Yes, Sylvia, there is a Santa Claus


My mother died seven years ago on December 19, 2001. Simon Walter (named for my father Walter) Lovely, my grandson, was born to my son Ross and his wife Emma on December 19, 2008. A strange coincidence you might say, but there is more.

My mother was diagnosed in July 2001 with advanced cervical cancer, a particularly cruel form of a cruel disease – robbing its host of all dignity along its monstrous path of destruction. It doesn’t help if its victim is bewildered by the world in general and given to bouts of depression. And, so it was with my mother.

She was born poor in Appalachian Kentucky. Like many girls in Appalachian families, she left school early to go to work to support and educate the others. It seemed better that way – perhaps one or two could “make it out” of poverty. She was the one who always seemed to be left out. Christmas didn’t come often to the hills. One year when gifts were sent home from the cousins who had gone on to work in the factories up north – she was the only one not to get one. No one could explain the mix up – an incident she never forgot.

She and my father left Kentucky in the early ’50s like thousands of others for what must surely have been the “Promised Land.” They gave up dirt farming, packed up the beat up old pickup with all their possessions – my brother and I – and headed to Dayton, Ohio. My father tells of “running, not walking” to a foreman he knew to beg for a job after being turned down by “personnel.”

However, at age 55 he was laid off. There was time when a man could get a good job in the early ’50s with an 8th grade education. However, those times had run out. My mother and father applied for and got the only job they could get – being nanny to our boys, Ross and David.

Her sudden illness in the midst of my charmed life brought on some reconsideration about the hectic pace of my life. My parents’ sacrifices had allowed me to become educated, not stopping at undergraduate school, but going on to law school. Later, I landed my dream job working to build great communities all over the world. As my mother lay increasingly stilled in her hospital bed in my parents’ tiny home I would be on my way to some “important” meeting and be called back by my father. “I can’t take care of her today – you’ll have to come home.”

Together at her hospital bed, I reconnected with my father. I heard his stories of being uprooted from a strong culture of community and family life and ties to the land – and of my mother’s particular sadness at her being later disconnected from those things. I learned that big important meetings would go on without me just fine, and that the needs of “little people” like my parents made my work in building opportunity important not only philosophically but in the most personal way.

Towards the end, my mother grew particularly reliant on Ross, our 20-year-old son. The most spiritually oriented of our immediate family, he was the only one with whom she would discuss death – that she knew was imminent. “Are you afraid to die?” he would ask her. “Yes,” she replied quickly. In addition, then hesitating, “Well, in a world where 20-year-olds die, how can I be afraid?” In addition, yet she was. For my part, I grew bitter at a world of suffering where someone shy, modest and kind could suffer so much. How could this happen and what did it portend? How could there be a God in such a world?

She finally died on December 19, 2001, to our relief.

However, the story does not end there. When he arrived, Simon Walter Lovely surprised a reluctant grandmother. I was after all, a hard-driving executive – not given to pausing for much of anything, much less cooing at babies.

However, in his coming, he also brought a message. Two weeks late, he decided to show up on, of all days, December 19. I held Simon and then watched as my 88-year-old father, Walter, for whom Simon is named, awkwardly take his turn. I grabbed onto something at that moment. Call it hope; call it belief or something else. Perhaps, I can believe in what my mind, my education and my rational mind can’t explain – that maybe, just maybe … there is a Santa Claus.

Sylvia L. Lovely is the Executive Director/CEO of the Kentucky League of Cities and the founder and president of the NewCities Institute. She currently serves as chair of the Morehead State University Board of Regents. Please send your comments to and visit her blog at