Smell is the most effective form of time travel. The aroma of a burger cooking takes me back to Christmas Eve 1975 in Michigan. The small farmhouse kitchen is warm and cozy. A light hanging over the table keeps the dark on the other side of the frosted windows. At one end of the kitchen my mom is hovering over the stove frying cheeseburgers, two of them, just like she has every Christmas Eve I can remember.
The howling wind shakes the windows. Inside our little farmhouse it is bright, safe and warm. Dad watches TV in the living room. My brother and sisters are already in bed. But I am in the kitchen with Mom.
I think of my school friends. Tonight they are leaving plates of cookies for Santa. I did not tell them we leave cheeseburgers.
Like the year before, I protest. I’m hoping Mom realizes I’m a year older and wiser. Again Mom explains that Santa needs real food. He can’t eat cookies all the time!
I have no idea how she has come to this reasoning. Surely, because Santa is a magical being, he can exist on cookies and candy. I have a terrible thought: What if he suddenly gets the idea that we don’t want candy at my house? What if Santa crams a big greasy cheeseburger with no ketchup or anything down into the toe of my stocking?
Mom puts one plain cheeseburger on a buttered bun and places it on plate. She writes “For Santa” on the back of a scrap of wrapping paper.
I go to the living room to tell Daddy goodnight. I want to tell him that Santa needs cookies, not another plain cheeseburger. But I remember Daddy likes plain cheeseburgers on buttered buns—the other burger is for him. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, so I just tell him goodnight. He gives me a kiss and tells me to sleep tight.
There is a note that reads, “Thank you. I love cheeseburgers. Santa.”
Climbing into bed, I snuggle down beneath a heavy quilt. The smell of cheeseburger wafts up the stairs. The warmth of the quilt mixed with the pillow’s coolness overpowers my 7-year-old mind. Maybe Santa will leave me an Easy-Bake Oven, and I can make my own treats for him next year, I think before falling asleep.
“Santa came! Santa came!” Mom is yelling to us from the bottom of the steps. Four kids in matching Christmas pajamas race down the stairs. I stop at the table and see the empty plate. There is a note that reads, “Thank you. I love cheeseburgers. Santa.”
A bump on the elbow brings me back. It is no longer Christmas morning. I’m staring at a cheeseburger on the plate in front of me and sitting with my brother and sisters in the hospital cafeteria. Mom is in our dad’s hospice room. He waited through the pain for his kids to arrive. I got to tell him good night one more time.
The cheeseburger on my plate is not what I want to eat. Who in their right mind orders a plain cheeseburger from a hospital cafeteria? I smile through my tears.
Only two people in my life loved plain cheeseburgers: Santa and Dad. I take a bite and think, Needs butter.