A Sprig of Parsley
“What’s that in your beard?” The question was out of my mouth before I could think.
I watched Ed mindlessly stroke the snowy waterfall that circled his face and dropped to his belly. Every bit of that hair was his. Homegrown. Genuine. Part of what he saw in the mirror everyday as he ignored his razor one more time. The length of that beard was his countdown to Christmas.
The twinkle in his eyes sprung up hundreds of times the past month like ‘Old Faithful’, betraying a hidden youthfulness. With every whispered secret the wrinkles by his eyes and the curl of his lips reflected a heartfelt pleasure. The grimace, as children clambered down his battle-scarred limb, showed a track record of painful years. And now, Christmas Eve, the near septuagenarian bowed his head and yanked off his cap with a wince of resignation.
“Do you really have to hand out pink slips every Christmas Eve?” He couldn’t even look at me.
I watched Ed heave his annual sigh. He unbuttoned his crimson coat and pulled out the belly pad that left him drenched in sweat. He dropped the stuffing onto the floor of his locker and sank down on the slatted wooden bench like a weary old man.
I had to speak. “I’m just the elf, Ed. This is your last pink slip. How long have you been playing Santa now?”
Ed seemed confused by the question. Finally a little chuckle escaped. “I guess I live being Santa so much I forget this is really just a job.” He slipped out of his black leather boots and wriggled his sock covered toes to let them breathe. “I guess I’ve been doing this since I first found out about the real Saint Nicholas.”
“How long ago was that?” I watched him slip out of his furry red jacket and lay it carefully beside him on the bench. Even in an undershirt Ed still looked like the real Claus. He shook his head and refocused on my question.
“After the war. After I got saved. Funny that I learned about the real Santa sitting in church. My own folks were always trying to beat this idea out of my head that there could be anyone good who honestly cared about others. I knew it was Jesus or Santa. There couldn’t be both. And then old preacher Bradley told us the story of the first Bishop of Smyrna who put those gold coins in the shoes of that cobbler and his daughters. He could have knocked me over with a snowflake. There really was a Saint Nick. This guy was just trying to be like Jesus.”
“When did you start growing your beard?” I hadn’t known that Ed was all that religious.
“My hair turned white in the war. Never recovered. I got wounded. In the hospital they didn’t have time to do all the little things like shave us. One day I looked in a mirror and I was sure I saw Santa. This beard is my calendar.
There was an annoying sprig of green caught in the white waterfall just about the level of his heart and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I took the four steps to where he sat and plucked that sprig from its nest. “What is this, mistletoe? Have you been off kissing some of the other elves?” I teased.
Ed’s eyes grew wide and then misted over and great tears rolled down his cheeks and into his beard. I was dumbfounded by the response. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
Ed grabbed his chest and slowly got his breathing under control. “Two kids tonight,” he said. “Twins. A girl and a boy. About six. They were signing to their mom when they came to sit on my knees for pictures. I asked them what they wanted for Christmas. The boy said he wanted a new blanket 'cause he got cold at nights. The girl said she would like for her mom to get her hearing so she could enjoy all the beautiful songs at Christmas.”
I could see the memory still overwhelmed the half-dressed Santa. “What did you say?” I asked.
“First, I tried to breathe. I told her I couldn’t fix her mom’s hearing but I knew who could. She asked who? I told her Jesus. I told her I could pray for her if she wanted. She said yes. She left me this sprig of parsley so I wouldn’t forget.”
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