I know what I want for Christmas. I want to be a cowgirl just like Dale Evans. I want boots, a vest with tassels, and a cowgirl hat. I want a horse like Buttermilk. Creamy, gentle, a girl’s best friend, but I know that’s a lot. So please, oh please, Santa, help me dress like Dale Evans.
In 1950, Mommy, Daddy, my brother Jim, and I live in an airstream trailer near Phoenix. It’s dusty. Daddy runs a golf range. He gives lessons to the Yankees and teaches them to drive a white ball or putt it into a tiny hole. They give him a baseball signed by the team.
“Happy trails to you,
Until we meet again.
Happy trails to you,
Keep smiling until then.”
Jim and I play in the sand and talk to men who come to the driving range while Daddy helps golfers. Jim is nine and I’m five. Jim only plays with me because we don’t know any local kids. Mommy doesn’t have time to help us find friends because she’s worried about Daddy. He’s so tired.
Daddy almost died last year. No one told me why he spent most of the day in bed, but everyone was worried. Mommy and Daddy whispered at night, and I heard enough to know we had to go to Arizona so Daddy wouldn’t get sick again. Even a cold was a scary thing.
Mommy packs the little trailer and Daddy drives us south in our turtle house. Before Christmas, with Dale Evans and Roy Rogers singing “Jingle Bells” over the loud speakers at the driving range, Mommy buys a tiny tree for the table in the trailer kitchen. There are only a few presents. It’s our first Christmas without Grandma and Grandpa, my aunts, uncle, and cousins, and a big family feast. I’m excited anyway. My two boxes are big. Not big enough for a horse, but big enough for boots, a hat, and cowgirl clothes.
Jim and I get hats but no boots. My heart pounds while I tear off the Christmas paper and open the second box, but all I see is a boring plaid shirt. No tassels and no vest.
Wait! There’s blue jean material under the shirt. Could it be a cowgirl skirt, just like Dale Evans wears? I unfold it and shake it out.
No! No! Santa has it wrong. I don’t want pants. I want a cowgirl skirt. Dale Evans doesn’t wear pants. Roy Rodgers wears pants.
Disappointment tastes like dusty desert dirt with a bitter aftertaste. Mommy probably told Santa to skip the skirt because I play in dirt all day. Or maybe if Daddy wasn’t sick. Or maybe there is no Santa, or if there is, he doesn’t care what I want, so what good is he?
At least I have a cowgirl hat—just like Dale Evans.
Looking back 70 years, I know the deeper disappointment was separation from grandparents and cousins and the unspoken weight of grief about my dad’s illness. My family was alone for Christmas in Arizona, but after Christmas, close friends arrived and we visited the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert. The Grand Canyon made a lifelong impression as did the sunset of many colors at the Painted Desert. For other stories about my childhood family, see Sorrow in the Dark Season or How I Learned to Trust a Man.