Nine Quarters and One Santa

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By Sheli Massie | Twitter: @sheligeoghanmas

When I was a little girl, my grandfather hid quarters behind our ears every time we saw him. The quarters would appear out of nowhere. He did the same trick every time we saw him and every time we were amazed by his level of magic skills. These same quarters would also be “reward” when report cards came out. We were thrilled to get a whole dollar of quarters for every “A.”

My grandfather was also Santa Claus. Not like at the mall, taking pictures with crying toddlers, but only on Christmas Eve once-a-year Santa. On Christmas Eve at midnight Mass, Grandpa Santa would silently make his way down the aisle to the manger in front of the tabernacle to the left of the altar. You could hear the bells on the belt ring as his black boots walked quietly forward. He knelt, bowed his head, and took off his hat. It may have been sacrilegious to some, but to me it was one of the most beautiful and special memories I have of Christmas. It took me years to figure out that it was my grandfather and not really Santa in my church.

But the unwavering adoration he had for my grandmother was a rarity. Their love story was like one of those movies you can watch over and over again on a rainy Sunday afternoon. They were darling to me. Their first date was in a soda shop near his dad’s law office. My grandma was his secretary. They went on a walk for chocolate shakes and a picture show. And as my grandma says, The rest is history.

They had a bulletin board in their basement filled with ribbons and certificates of prizes they had won together, square dancing. I mean, Can you even? They had matching outfits they wore to competitions. They were the cutest.

Sunday afternoons we gathered in their house for dinner with the cousins after mass. Grandma made all the sides with the help of the daughters-in-law and my aunt, while my grandfather waited in the living room to be called to “carve” the meat. He plugged in his electric knife and they stood side by side in the yellow kitchen preparing the meal to serve to us all.

My grandfather had a heart attack when I was 14. Something was blocking the blood from flowing through. Life was altered. Stopped. Called to pause. I wasn’t there when he collapsed. In fact, there’s not much I do remember about that day.

I begged my parents to let me stay in the hospital with my grandma. She and I sat in chairs with empty seats all around us. I sat with my head on her shoulder. She sat with her hand in my hand, her perfectly manicured hands holding a handkerchief with my grandfather’s initials monogrammed in it. We stayed that way for hours. At some point surgery was done and I fell asleep. When his heart broke, hers broke too.

He never was the same after he was discharged from the hospital, my parents say. That’s when the decline in his health started. They began to notice a shift in his behavior and space to process information was diminished. He became easily agitated and absent-minded.

In the years to follow, I saw a love unfold that was more intimate than any soda shop kind of love. It was a crying-at-our-dining-room-table love. Cutting-up-his-meals love. Asking-neighbors-to-help-you-look-for-him love. Walking-in-and-finding-him-under-the-Christmas-tree-having-opened-all-the-presents love. Turning-off-the-stovetop-numerous-times kind of love. Grasping-onto-his-dignity-and-sheltering-it kind of love. Helping-him-bathe-dress-and-eat kind of love. Locking-the-doors-so-he-wouldn’t leave-to-walk-by-the-train-tracks-again kind of love. Making-the-decision-after-years-to-place-him-in-a-nursing-home-with-others-who-suffered-the-loss-of-never-remembering kind of love.

She loved him in all the moments. The moments he would never remember and the ones she vowed to never forget.

I wish I had paid more attention to their story. The details of it all. Who they were teaching me to be. What was important and what would never matter. And how to love. They were a map of love to me from a very early age of how what to do when things were not fair.When tragedy came their way, unexpected and uninvited, they did not leave. They remained. They drew closer. They entered in.

I am sure my grandmother prayed that God would heal my grandfather. I’m sure she begged him to wake up and know her name. Take her dancing. Smile when she walked in the room. That he would be there when she woke in the morning with his crossword puzzle and Irish coffee. And I am equally sure she yelled at God that this was not fair. To take her husband so suddenly and so slowly. Watching who he was disappear every time she walked through the nursing room doors. I wonder if she ever prayed that his healing would come in heaven or if those are prayers we never admit. The kind where we know the healing won’t come here on earth, but only in the arms of Jesus.

We said goodbye to my grandfather 14 years ago. At the funeral there was a table in front of the altar. We were asked to place things there that reminded us of him. To remember. I have nine cousins. Nine quarters were laid on the table that morning. And one Santa kneeling at the manger.

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About Sheli:

Sheli Massie is a story keeper, seeker of justice, healing and hope in a broken world. She believes in longer tables, unlocked doors and living a barefoot life. She and her husband live outside of Chicago with their five children and one grandlove. You can find her over on Instagram @shelimassie_, Redbud Writers, and her website.

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