“We’ve gotta work on our Christmas lists this weekend, guys,” I tell my daughters. “Then we’ll send them to Santa, so he knows what you want.”
“If we’ve been good, right, Daddy?” my daughter Rabbit says. She is being unusually dutiful. This is clear because she’s actually listened to what I said and responded directly to it, rather than ignoring me completely or bulldozing over me to address something far more pressing — usually, an inquiry into the whereabouts of Princess something’s sparkly dress or whether I can go upstairs to pick up her snow turtle or pink bear or ‘the shark but not the mean one’ and bring it down so she can play with it. Even she, the raging, free-form id of our household, recognizes and responds to the inherent importance of this topic. These are matters of Santa, and you do not fuck with matters of Santa.
“That’s right,” I say. This is my role: speaker of truth, enforcer of the law.
“Because Santa’s watching us,” Rabbit continues. This is the story she is learning, the one she is growing comfortable enough to retell on her own. “And if we’ve been good, he brings us lots of presents.” Rabbit still has trouble with her “r” sounds, so when she says it the word sounds like “pwesents” and something inside of me melts a little bit.
“That’s right,” I say.
“But Dad…” my other daughter, Butterfly, twin to Rabbit, adds. She lets the sentence trail off a bit, and she’s using the hushed voice that signals she’s talking about something sad. I know where this is going. “What if we’re not good?” Her eyes are brown and huge and infinite as they gaze up into mine, near-bursting with the promise of salty tears, waiting to see my response.
“Well,” I say. “If you’re not good, Santa knows. And then your name magically moves from the nice list to the naughty list. And if you’re not on the nice list…”
“You don’t get any presents,” says Rabbit brightly. “Have I been good, Daddy?” This is a rhetorical question, but one both girls have already learned I will not answer in simple and globally reassuring terms.
“Mostly,” I say. “But it’s important to keep being good. It would be really sad if you ended up on the naughty list — you don’t want that to happen, do you?”
“I’m going to be good,” Rabbit declares. She has no doubts. She is blonde and fair and the spirit of playful anarchy, and will plunge through life creating gleeful little disasters and charming all those who lie broken in her wake. She is a flock of birds in flight, plunging and soaring and spinning with dizzying speed and something like grace, flickering through mood and shape and direction to the timing and guidance of some unknowable compass. She is breathtaking and exhausting to behold.
“But Dad,” Butterfly says. Her voice is growing softer, more strained, as if the words are becoming harder to say. “What if I wasn’t very good?”
She is super-ego: all straight-set moral compass and knowledge of absolutes as right and wrong. When she errs, she collapses into herself like a fallen star, throwing off great sobbing waves of guilt and remorse and inescapable gravity that draw me close and pull me in and allow me to catch hold and lift her free: remind her of this world of light and laughter that has not come to an end but that still waits to embrace her when her breathing slows and her cries soften and the crack of a smile breaks free across the expanse of her broad face. She is a mirror of me: darker and deeper, too-easily given to slipping into familiar depths of rage and regret, never forgetting the wrongs she has done to others — or the wounds that have been inflicted on her. But: she is a mirror of her mother… beautiful and brilliant and capable of rising with astonishing eyeblink quickness above the moment and back into the flow of the world.
I know how to bring her back. This is also my role.
“There may be times when we do things that aren’t very good. But that doesn’t mean we’re not good ourselves. What do we do when we do something bad?”
“Say we’re sorry,” they answer together. They look at me, those gorgeous browns and blues, colors new to nature I never dreamed I’d see real. I want to live this moment forever. I want to be this, who I am now, forever.
“And if we say we’re sorry – and we mean it – does that help to make it better?”
They both nod. Butterfly’s expression is softening, a bit.
“And that’s what makes you good. And that’s what Santa cares about.”
Rabbit hops away, leaping from toe to toe and singing a song about Santa she is making up on the spot. She is a bumblebee, dancing from flower to flower, following the breeze where it may take her.
Butterfly stays with me. “And that’s why we need to make a list. Because you’re good, and because Santa knows,” I tell her. She stares at me for a moment, not saying anything, and then leaps into my chest, throwing her arms as wide as they will go.
“I want a huggie,” she says. She loves to use this silly word, this baby word, for the comfort of our embrace.
I lean into her, and give her what she asks for.