Those Darn Elves

carolines_150pAs published in Birmingham magazine.

One day after school when my son Clint was in second grade, he jumped in the car, excited. He announced he was going to build an elf house, leave some food out and, voilà, one of Santa’s helpers would appear the next morning. I gripped the steering wheel a little tighter that fall afternoon. My heart beat faster. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was uneasy from the start.

The minute I was alone, I called another mother. “An elf appears the very next morning?” I asked, panic stricken. Yes, my Martha Stewart mentor explained patiently, familiar with my S.O.S. calls. Go to Smith’s Variety she instructed. Ask for an “Elf on the Shelf.”

At Smith’s, the kind owner peered over her glasses and shook her head as if I were the child. “All sold out. Have been for weeks now.” Not one “Elf on a Shelf” existed in all of Birmingham, she told me. How had I missed this “Beanie Baby”-type craze sweeping the city, the country?

Visions of my son’s disappointed face looped through my head. Where was I going to find an elf by the next morning?

I searched the empty shelves in desperation, spotting a stuffed elf ornament tucked between the fake frosted tree branches. I grabbed it, unaware that this elaborate scheme would last years, each holiday a different elf crisis fueling my already-ramped up seasonal anxiety.

Before bed that night, I admired Clint’s elf house, emptied the fragile tea cup of milk and left a few cookie crumbs.

Sure enough, the next morning, Clint rushed to see if his elf had arrived. He grabbed the little guy, smiled, examined the midget elf closer, then looked at me, puzzled. “He doesn’t look like the other ones.”

Every stomach-dropping moment of motherhood gone wrong cascaded through my mind: the time at the kindergarten party I was called out by the son of a well-known local chef for attempting to pass off store-bought cookies as homemade; the time I was scolded by the teacher at the parent conference for too many tardies; the time my mother-in-law insisted that I’d regret not giving out goody bags at the birthday party. (She was right.)

To my huge relief, the following Christmas I found the “right” elf. Clint set out the food and wrote notes I answered in Lucinda font, impressed by my cleverness.
I set my alarm early and dragged myself out of bed, cursing, to place pointed ear pixies swinging from the chandelier or swimming in the dog bowl. I developed a deep resentment for the elves. I abhorred this new obligation. I found no joy in staging scenes; in carpool, I snapped at the other mothers glowing with tales of their elves riding tractors or leaving popcorn trails throughout the house when they asked what our elves did last night.

Soon my daughter Frances was old enough for her own elves. Once again, I was caught by surprise, the store sold out of the “real” elf. The best I could do was an elf with blond braids. Frances hated this funky, Rastafarian elf chick.

So I improvised: The reindeer from CVS she’d been begging for joined the compound. This satisfied her for the time being. But I opened a Pandora’s box. Every night before bed, I dreaded reading her ransom notes, her previously sweet musings now demand letters. When she requested elf babies, I was at a loss.

On Christmas Eve, the elves, thankfully, disappear back to the North Pole until their return after Thanksgiving the following year. Of course, my family never followed the elf rules, and sometimes, one or two rogue elves stayed behind.
One November, I was lying on the massage table, obsessing about where I’d hidden the elves. The whole clan was missing. Gone. Nowhere to be found. Christmas was around the corner and it was time for the elves to return, but I couldn’t find them!

The therapist was also a medical intuitive, and so she did an energy reading before starting the massage. She was quiet a long time until she finally said: “Sometimes I don’t believe the things I actually say, but I’m going to say this anyway. I get the impression you are surrounded by all of these.” She paused. “Elves.”

I sat up on the table and put my head in my heads. How did these other mothers do this, play this ridiculous game? I loathed it. I was being held hostage by one more unrealistic expectation. The elves must have been mixed in with the bags donated to Goodwill. All 19 of them. That’s the only thing I could figure. It’s like they were swept away in one fell swoop by a natural disaster: my bad mothering.

She waited for me to tell her she was crazy.

“I can’t find the elves!” I finally wailed.

I never did find the elves. That year, a new elf family took residence with us after I fabricated some tale about Santa’s lack of experienced elf labor. And I finally understood that I had become the victim of a clever marketing scheme, now playing Santa every night during the 31 days of December.

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