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Is Santa Real? A Doubting Brother And The Gift Of A Mother's Voice

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Bruce Auster's mother, Sylvia, in an old family photo. Originally from Brooklyn, she met her husband Stanley when they both worked at Macy's on 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan.
Beth Rooney for NPR

Bruce Auster's mother, Sylvia, in an old family photo. Originally from Brooklyn, she met her husband Stanley when they both worked at Macy's on 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan.

When I was a kid in junior high, I owned a cassette deck, a big brick of a recorder. I'd hide it on a chair at the dinner table, then push the red record button. No one but me knew it was there. Later, I'd listen to what I captured.

One December night in the early 1970s, I happened to record the moment when my younger brother began to doubt whether Santa Claus exists. And for a bit more than six minutes, my mother and father tried to convince him that, yes, Santa Claus is real.

My mom, Sylvia, grew up in Brooklyn; my father, Stanley, grew up in the Bronx.

They began dating in the 1950s when they both worked at Macy's in Herald Square — our family's own little "Miracle on 34th Street."

She was a stay-at-home mom. He went to work, came home. We ate dinner together in the kitchen every night. My younger brother, Gordon, still believed in Santa Claus — almost.

We lived in our little cocoon, innocent. But not for much longer. When this tape was made, we didn't know what was to come. It marks the moment just before everything changed.

"It can't be real," 9-year-old Gordon can be heard saying on the tape I made during that dinner so many Decembers ago. "There's no such thing as flying reindeer, there's no such thing as elves, making toys."

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"What made you think of that just now?" my mother asked him. "What made you so sad?"

Hearing her voice now — recorded by chance, that random evening — makes me not sad, exactly, but wistful all these years later. This turns out to be one of the only recordings I have of my mother's voice. She died of cancer a few years after the tape was made. She fought the disease for nearly four years — I was 12 when she first got sick and 16 when cancer and chemo finally wore her down.

The pain stole her energy, her humor, her personality. Her suffering stole my memory of what she was like before: before the illness, before the loss of innocence.

I barely remember her. Or, I should say, I barely remember her before she was sick. And listening to the tape now has brought that time, 45 years ago — and my mother — back to me.

It's so easy today to document every moment of our lives with a simple click of the camera on our phones. Not so back then. I re-create my memory of my mother from fragments: old snapshots, Polaroids curled at the edges.

I remember her cat-eye glasses, her short hair, the heavy wool sweater she wore. Mom couldn't ride a bike so I tried to teach her. She and I used to play tennis together — mom used a wood Billie Jean King model racket.

Each detail is part of the puzzle, how I re-imagine her and try to erase the bad memories from the months before she died.

This tape helps fill in the blanks. It isn't a posed photograph, but a real dinner-time conversation. No one knew they were being recorded. There's the faint sound of music in the background, the sound of forks and knives clinking on dishes, the laughter, a hint that we had strawberry shortcake for dessert.

And then there are the voices. My father's — I could call today and he would sound almost the same. Precise diction, dramatic. The other voices only exist on tape: my brother's — soft, high-pitched, a little boy. My own 12-year-old voice. I don't remember ever sounding like that.

And of course, my mom's voice, alive again. I'd forgotten her strong New York accent, a hint of where she grew up but also a relic of another time.

All this comes back to me now. Good memories replace bad. We had a life together as a family before my mom got sick. I couldn't know that night that I'd create what for me is a priceless and irreplaceable artifact, six minutes of tape that have become a big part of how I remember my mother. It's almost all I have of her now.

Surely this is a gift — maybe even a gift from Santa. As my mom explained to Gordon, all those years ago: Santa is a spirit, a feeling.

And I can hear her voice today, all because I happened to push the button on a tape recorder and caught the exact moment a young child began to doubt — and a mother tried to keep him innocent a little while longer.

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