive stuff.” Austin took at bit more convincing each morning when Claire was talking about the elf, sometimes giving me the side-eye after looking at Gingee.
“C’mon, Austin, please believe just a little longer,” I thought in my head every day as I looked at my 8-year-old. “For me. For your dad.”
I want desperately to hold on to the magic for my kids.
But it’s not just me. I think most parents are sad when the magic ends for kids. We lament it and often try to cajole our second or third or fourth graders into believing for just one more year. As adults we know that when the magic ends, the reality of the world begins. Elves no longer fly to the North Pole at night. Santa no longer exists. And Dad is really, actually gone forever.
I can’t change the movement of time for my children. Every passing day is a day that takes them further away from the magic, and closer to understanding all of the pain that exists in this world. Gingee will not always be magical for Tommy, just as her magic is starting to wane for Austin and is gone for Claire.
Of course, it’s not Gingee that I’m particularly worried about. Earlier than most kids, my children have had to confront real loss and pain, and as time continues they will understand what it really means that their dad died when they were really young. Yes, they’ll confront other pain, but right now it is the death of their father that will remain at the forefront of their worldview. As every child psychologist has told me, they will grieve again and again at each life stage that they go through without their father.
But they will have each other, and they will have me and Grandpa Tom and the many other people who love them every single day. So at Christmas time, what I hope I am showing them – what I am trying desperately to convey to them as they reach the unbelieving stage – is that “magic” is something that we can create for each other. Yes, elves don’t really fly to the North Pole while we sleep, but Claire went downstairs every single night to move Gingee, even when she was exhausted and had to wait an hour for her brothers to fall asleep. And every single night, she found a new and better place for Gingee to sit, just to delight her brothers.
It’s simple, this magic that Claire is learning to create. But really, it’s not. Because magic is also about love – one of the most beautiful and complicated things on this planet. And love is something that can fill us with joy and hope…and yet can also bring terrible grief. So really, it’s a bit of a radical act, to keep loving even with the risk that comes with it.
But let me say this loud and clear: it’s one risk I hope my children take every single day.
There is pain out there in the world, but there is also love, hope and – if we’re really lucky – a little magic too.