Christmas was a huge deal in my house growing up. My parents put on a big show for us six Crotty kids (I was number four). We celebrated on Christmas Eve. After the ceremonial oyster stew and singing of traditional Christmas songs -- some in German in honor of our Great Aunt Elsa, who was often with us on that holy night -- my mom would drive my younger sister Marcia and I around to see the Christmas lights on Omaha houses in the hope that Santa might swing by while we were away.
I remember asking my mother once during one of those impossibly expectant drives, "Mom, are we rich?" My mother replied, "No, honey, we're not rich. We're comfortable."
Sure enough, just as Marcia and I walked back inside our house through the garage door, I would invariably hear my Dad stomping in the attic above, bellowing a tipsy "Ho! Ho! Ho!" as he hit a hammer on a wood beam to suggest Santa's sleigh lifting off from our Brady Bunch home on Beverly Dr. ("Beverly" for my mom, I imagined, and "Dr." for my dermatologist Dad.) I remember thinking, "Is that Dad banging a hammer?" I wasn't sure exactly, so I suspended my disbelief because I didn't want to spoil the show - it was always about the show in the Crotty home -- for my sister Marcia or me.
Invariably awaiting us in the super clean, carpeted, and elegantly appointed living room -- where we were forbidden to go except on special occasions -- was a king's ransom of gifts. Not just what we secretly wanted, but the very best of what we wanted, plus things we never imagined: a gorgeously appointed chess set bought on a trip to New York, a cricket bat from England, a boules set from France, not just one Tell Me Why book, but the entire series.
I never stopped, until much later in life, to question why I was so lucky. I hadn't yet ventured, like the young Buddha, outside my father's domain to encounter genuine suffering first-hand. I heard vague murmurings about anti-war activists in Memorial Park (and a woman who birthed a child there), but I remained "safe and sound" inside the loving, luxurious bubble that my Catholic Republican parents -- by no means to the manor born -- had compassionately created for my siblings and me.
I was happy. I knew not yet of injustice, bigotry, and inequality, and the psychological and emotional horrors visited -- at times especially visited -- upon the most fortunate.
My eight-year window of childhood innocence is something I hold very close to my heart today. In the nearly five decades since those magical days, I've traveled many miles and experienced several forms of suffering that the Buddha foretold.
Nevertheless, as I enjoy a peaceful, if forlorn, Christmas alone in my spartan L.A. flat, I will never forget the time when all was full, and big, and well in my world. Santa was real because I needed him to be real. And I was "comfortable." We all seemed so... "comfortable."