Joy raced in from school, her eyes sparkling. “Look,” she exclaimed, opening her hand.
In her palm was a little wooden reindeer, two clothes pegs, a shiny nose, jiggly eyes, a silly grin.
He made me smile. When I smiled at him, his eyes jiggled faster and he laughed back. “He’s wonderful, Joy,” I said.
“Take him?” she asked.
I spent 20 years as a front line child care worker in Montreal, employed in a residence for socially maladaptive preteens. Our director, of course a very wise and learned man, insisted that we must keep our lives absolutely separate from those of the children in our care. We were not to share any part of our family story with them.
How, in those circumstances, we were supposed to show them any example of a normal family life was never part of the monologue.
I knew the rules.
We were also absolutely forbidden to accept anything from the children. We, the child care givers, were to be the only givers. The children were to be strictly receivers.
Rules or not, the kids at the residence knew that Christmas was my favourite time of year, that in my own house money was not a necessary ingredient for Christmas but tradition was, that we made our decorations and candles, that there was joy and much laughter around our Christmas tree.
I looked down at the reindeer in Joy’s hand. My rebellious lips were having a hard time forming the proper words: “No, Joy, of course you have to keep the reindeer. You made him.”
I lifted my head, looked at Joy, and, as she locked eyes with me, I read a truth in hers, a truth that at 10, she should not have learned. And now I had a bigger problem. Joy was aware that I was privy to information that must never be spoken aloud. Joy could not take her reindeer home. She might be home for an hour or two on Christmas day. She might not. And she knew what would happen to her reindeer if she hung it on the agency tree. Some other young client, mad at the world, would take out his anger on that laughing reindeer and tear it to pieces. If, by some Christmas miracle, it survived to January, one of the staff would, in keeping with our institutional tradition, strip the tree, scoop up all the ornaments, and throw them out.
Deep in Joy’s eyes, I saw the reflection of our tree at home, where decorations that the kids had made in nursery school still hung and where tradition decreed that nothing was ever discarded.
“He’s entirely beautiful, Joy,” I said honestly. “I’d love to have him. You know that. Would you really give him to me?”
Faces can, indeed, light up. “Yes,” Joy said. She handed him over, quickly, not in case she might regret her decision but just in case I changed my mind.
I held the silly, happy, laughing reindeer. “He’ll be on our tree every year,” I told her.
“I know,” she said simply. “Forever.”
I’ve lost track of Joy. She’s in her mid-30s now, and, as I often do, I wonder what kind of life she and the other kids I knew at the residence managed to make for themselves as adults.
And every Christmas, forever, the laughing reindeer finds his place of honour on my Christmas tree.