Santa Vulture

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Some kids don’t believe in Santa Claus.

Well, they better get with the program, because Santa Vulture’s coming to town.

We spotted him last Friday morning. I had all three kids with me as we drove Hadley to the orthodontist to have her braces cranked. We arrived around 8:30 and couldn’t ignore the solitary vulture, standing like a watchman in the grass by the office door. He eye-balled us but didn’t move when we approached. From the waiting room, we observed him through the window.

Perhaps he was sunning himself, but he’d parked right beside the holiday display, and he appeared to be watching ortho arrivals, and the flow of kids shuttling into the elementary school across the street.

That’s when I announced, with an authorative tone: “That — is Santa Vulture.”

The kids looked skeptical.

“Well, why else would he be here? He doesn’t need braces.”

“That is Santa Vulture,” the orthodontist confirmed, as he fetched Hadley. “He was wearing his red hat, but it fell off.”

While we waited for Had, I explained the details. “All those Santa-doubters, those non-believers at your school? On Christmas Eve, Santa Vulture poops on their houses.” 

“And the really bad kids? Really, really bad kids?” I paused to let them imagine any offenders. “Well, Santa Vulture pecks their eyes out.”

To be honest, the vulture sounded more plausible than the whole Santa Claus scenario: Flying, wingless, reindeer, lugging an obese man around the world, with a ton of toys?

At least the bird’s designed to fly. And as we observed, Santa Vulture was occupied watching the elementary school kids…. obviously noting the doubters. And we’d seen his buddies perched atop Tractor Supply or feasting on roadkill.

“That’s his posse,” I explained. “They help on the big night. And they celebrate Thanksgiving dinner on December 23rd, in preparation for their ‘deliveries.'”

By the time Hadley emerged from her tooth tightening, the story was set in stone and we were working on new refrains to old holiday hits.

he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good…or Santa Vulture’s gonna peck your eyes out….

It didn’t rhyme, but that didn’t stop us from singing, “Santa Vulture’s coming to town.”

It’s only a matter of time before I get a call from school — a report that the kids are terrorizing their classmates with Alfred Hitchcock-like stories of birds pecking out their eyes on Christmas Eve.

It’s so nice to share holiday traditions with others in the community…

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Santa Vulture, plotting for Christmas Eve

Moving on and looking back

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After living for 40-plus years on the same street, my mom recently sold her house. In a few weeks, she’ll settle into smaller digs.

I can’t speak for my mom, but I have no sentimental attachment to that house — I grew up two doors down. The house she’s leaving is just a structure of steel, brick and cement.

It’s the innards that matter. Memories glued to everything. Not just photos from family trips, but the dishes that we dined on for decades, furnishings that adorned both houses, trinkets scattered along Mom’s bookshelves, and Dad’s roll-top desk, the cubbies stocked with the same supplies for as long as I can remember.

Back in August, I rode the heart-wrenching roller coaster of sorting through my father’s stuff. With so much to tackle on a tight deadline, we had little time to reflect or review; I boxed anything sentimental — family records, photos and files — for future perusal.

I tried to be practical and efficient, unaffected by emotion. It worked for a while, even as I boxed framed family photos and my parents’ wedding pictures. But then I found Dad’s old telephoto lens, tucked in its case.

On family trips, that stupid lens was my responsibility…. perpetually slung over me like a bandolier. I lugged that thing all over Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and so on, year after year. I couldn’t stand carrying it and my only reprieve was when Dad would pop the 35 mm off his camera and say, “Gunga Din! Bring me my telephoto lens!”

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I hadn’t set eyes on that thing in 20 or 30 years. But there it was, in a drawer, in an old wardrobe in the basement. I burst into tears. After that, it was impossible to be emotionally detached.

I spent an exhausting two days boxing and packing, but it wasn’t all tearful. Lots of my grandmother’s things had been shuttled to the basement and I was reunited with oodles of photos and records.

Snapshots of my father as a toddler, my grandmother, out-skiing her family members before the war, and joyful images of my grandparents after years of living in DP camps, happily settled in the US.

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I also found a treasure trove of old family photos — unknown relatives, who apparently, were album-worthy. I discovered 200-year-old books, and mysterious ledgers and records from the early 1800s. All of those are in Hungarian — some printed, but others, barely-decipherable in early 19th-century scrawl.

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One of many mystery men

But all that was months ago, and those boxes have migrated to my attic.

Last week, Mom and I pawed through the remaining practical items — stuff that she won’t need, but we can repurpose. Dad’s chainsaw, gardening tools, extra sheets, beach towels, fireplace tongs, reading lamps… totally random stuff.

Maisie got a lifetime supply of tennis balls. When she comes in the house, she likes to stare at her stash.

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As I made a final pass through Mom’s house before unwanted items are sold, I thumbed through the books in the basement once more. And I found one that I’d missed: a long-forgotten children’s novel. One that I’d read a million times as a kid.

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The Good Master is a story set on the Hungarian plains (the “puszta”) and it follows a head-strong, tomboy named Kate, and her adventures with her cousin Jancsi and his family on their ranch.

My copy is tattered and worn — it’s a 1935 edition, the first year it was printed, and it contains the author’s original illustrations.

