Every year, no later than the 15th of December, the typed, Xeroxed letter arrived. Our mother read it, a small, tight smile on her face, and then our father said, “Hand it over, Grace,” and began reading it aloud to me and Julie, affecting all the grandeur and bluster of a Shakespearean actor who’s been nipping at the bottle between scenes:
Christmas Greetings, Sorority Sisters!
I hope this letter finds you chock-full of the Christmas spirit as we await Santa’s arrival! It has been a splendid year for the Petersen family as Mikey, now seven, continues to astound and delight us as he rows the waters of childhood with confidence and triumph. (Dad set down the letter and moved his arms as if he were rowing a boat and said, “Row, Mikey, row! Row, Mikey, row!” Julie and I immediately picked up the chant.) During the past year, he lost three teeth and proudly deposited his tooth fairy money into his Woody Woodpecker bank with a laugh so like Woody’s that Stan thinks Mikey might have a future career in impressions! (“Did you hear that, Grace? This kid can laugh like Woody Woodpecker!”) We were delighted that Mikey was honored once again by being appointed a hall monitor at Eisenhower Elementary School by his teacher. He was rather legendary in the position during kindergarten and is once again performing his leadership responsibilities with rigor! On the horizon are piano lessons and Little League. Thinking of Mikey in a baseball uniform practicing scales on the piano is almost too much!” (“Oh, it’s waaaay too much, Marjorie.”) Have a wonderful year! Marjorie p.s. Oops! Forgot to say that Stan is still with General Electric and I am still the head teller at Hutchison First National Bank.
Setting the letter on the kitchen table, Dad tapped it with his fingers and said, “We should frame these letters. When Mikey Petersen is President of the United States, we’ll be saying we knew him when.”
“Marjorie would be thrilled to hear you say that.” Mom took a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator and filled her glass. “She was always a little over the top but she means well.” She lifted her glass and squinted at it. “There’s too much pulp in this.”
“There’s too much pulp in Marjorie. She doesn’t mean well. All she cares about is cramming Mikey down everyone’s throats. Doesn’t she realize everyone’s kids are doing great stuff? I think we should send her a letter, tell her Barb skipped first grade and Julie can do five cartwheels in a row.”
“Yes!” I shouted, jumping off the floor, but Mom laughed and waved her hand like the idea was preposterous. I felt like a birthday balloon that had been popped.
Looking at me and Julie, Mom said, “It only matters that Dad and I know how wonderful you both are.”
If we were so wonderful, why didn’t Mom want her sorority sisters to know? We sent Christmas cards every year, Julie and I excited to go to the drugstore with Mom to buy them. We lobbied for fancy ones with sparkly pictures of evergreen trees, a shimmering star on top, but Mom was no-fuss, no-muss. She went for something simple, cards that said, “Merry Christmas!” in letters that looked like curled ribbons on the front, the inside reading, “And Happy New Year!” She didn’t write a note in the cards, just signed them, “The Steiger Family”.
In the kitchen, Dad shook his head and said, “Mikey lost three teeth this year. I don’t know how I could have lived a day longer without knowing that.”
“How much money does the tooth fairy bring him? Does he get a dime, like us?” Julie had recently lost her first tooth and had been so nervous about someone coming into our room, to slip a hand under her pillow to take the tooth, that our parents had to tell her the tooth fairy wasn’t real.
“Oh, I bet Mikey gets a whole roll of dimes.”
“Well,” I put my hand on my hip, “does Mikey know there isn’t a real tooth fairy?” I pointed at my sister, “Julie’s only five and she knows.”
Dad said, “Oh, but there is a real tooth fairy but she only goes to Mikey’s house.”
Julie opened her mouth, paused, then said, “Do you mean his mother dresses up like the tooth fairy?”
Nodding deeply, Dad pretended to be deadly serious, “Sweetie, I think she does. She hides the costume at the back of her closet where Mikey will never find it.” Dad lowered himself to Julie’s height and whispered, “He’ll never know the truth about his mother.” He put his finger to his lips and said, “Shhh. It’s a secret.”
“Ned.” Mom shook her head, but she laughed. “Girls, your father’s kidding.”
I knew that but I wished he wasn’t. The thought of a parent going to such trouble to make her child happy was wonderful, made me envious even though Dad had made it all up. I pictured Mikey’s mother wearing enormous gossamer wings and a necklace with a tiny pink velvet pouch that held Mikey’s teeth. When Mikey reached under his pillow in the morning and found that roll of dimes, he thought it had been left by the real tooth fairy. He was the luckiest kid in the world.
