Test 4, Day 1

England 260 for 6 (Stokes 58, Root 52) v South Africa

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When I was two years old we moved from Johnstown, Ohio, outside Columbus, to Lebanon, Ohio, a small town about 45 minutes from Cincinnati. It was a suburb, but it was far enough out that it still had a quaint old downtown with a Carnegie library and an ice cream shop and a bookstore and an old hotel where, famously, Charles Dickens had once stayed.

We lived in a small one story ranch house about a mile from downtown, and while the houses were nice, it was very suburban in look and feel, and it also had a touch of bumblefuck nowhere Ohio to it — flat, no trees, rednecks on motorcycles. Behind our house was a creek and a farm field and a pond. It was a nice place to grow up, all told.

Our neighbors to the south were the Johnsons. Rex was the dad and there was a mom whose name I don’t recall and they had a younger daughter and an older son, Jeremy, who was one year younger than I was and was missing the ring finger on his left hand which he lost in a lawn mowing accident. They were blue collar white working class. Middle America Ohio mainstays. They were loud and their yard was a mess with garbage and toys and Rex would drink cans of cheap beer by the case and yell at his kids.

To the north was Baptist preacher with his wife and their son, Timmy, who was the same age as my sister. They had money. The dad had a sports car and they were the first family I knew to have a VCR. Timmy was a good kid, a little weird, occasionally cruel, but mostly harmless. Timmy was also the person who told me that Santa Claus wasn’t real.

It happened one beautiful summer’s day when Timmy, my sister and I were in the backyard sitting by my mother’s vegetable garden. We were talking and inspecting the plants and the whole world was green and splashed with late afternoon sunlight. And then we started to talk about Christmas, and Santa Claus, and Timmy told me he didn’t exist. I was horrified and crushed, like the sky had come crashing down on me. I looked to my sister for help but she backed Timmy up. Telling me that, yeah, Santa didn’t exist, our parents bought all those gifts and wrapped them and left them under the tree each Christmas morning.

I wailed and screamed and ran inside to my parents. I was inconsolable. It was like being told that was the whole world had just broken in some irreparable way and that it couldn’t be put right again — that the way world was had changed not in event or tragedy but in fact and truth. Actually it wasn’t like being told that, it was exactly that.

Mom and dad tried to calm me down and figure out what was wrong. After a bit my sister came inside. The sun was setting and it was growing dark in our living room. My sister was crying too. She was just as inconsolable. She had played it tough in front of Timmy but she was also heartbroken, as heartbroken as me even. Maybe she’d had an inkling that Santa Claus wasn’t true, but there it was: confirmed. Laid bare in the summer gloaming.

My parents did their best to walk us through the heartbreak. Telling us that while maybe Santa didn’t exist in reality, he did exist in our hearts, in our kindness, in the way we treat other people. And life went on, and Christmases came and went and they still had magic, just a different kind of magic. And my sister and still got up at dawn in our pajamas and woke up our parents and opened baseball gloves and doll houses as my parents sat on the couch bleary eyed with coffee and smiles as the darkness fell away and the sun came up over another bleak, brown, dry and cold southwestern Ohio winter’s day.

I still think about my sister in the garden that summer afternoon. Trying so hard to be strong, while inside her heart was shattering. That kind of strength, while at the time perhaps a little misguided, would continue to serve her well her whole life.

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