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God Didn't Lie
By Judy Brown
Santa Claus never lied. But to me, the deep conversations we had, deep into that hopeful night, were as real as I was, and I could never understand his betrayal. Christmas was coming that winter, and they told me that if you wish for something hard enough Santa would bring it.
I wished Mom would come home. She was in rehabilitation for the third time in two years, and I was in foster care for the third time in two years. The last time she came home she promised me that she would never leave me again. But she promised that every time, and then a few months later it would start again: the emptied glass bottles, cracked, strewn carelessly all over the floor wherever she dropped them; the high dank smell and needles and vomit and lopsided smile under the rolling eyes. Then she would go out and forget to come home, again and again, until they would come and take me.
It was winter outside, snowing and cold and I wondered if Hanukah came to the rehabilitation center. Here there was only Christmas
Mary was singing downstairs in the kitchen where she baked all day. It was a song, she said, about Christmas. I could never decipher the words or the tune from her half-jumbled, off-tune singing. Mary had the ugliest voice I ever heard, but she was fat and smiled a lot, and I liked her.
I slid down the broken banister right into the kitchen. I asked Mary what she was doing for Christmas, and if Santa Claus would bring me a present, too. But she said that I was Jewish, and it was Hanukah for me.
I told her that it was all right, Santa Claus could bring me a Hanukah present too, and she laughed and said, maybe. But there was another problem. How would he ever know my address? I changed places every year. Mary told me not to worry so much. If I were good enough, he would know. But when I asked her if I was good enough, she told me that she didn't know. I hadn't been there long enough.
So I begged, and wished, and yearned with all my heart to Santa, wherever he was, that he bring me a Hanukah present. I sat on the window ledge every night, and looked up at the moon overlooking the roofs of the crowded building. I told him that I knew I was Jewish, but I was just as good as anyone who wasn't, and I was sure he had Hanukah presents in that huge pile in his wagon, and from the bottomest of my heart would he please, please, please, kindly bring my Mom home from jail in time for Hanukah, which was sometime around Christmas. Every night until Christmas I begged him, and I was sure he heard me. Susie, the girl next door, told me that last year she had begged every night for a Jo doll, and on Christmas she found one right under the tree. The trick, she explained to me, was not to tell anyone. She didn't tell anyone except for her Mom, but that didn't really count, anyway. So I didn't tell anyone, not even Mom. It was a secret between Santa and me.
Christmas at Mary was no big thing. She said she just did it for the children, and could hardly afford a tree. But we had a small tree and I decorated it with some stuff we did at school. Christmas night I sat on the window ledge until dawn. I begged Santa for the last time and promised to be good forever. I wanted to spend Hanukah with Mom. She was usually drunk, or high, but she loved Hanukah and every year if she and I were home, we would celebrate the first few days of Hanukah together. We would light the candles, and sing, and eat doughnuts, and then she would tell me the story of Hanukah. She would tell me about the evil Greek king, and the few persecuted Jews who beat the king's big army. But then, I explained to Santa, the Jews found the holy temple in a huge mess and could only find a drop of oil to light the big, gold menorah. So God made a miracle, and the oil kept burning for eight days straight until they got more... But last year on the fourth night of that Hanukah Mom got drunk at a bar, and collapsed somewhere on the way home, and they took me away from her for three months.
I told Santa the whole story, and promised that if Mom came home on time I would make sure she would never get drunk again. When we finished our conversation it was almost morning, and I fell asleep on the floor near the radiator were I could feel the heat.
In the morning I ran downstairs and found a big box under the tree. Mary was still sleeping, and I knew she wouldn't care so I tore open the wrapping. It was a doll from the bargain store at the corner of our block. I threw down the doll, and sat on the ledge of the window to wait for Mom. I sat there until Mary woke up. When she came down she asked me what I was doing sitting on the window looking as gloomy as a bear. I told her I was only waiting for Mom. Santa said she was coming. She came and looked out of the window and said, "Honey, your Mom isn't coming home yet. Why don't you come eat." But I didn't want to, and stayed by the window all after noon until Mary pushed me outside to play. There, I sat on the steps until evening, but Mom never came.