As the years passed, Marjorie’s praise for her son grew. She extolled each of Mikey’s accomplishments as if he had developed the cure for cancer, split the atom, and climbed Mount Everest. In reality, he became a boy scout, got a paper route and raked the leaves on their lawn. His father was allergic to cats and dogs, but Mikey had two goldfish, Batman and Robin, and he never forgot to feed them. At some point, Mikey became Mike in the letters, though we continued to refer to him as Mikey. I remember the year Marjorie wrote, “Mike alarms me by “popping wheelies” on his banana bike but what can I do? He's afraid of nothing!” Mikey had a banana bike? Julie and I just rode standard two-wheelers. Dad read on, “We promised Mike a trip to Disneyland in the spring if he got all As and he delivered, of course. Look out, Mickey Mouse, here we come!” Julie looked as if she were going to cry, so I told her, “I bet Mikey falls off his bike when he does wheelies.” She accepted that, nodding hopefully. Marjorie concluded that year’s letter with, “We know our son will continue to SOAR next year!” Dad then made a paper airplane out of the letter and sailed it across the kitchen.
As the letter landed on the sugar canister, I asked myself if I was I soaring. What would Marjorie Petersen think of me? Mikey was her son, her golden boy, but I was no slouch. I got A’s, could sing pretty well, and had a pen-pal in Bolivia. So, why did I worry that Marjorie would find me inferior in some way? The year she wrote about Mikey being the captain of his junior high debate team, I wondered if I could debate as well as him. Our junior high didn’t have a debate team, but I imagined myself standing in front of an audience, announcing, “Nations must come together and work to build a better world.” I daydreamed about Marjorie sitting in the front row, her eyebrows lifted, allowing herself to think, “Well, this girl is pretty good. In fact, she’s the only one almost as good as Mikey.”
When Julie and I were thirteen and fifteen, no letter came. Day after day, our mailbox was stuffed with Christmas cards but no letter from the Petersen’s. Even Dad was disappointed, or maybe the most disappointed. Two of mother’s other sorority sisters called and asked if she, like them, hadn’t received a Christmas letter.
Dad said, “Your whole sorority probably thinks those letters are as dumb and funny as we do.”
Mom waved her hand at him. “Oh, be nice. You had to know Marjorie in college. She was always. . .striving.”
“I know, it’s, just, I always sensed she was struggling to keep up.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Mom look surprised, like she’d forgotten I was in the room.
“Oh, nothing. There was a lot of keeping up with the Joneses in the sorority.”
Dad said, “Now it’s keeping up with Mikey.”
But next Christmas came and again there was no letter. Mikey Petersen had vanished from our lives.
I was in London attending a conference about fifteen years later when the phone in my hotel room shrieked like a siren at four in the morning. My heart thumped almost as loudly. I was terrified of a family emergency; Dad had suffered a heart attack the year before and though he’d recovered, we worried that another could happen and he wouldn’t be as fortunate. The receiver cold against my ear, I heard Julie, bubbling with excitement, say, “Barb, it’s me!”
I was disoriented in the dark room but I could tell she was happy; there was no emergency.
“Barb, are you there? Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you. Do you know what time it is here?”
“Sorry, sorry. I know it’s late, but I had to call. I can’t talk too loudly. I’m at a Christmas party at Sheila’s cousin’s house.”
Sheila had been her college roommate.
“It sounds noisy. Why are you calling from a party?”
She drew out, “Because you. . .will never guess. . .who’s here.”
She made me wait a few seconds and then, with emphasis on every syllable, said, “Mi-key Pe-ter-sen.”
I dropped the receiver and fumbled in the dark to find it.
“Barb?” I heard Julie say, helping me find the phone on the floor.
“Really? Mikey Petersen? In the flesh?”
“In the fleeessshhh,” she sang. “Mikey Petersen from Hutchison. When I put the name and place together, I almost fainted.”
“Oh, please, pleeease, tell me he’s the biggest nerd in the world.”
I heard her giggle and readied to hear about a guy wearing Coke-bottle glasses and pants that stopped mid-shins.
“No, he’s not a nerd.”
“No. More like tall, dark and handsome. I’m not kidding.”
“It gets worse; he’s nice. I mean, like, really nice.”
I blinked and deadpanned, “You’re going to marry Mikey Petersen and give Dad his second heart attack.”
