9/11 mourners' mercy mission

The letter was on grammar school looseleaf paper and contained a sentence as forlorn as was ever mailed from the City of New York to the North Pole.

"Dear Santa Claus,

I am one of two twin sisters and we're 9 years old. ... We really need your help, Santa. Our dad died and now we need help. Our dad always provided our clothing. Our mom hardly has money to buy us clothing. It's very hard not having a father around. We would like clothes and shoes. ... Everybody in school is making fun of us."

Then came that sentence.

"We wish we weren't alive."

The youngster signed her name and, in the way of youngsters, leaped directly from despair to hope.

"P.S. Please don't forget our mom and some toys. We believe in you, Santa."

At the James A. Farley General Post Office on Eighth Ave. in Manhattan, this saddest of letters joined some 200,000 other New York missives to Santa Claus. The letters filled bin after bin, and you might have concluded there was no Santa were it not for the self-appointed elves who appear at the approach of every Christmas.

For five years, among the most unassuming of these elves was Firefighter David Arce. His mother and brother learned of his elfhood only after he perished at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, when they found a shelf of paper-clipped letters in his bachelor apartment.

At Arce's memorial, his brother read aloud a Santa letter that had been written in 1999 by a girl named Yvonne, who asked for "a computer or anything I can use for school." Peter Arce informed the mourners that Yvonne had indeed received a computer, and smiles broke through the tears as if by Santa magic.

As the first Christmas without David neared, his mother, Margaret, and brother Peter went to the Farley post office. They obtained two letters, one from a teenager who wrote that "every Christmas I have always dreamed of having a pair of Timberland boots ... size 4." The other was from a girl who wanted "a Barbie doll if it is not so much to ask for."

A Long Island shopping center became the North Pole as the Arces bought a pair of size 4 Timberland boots, as well as four Barbies.

"And one Barbie friend," Peter later reported. "And then Barbie accessories like dresses. And we got a Barbie car. A convertible."

The Arces sent off the packages marked from "One of Santa's Elves." The image of the two girls opening their gifts helped the Arces feel David was with them at least in spirit.

"I was reading the other day, 'To truly give is to seek nothing in return,'" Peter said.

Even so, no bleaker Christmas seemed possible. Until this Christmas approached.

"This year is worse than last year," Margaret said. "Last year we were in shock. ... This is really hitting hard."

Getting in touch

Christmas still meant Santa, and the Arces made ready to become elves once more. They discovered that the post office had sought to facilitate elfhood by establishing a Santa Claus toll-free number.

The big day was three weeks away when Margaret dialed the number and spoke to a Santa's helper. A pair of Santa letters soon after arrived at the house as if the Arces lived at 1 Frosty Lane.

One these letters was from an adult single mother of two girls, ages 7 and 2. She apparently had nowhere else to turn for "things that they need but I can't provide."

The other letter was from the 9-year-old, who wrote that she and her twin "wish we weren't alive." Her words could have reached no more sympathetic elves than the Arces.

There remained the problem of divining the proper shoe sizes and clothing styles. The answer was provided by a television ad for gift certificates good in any store that honors the American Express card.

In a year when so much of the country was shopping online, the Arces got on the Internet. They sent off two gift certificates with such ease as to demonstrate that anybody with the means and a few moments can send Santa to those who need him most.

On this hardest of Christmases, there will again be smiles through the tears as the Arces picture that 9-year-old and her sister out shopping.

"With their mom," Margaret Arce said.

A mother who lost her son at the twin towers could picture the twin sisters buying whatever they dreamed Santa might bring.

"Oh, that would be so nice for them," Margaret Arce said.

Originally published on December 24, 2002