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I did not add The Good Master to the boxes in the attic. It’s in the kids’ room and we’ve been reading it every night. Aside from the adventurous plot line, the book’s prevailing theme is about the superiority of country life over urban life.

Of course, that resonates with Cayden, Had and Brynn, and further solidifies their notions about clueless city folk and hardy, resourceful country folk.

Out of curiosity, I googled The Good Master and — go figure — it has a wikipedia page. There I learned that it was never translated into Hungarian. But I also discovered that the author published a sequel, The Singing Tree, in 1939.

I found an original copy of The Singing Tree on Ebay. The kids and I split the cost. It’s on the way.

So I know what happened to my family in Hungary.

And in a few days, the kids and I will find out what happened to Kate and Jancsi, too.

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Waking to a New State of Being

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In our house there’s no morning rush, but a manic marathon to get out the door on time.

Or just a little bit late.

Fortunately, Hadley’s an early riser. By the time I stumble downstairs, she’s eaten breakfast, packed the lunches and is finishing her homework, stitching a dress or darning doll clothes.

What a slacker.

Cayden and Brynn share the other end of the spectrum. They sleep late, rise reluctantly and function at a tortoise pace. They must be nagged, dragged and threatened to dress, eat and gather their backpacks, which often spew papers, books and art projects from the night before.

Then it’s time to wage World War III: wrestling Brynn into her vest for airway clearance. The treatment takes 30 minutes but we allow an hour for resistance, arguments and a meltdown (or as my Mom called my childhood tantrums, “the dying chicken act”). Factor in errant shoes and missing permission slips and it’s a dash to beat the school bell.

A few weeks ago I started sleeping in the guest bedroom, so my insomnia-fueled tossing wouldn’t sabotage Martin’s slumber, and his snoring wouldn’t trouble me. But recently I’ve slept well. Like a normal human being.

So last night I decamped and reclaimed my side of the bed. And this morning I awoke to two revelations: wow, I slept great! followed by, oh crap, it’s already 8.

Eight o’clock is late. Too late for WW III, and we’d have to scrap chess club, which is twice weekly before school.

“Hadley!” I bellowed while reaching for yesterday’s jeans. “I need your help up here!”

Brynn awoke relatively quickly and offered to roust her brother. She scaled Cayden’s top bunk and straddled his chest while screaming, “Wake Up!” and bouncing on him like a bronco buster.

This wasn’t as traumatic as the time that Hadley woke Cayden by dragging him from bed by his feet. (Cayden stayed asleep until the free-fall, when his head struck the rungs of the ladder and he landed in a heap on the floor.)

While not as painful, Brynn’s bronc-riding wasn’t well received.

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Note: falling from bed doesn’t guarantee consciousness.

I dished up a condensed version of the manic marathon and shoved them out the door at 8:55. Dirty dishes and food littered the kitchen. We left a trail of shoes, jackets, school papers and overdue library books in our wake.

As we sped to school, I lectured Cayden about his fidgeting and sluggish eating habits. And I lit into Brynn about — well — everything. “Hadley, we have got to get these kids up earlier. Much earlier. I’m sick of you all missing chess club.”

Tires screeching, we arrived at school. So late, there wasn’t a bus in sight. “Out, out out!” I yelled. “Hurry up!”

Brynn buzzed to have the door unlocked and chagrined, we filed in. I prepared to sign the late sheet, they awaited notes for class. I glanced at the wall where the clock should be. “Where’s the clock?” I asked.

“Chess club uses it,” the school secretary replied.

I shrugged and ducked out the door, relieved to avoid a finger-wagging reprimand about timeliness.

I thought I was home free, til I spotted Cayden’s lunch sitting shotgun in the car.

That kid, always forgetting something…

I buzzed the office once again. All three kids were perched on a bench.

“Cayden, here’s your lunch. Why are you all still here? Are you in trouble?”

“They’re in chess club, right?” the school secretary asked.

“Yea, when they get to school on time.” Did I miss something? Were they late for some special chess club meeting?

“Why are they sitting here?”

“Chess club doesn’t start until 8:25.”

“So,” I said, glancing for the missing clock. “Shouldn’t they be in class? What time is it?”

“It’s 8:05.”

Silence blanketed the room. Hadley and I exchanged stunned expressions. Cayden appeared indifferent. Brynn was oblivious — she can’t tell time.

“I told you to look at the kitchen clock,” Cayden finally said.

“I thought you were pointing out that it’s a few minutes slow. It’s 9:05… right?” The office staff erupted in laughter.

“It’s 8:05,” someone sputtered between laughs.

I felt my wrist, then my back pocket, but my watch and phone were at home.

“Well, it feels like 9:05,” I said, mentally reviewing the morning routine. “The clock beside my bed…. I guess it’s still an hour ahead.”

“So is mine,” Hadley admitted. “But I wake up with the sun.”

“It’s really 8:05? Well Cayden, I’m sorry that I made you bolt your eggs. And you can forget that lecture in the car.”

The staff was still laughing as I wandered out, mulling over my bonus hour. I glanced back at the kids. They were wedged together on the bench, wide-eyed and silent, undoubtedly pondering the situation.

This new, uncharted territory: being early.