Laughing, she said, “I’ll be honest, if he weren’t here with his girlfriend, I’d have flirted.”
“Marjorie would be your mother-in-law.”
“Now, that would kill Dad.”
“And I suppose the girlfriend’s beautiful?”
“You know, attractive, but nice. Like him. They met when they were in the Peace Corps in Ecuador.”
“The Peace Corps!” I whined. Was he some kind of saint? How fitting that would be, Marjorie’s son, canonized.
“He’s a social worker here in Chicago. He said something about advocating for kids in foster care.”
Shaking my head, I said, “I can’t handle this.” Mikey was supposed to crash and burn, fulfill our childhood dreams of petty revenge for his mother’s gloating.
“Wait, there’s more. When I told him we waited for his mother’s letters every year, you should have heard him groan.”
“Really?” I saw down on the bed and pressed the receiver tight against my ear.
“He was mor-ti-fied! But, you know, laughing about it. He said he’s heard so much about those letters over the years and he dreads meeting anyone his mother knew.” Julie laughed. “I almost told him that Dad wanted to frame the letters, but thought that would be too mean.”
“So, how is Marjorie?”
Julie lowered her voice, mumbling something.
She was gone a moment and then she said, “The phone has a long cord. I brought it into the bathroom and shut the door. Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear.”
“Okay, remember how the Christmas letters just stopped?”
“Well, Marjorie got arrested because she was caught stealing money from her bank.”
“Mikey told you that?”
“Why would he tell you that?”
“Because I asked him if his mother was still the head teller at Hutchison bank and because he’d had a couple beers.”
“He has a drinking problem?” I half-joked, half-hoped.
“Nooo. It’s a party. He had a couple beers and he’s relaxed.”
“Right. So tell me about Marjorie.”
“Well, after she got caught stealing, his parents got divorced.”
“Mikey didn’t see his father too much after that but they went to the Grand Canyon with him last summer. They’re trying to reconnect.”
Mikey Petersen didn’t grow up in the all-American happy family. I couldn’t believe it.
“Barb? Are you there?”
“Yeah. Did Marjorie go to jail?”
“No, she didn’t go to jail. She lost her job but they let her repay the money a little at a time.”
“How much was it?”
“Well, I didn’t ask that.”
“So the letters stopped when Marjorie got caught stealing?”
“I guess so. She couldn’t brag about her son and call attention to having lost her job and her husband.”
“I guess not.”
“Is Mikey close with her now?”
“Oh, very,” Julie answered quickly. “He goes to Hutchison every chance he gets. He sings his mother’s praises. She’s his hero. He gives her credit for everything he’s done.”
“Well, yeah. She was a single parent. He said she took a waitressing job and watched other people’s kids to pay rent and his college tuition. Then she went back to school and became a teacher.”
“Mikey says she’s a great teacher. She adores her second graders, is completely devoted to them. Say, I should get back to the party. This is going to cost a fortune.”
“You’re going to pay Sheila’s cousin for the call?”
“No, I’m going to stick her with the bill. Of course I’m going to pay her.”
“There was that one time you stole my allowance.”
“Are you ever going to let me forget that?”
“Never,” I laughed.
“Okay, signing off.”
“Tell Mikey I said, ‘Merry Christmas.’ And then tell him—"
“I can’t tell him that! I can’t tell him I called you. He’d think I’m crazy. He’d think we’re both crazy.”
Nodding in the dark, I said, “We are. Very crazy. Okay, I’ve got to get up in a couple hours.”
“Get back to sleep. Talk to you tomorrow.”
In bed, I shivered and burrowed more deeply beneath the covers. I thought about Marjorie before I drifted off. Did she steal the money so she could take Mikey to Disneyland? Or maybe she took the money for reasons that had nothing to do with that, or even with Mikey. I tried to summon the face from the last family photo she’d sent, the bangs clipped over one eye, her determined smile.
Yawning, I imagined sitting at my computer, my fingers on the keys, words appearing on the screen: Dear Marjorie, I know how proud you are of Mikey. He soared because you gave him wings. I stared at the screen, unsure whether I should type my name. Marjorie didn’t know who I was, never would, but, still, I wanted to think she’d be happy to get a letter from me.
About the author
Kerry Langan has published three collections of short stories, My Name Is Your Name & Other Stories, the most recent. Her fiction has appeared in more than 50 literary magazines published. Her nonfiction has appeared in Working Mother and Shifting Balance Sheets: Women’s Stories of Naturalized Citizenship & Cultural Attachment. Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)