That night I looked up at the moon and spoke with God. I told him that Santa was a liar, or maybe he had never really heard me because I was Jewish. I didn't know much about God but I was desperate, and I assumed that if he could keep candles burning for 8 days, then he could bring Mom home. But in the middle of the conversation a cloud passed by the moon and God disappeared behind it. I waited for a few minutes, but God was still gone so I went to sleep.
The next day I went to the local mall, and fought with a girl, and stole a candy-filled driedle from the Candy stall. When I came home Mary said she had a surprise for me. Mom was coming home tomorrow.
I was so excited that I threw the driedle in the air, and it crashed on to the floor, and all the candies scattered all over. But Mary didn't care, and we held each other's hands, and waltzed around the dirty kitchen screaming and laughing. Mary told me that she would miss me, and that if my mother ever got drunk again, which she probably would, I could come to her.
The next morning Mom came to get me. We hugged, and cried and she told me how sorry she was, and that she would never do it again. She had turned a new leaf and we would be together forever.
On the way home I reminded her that it was almost Hanukah and that I wanted to celebrate it the way we did every year. She hugged me and said that, of course, we would, and that she would buy the best doughnuts this year to make up for everything.
On the first day of Hanukah Mom scrubbed the old silver menorah clean. She told me that when I would come home from school there would be doughnuts, and candles, and the menorah on the windowsill waiting for me. She would go shopping now for everything.
I went to school, shared my snack, won the spelling bee, and came home at four o'clock, but Mom wasn't home yet. So I watched some TV, did my homework, ate some cookies and sat on the couch. At six, I turned on the TV again; at seven I turned it off. I roamed the house, tried on Mom's clothes, and put on some of her makeup. I would be Yehudis, the Hanukah heroine. So I sat with my doll, and we played. But then we finished and it was eight. I took off Mom's clothes, and turned on the TV again.
I was almost asleep on the couch when Mom came home at ten. She was drunk. Very drunk.
She barely made it to the sink. And then she collapsed on the couch and didn't move.
I lit the candles myself that night. I found 6 candles left in the drawer from last Hanukah. I cut two of them in half and pulled out the wick. I wasn't sure how many to light, so I stuck all 8 candles into the holes in the menorah and lit them with the cigarette lighter. These were the last candles left in the house, and I knew Mom wasn't going to buy more. She would be drunk again tomorrow, and the next day and the next. But it didn't matter. These were Hanukah candles and they would light for 8 days. Hanukah candles didn't burn out, I knew. God kept them burning forever.
I stared at the candles and then I fell asleep. It was still dark outside when I woke up. I could hear Mom's footsteps upstairs, and then I noticed the menorah. The candles were gone. Melted.
The pink and red wax dripped off the menorah and onto the sill, and the flames had long stopped burning. Stunned, I clutched on to the menorah and sobbed out loud. I could hear Mom shuffling downstairs, but then she stopped.
"Honey, what happened?" she asked groggily from the stairs, and then she saw the menorah. "Oh, my god," she said and quickly came over. "You lit the menorah yourself."
Suddenly, I was furious. I screamed, and stomped my foot, and threw the menorah on the floor.
Mom looked worried and scared. "Honey, what happened…?"
I told her that God had lied. Hanukah candles don't burn for 8 days.
Mom looked at me strangely, and then she began to cry. She cried like she did when dad was killed; like she did when the baby died. She cried, and cried, and cried and finally, she told me: "No, God never lied. Only I did."
We lit the menorah that night, (at two a.m.,) again. Mom found some birthday candles, and we lit one for the first night of Chanukah. She even said the blessing from a small prayer book she had with the translation, and then we sang and ate doughnuts and I told her the story of Hanukah.
God didn't lie. The flames burned for 8 nights straight. We lit them ourselves.
from the December 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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