Photo: Ainsley Doty
Throughout my childhood, my mom took some creative liberties when it came to Christmas. Sure, other kids believed in Santa, but we were the only ones I knew who also believed in Peeker Elves. According to my mom, Santa sent out pointy-eared spies in the weeks leading up to Christmas to observe our behaviour (this was more than a decade before the “Elf on the Shelf” book went to print). Whenever my sisters and I were back-talking, squabbling or refusing to eat boiled carrots, my parents would rush to the window and say things like, “Oh my, the Peeker Elves are out early this year!”
Those creepy bastards always showed up at the worst possible times.
The Peeker Elves were also responsible for executing another mom-made Christmas tradition. This one involved wrapping paper. Every year, my sisters and I would choose special paper from Walmart or The Dollar Store and leave the roll in our winter boots out on the back porch. During the night, the Peeker Elves would collect the wrapping paper and take it back with them to the North Pole. Miraculously, on Christmas morning, my present from Santa would be wrapped in the Power Rangers paper I’d left out for the Elves a month earlier.
Unfortunately, the boots tradition is what led to my eventual discovery, at 11 years old, that Santa wasn’t real. My bedroom was directly above the back porch, and I’d fallen asleep waiting for the Peeker Elves to come. When I woke up to the sound of the back door opening, I assumed it was someone letting our poodle, Beau Beau, out to pee. But as I peered through the slots in the blinds, I saw my mom take the paper rolls back inside.
So, there it was—the undeniable truth. I was sad, but not crushed. I’d had my suspicions for a while, and honestly, I felt a bit relieved to finally be able to put the whole issue to bed. I was especially relieved that, by association, Peeker Elves weren’t real either. Those creepy bastards.
The tricky part was keeping my discovery from my two younger sisters, and I did a good job of it for the next couple of years. By 1999, Leighton was eight and still deeply indoctrinated, but Tory, 10, was taking a lot of heat from her grade 5 classmates. She barged into my bedroom one fall day after school and demanded to know if Santa was real.
“I don’t know,” I lied.
“Well, we need a test. I need to know for sure.”
Turns out, Tory had come up with a pretty decent plan. We knew not to ask Santa for something outrageous, because my mom reminded us every year that Saint Nick could easily give coal in the place of a pony, a Power Wheels Jeep or a cell phone. Based on these limitations, Tory figured one of us should ask for a reasonable gift that was also extremely difficult—if not impossible—to come by. Ideally, she wouldn’t be the one to ask, since she already had her heart set on an Easy-Bake Oven. This was more of a big sister task, anyway, so Tory planted the seed: “If you could have anything, what would you ask Santa for?”
That’s when it dawned on me: The perfect impossible gift.
I’d lost my favourite stuffed animal earlier that year. My parents had chauffeured me all around southern Alberta for karate tournaments, and somewhere along the way, between Calgary (my hometown), Nanton, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Edmonton, Teddy had been left behind. I wasn’t even sure when I’d lost him, exactly. I just knew he was gone. And I felt bad about it. At 13, I knew I was probably too old to care about some old stuffed bear, but I really missed the little guy.
Admittedly, I hadn’t always taken the best care of Teddy. Years earlier, I’d passed out on a bottom bunk at my Grampy’s farm, and Teddy had fallen face-down onto a reading lamp I’d placed on the floor beside the bed. The heat from the bulb burned half his face off. Grampy put a large square Band-Aid over the wound while I bawled on the couch, and he comforted me by saying that Teddy was a hero because he hadn’t burned the farmhouse down.
I was scared that stitches would hurt Teddy, so it took me a few months to work up the courage to replace the bandage with a blue fabric patch. I used a ballpoint pen to draw on a new eyeball, and Teddy was as good as new. If he was mad about what had happened, he never said anything about it. He just kept on being my best friend.
And how did I repay his unconditional love? I lost him.
So, fuelled mostly by guilt, I decided to go along with Tory’s plan. In late November, I went with my mom and sisters to Southcentre Mall in Calgary. We waited in line to see Santa, who was in his 80s and had a real white beard down to his chest. When it was my turn to talk, I felt awkward and bashful. I’d rehearsed what I was going to say, but I felt oddly emotional as I spoke the words aloud.
“All I want for Christmas is to find my teddy bear.”
I was so wrapped up in the exchange that I forgot to keep an eye on my mom. But I wouldn’t have seen much; she was standing off to the side, practising her poker face. When I was a few years older, she told me the whole story. As soon as she heard my brief exchange with Santa, her stomach had dropped into her pelvis. She hadn’t even realized that Teddy was missing, and there was less than a month left until Christmas.
When we returned home from the mall, I went about my normal teenaged life. My mom, on the other hand, got right to work. She wracked her brain trying to remember where we’d been in recent months. She scoured the Yellow Pages, called up every hotel and motel we’d visited, and demanded to speak to a manager. Someone must have seen this bear. You wouldn’t forget a face like that.
But the days turned into weeks, and by the time December 23rd rolled around, she still hadn’t been able to locate Teddy.
It dawned on her that there was one place left she hadn’t thought to call. My dad’s office put on a yearly staff party in Kananaskis, Alta., and even though it was an adults-only event, our whole family had spent the night in the town’s only hotel. (I remember it well, because while our parents sipped wine in the conference hall, my sisters and I convinced the boss’s sons to let us dress them up in drag.) It was a long shot, but my mom called up the Delta Lodge and spoke to the woman at the front desk. The woman asked around and checked the lost and found, but no luck.
The next night was Christmas Eve, and my mom later told me that she seriously considered taking me aside to discuss what wasn’t going to happen the following morning. But the house phone rang before she could work up the nerve. It was the woman from the Delta Lodge. She’d found Teddy in the laundry room closet! Someone had tucked him away on a shelf for safekeeping.
My mom was thrilled, but she quickly realized that they’d run out of time. Kananaskis was over 100 kilometres away, it was snowing heavily, and there was no way to get Teddy home in time for Christmas. She thanked the woman and asked her to send the bear by mail as soon as she could.
“Here’s the thing,” said the woman. “I live in Calgary, and I’m driving home tonight. Give me your address. I’ll come drop it off.” There was no longer a stranger on the other end of the line; she’d transformed into a Peeker Elf, working in cahoots with my mom to pull off a Christmas miracle.
Standing there in the kitchen, my mom held the receiver to her heart and cried.
The next morning, I sat in the middle of the living room floor wearing new flannel pyjamas. Paper and boxes were spread out across the carpet. My sisters buzzed around me. The Christmas tree was lit up with rainbow-coloured lights in the corner. There was one present left, and my mom handed it to me, looking away so I wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. I unwrapped it, chatting away mindlessly, barely noticing the special wrapping paper I’d selected months before. I opened the box, looked down and saw Teddy staring up at me.
I was speechless. Then it was my turn to cry.
Tory ran in circles around me. “You see?!” she squealed. “I told you he was real!”
In that moment, I came to two very important but contradictory understandings about the world. Firstly, that the Santa Claus at Southcentre Mall was the real deal. And, more importantly, that my mom could make impossible, wonderful, magical things happen—all with a little help from her Peeker Elves.
Those beautiful bastards.