My family surely knew my curiosity would be a useful tool in some career. I was full of questions from the time I learned to talk.

I really thought my love for reading would be the perfect reason to become a librarian. And my love of horses would be the perfect reason to become a jockey. I was 10, granted, but I was planning to be a librarian/jockey.

Then I realized, somewhere around sixth grade, that I weighed more than most jockeys, so that dream melted away.

Then I realized, somewhere around seventh grade when I chose to read all day instead of doing my chores and lost my allowance, that no one would pay me to just sit and read books all day.

My mother realized, about the week after Thanksgiving of my third grade year, that keeping secrets from me was a difficult task. Maybe she hoped I could put my curiosity and deep streak of doggedness to a constructive use. I know it gave her headaches.

Before I was in school, I was satisfied to ask her to write out a letter to Santa, watch her “post” it to the North Pole by tossing the letter in the wood-burning stove, then race outside to watch the letter fly out the chimney to Santa.

I mastered the skill to write my own Christmas list in first grade, but someone in school also told me there’s no way a letter to Santa would survive the fire of a wood-burner.

Mom assured me that Santa would get the letter, but I didn’t trust that it would be true. I rather suspected that Mom was helping Santa, when I started thinking about whether I actually saw that letter fly out the chimney, or just thought I saw it fly out of the chimney.

So I wrote out a list for the wood-burner, and another list for Mom to mail. The second list had the page number and price of each item from the Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog noted beside each item.

The Christmas shopping season of 1969 was the first year I began to suspect that Mom might be on Santa’s helper staff. I saw packages arrive at the house, and then they disappeared.

Mom left for work early in the morning, and Dad left for work about 30 minutes before our school bus arrived, so I had a little time to search for those boxes.

I nearly missed the school bus on my first attempt, but after a few days coming up empty, I found the stash of Christmas presents. I wondered why Santa left them so early, but i was mainly just happy to see them.

So happy that I opened them, and let it slip to Mom that I had done so.

She had a strange look on her face. (Years later I realize she was probably struggling not to give me a spanking and blow her role as Santa’s helper in front of my younger siblings.)

A few days later, in that window of time before school bus rolled up in front of our farmhouse, I went back to the stash of presents. They had been moved.

I spent the mornings before the bus came for the next several school days searching again, with no luck. I looked in the attic, closets, under beds. I even checked out the garage and the barn.

Miserable about it, I told Mom that someone stole the presents. I told her how many days and how many places I had searched for them.

She gave me another strange look, probably wondering how persistent one third grader could be.

And I didn’t give up. It was a Saturday, Mom was off work, and I went to collect walnuts to crack

for fudge.

Carrying a small bucket, I went out to the driveway, where we scattered the fallen walnuts to drive over and knock the skins off. Mom’s 1967 Galaxie 500 Fastback was parked next to Dad’s Chevy pickup.

I bent to collect walnuts around the back bumper of Mom’s car, and before I knew it, I was headed to the driver’s side door of her car, pulling the key out of the ignition (yes, we left our doors unlocked and our keys in the car back then).

I put that key in the trunk lock, lifted the lid a few inches, and spotted all those presents.

I was ready to run to the house and report my findings to my brother and sister, but Mom was on the porch, and she looked furious.

That’s when I learned that even a budding reporter should know it’s dangerous to blow the cover of Santa’s helper.

I kept my mouth shut, and eventually, on Christmas morning, those gifts appeared under the Christmas tree. All but one, that is, which was at the top of my Christmas list.

“Maybe you know where Santa left it,” Mom grinned.

I ran outside, popped the trunk of her car, and claimed it.

I wish I could say I never snooped again. But I did learn a bit of discretion.


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