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.
Daddy loves Mickey Mantle the way I love Dale Evans. I sing “Happy Trails” with Dale Evans and Roy Rogers when it plays on the golf range speakers.
“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.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful story from your childhood, which I enjoyed hugely. All these years later it seems as though you’ve, quite rightly, worked out what the deeper disappointments were. I love the old photo of you in your new Christmas hat and your pink adult one! I’m wondering if your interest in photography began in childhood too? Ha-Ha! Come Christmas Day I reckon poor ole Santa gets a right roasting from millions of children, when he fails to deliver the “desired” presents on the big day. His ears must burn good and proper!
I remember one year I received a present I didn’t like, so swapped it with my sister, who then, unbeknown to my parents, also swapped one of hers with another sister. Luckily with four daughters my parents honestly couldn’t remember whose present was whose so this happened several times over following Christmases but only with presents we weren’t keen on I hasten to add. And most surprisingly, we got away with it. Right I’m off to read your other stories now. Wow, visiting the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert as a child must’ve been amazing!
Love and light, Deborah
Just to assure you, dear Deborah, I’ve never worn a pink cowgirl hat even if I wanted one as a child. We’ll leave that to Dale Evans or another cowgirl. I don’t remember if I told my mother I was disappointed, but I’m sure she knew. She was a mother of two young children, caring for a dying husband with the attitude of that time that the children should not be burdened with anything painful or frightening. Dark fear and tension lurked around in the corners and were always there until my dad died when I was 14. Even after his death, my mom couldn’t talk about it or grieve openly or even speak my dad’s name. I had to learn to grieve on my own.
So now you teach me another benefit of having sisters. I didn’t write about the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert but they loomed large in my memory. When Vic and I went to Arizona and visited these places many years later, I thought it would challenge my overblown childhood imagination. What I learned in those and later visits is that these sacred sites are even more powerful and the Grand Canyon was even larger than my little girl mind remembered. Sending you love and holiday happiness. Holidays will likely be quiet here. It’s all vague and unsure with new covid threats. My forest awaits me decorated with snow and evergreen boughs.
We have disappointments and sadnesses early in our lives don’t we Elaine. IF one had to entertain the idea of its meaning, then I think of how these early woundings are of merit, at least if I cast my mind back, that is how I to choose to see it … suffering – is a real part of life sad to say but that is how it is. But not so ‘sad to say’ – our suffering is a teacher in its way. We learn from our sufferings, we continue to grow ..
And now, 70 years later, there is another suffering, which we are all experiencing in real time, collectively, and Mother Nature is also bleeding. But as you learned early on after Christmas, there were joys awaiting in Mother Nature, in the company of close friends. These early imprints, shaping as they do, urge us towards whatever is necessary for us each individually.
Thank you Elaine, this is lovely … I can hear the child in you.
We do learn to accept disappointment, Susan. This small disappointment felt like a big deal to a little girl. And there was lots of real suffering in my family since by the time I was 5, my dad had almost died twice. There was an underground grief and hysteria in my mom, but going to Arizona was also an adventure and my brother and I got our first puppy there (well after Christmas). Amigo was my buddy and never disappointed me. My dog was the best grief counselor (no one helped children with grief in the 1950s) when my dad died, and Amigo set the stage for a lifelong love of dogs.
There are many joys in life now, although holiday time changed dramatically after Vic’s death. There are deep disappointments about the environment, politics, poverty, and more. Still, I have close friends and the forest and my pups. I don’t think I’ll be with my sons this year, but the new covid threat makes everyone’s plans uncertain. In any case, I don’t expect to get the exact gift I want anymore and gratefully accept the gifts nature gives me. Friends and I will not exchange gifts again this year, but we’re choosing a nonprofit humanitarian organization we wish to support. This feels like the best thing we can do. Even the child in me agrees. Blessed Summer Solstice is coming to you soon.
I enjoyed the bittersweet story all the way through. In your crafty, storytelling hands, I felt suspense, disappointment, and even a little joy. It’s interesting how the long lens of time distills the story into greater insights, which you now recognize.
My big disappointment was no tree at Christmastime. Mennonites thought decorated trees are worldly. We did have gifts though, usually something practical like your boring plaid shirt.
Here’s to charming cowgirl hats and hope for the future. Enjoy the holiday season, dear Elaine. 😀
Thank you, Marian. I had fun writing this after finding the photo of me in my cowgirl hat and remembering that Christmas in Arizona. It was a sad and worrisome time in my family, but no one told the kids what was happening. I’m so glad people are more forthright with children about loss and illness now.
So no tree must have been a yearly disappointment for you. I need to look at your blog and see if you put up one now. I don’t because I don’t want a tree to be cut for my decoration, but I gather a few low evergreen branches and spruce cones (this year). Usually I decorate with acorns and pine cones but there are no acorns and only a few pine cones after an insect infestation in the forest during the summer. The squirrels harvest the few pine cones and they need them more than I do. I wish you and Cliff an enjoyable holiday season, too. Mine will be quiet which is OK with me.
What a great story, Elaine. I resonated on so many levels. I spent my 5th Christmas in a trailer too, a common phenomena in post-WWII America. We used it to move from Michigan to Florida and checked out a couple of towns until my parents settled on Tampa. Ours was forest green and had a figurehead of an indigenous American.
I don’t remember having a Christmas tree or presents in the trailer, but I did get a cowgirl outfit for Christmas one year after we moved into our house. I have a picture of me in it somewhere. I was very big on Roy Rogers and Dale Evans too, as well as The Lone Ranger and Tonto. But for me, Dale Evans was secondary. It was all about the horses!!
Your father died when you were 14. Mine died when I was 11. I wonder how much our losses had to do with our adult interest in inner work and descent myths? Oh, and my big brother’s name was Jim too! I called him Jimmy. Still do. Thanks for sharing those memories.
Jeanie, our Airstream was cramped and tiny, but we spent lots of time outside. My parents didn’t want to live in Arizona, but doctors thought it was the best place to avoid a winter virus which could reactivate my dad’s deadly kidney disease. He looked robust, but he was fragile. I wonder about all that AZ dust. With your childhood illumination from Tonto and the Lone Ranger, it’s not surprising you’d need a cowgirl outfit. My desire for a skirt makes me laugh now as I pull on layers of cold weather pants topped with snow pants. I wanted Dale Evans to be my mother. Dale was cheerful and loved to sing while my mom was sad and couldn’t carry a tune. You and I have many childhood parallels. My brother was also called Jimmy when we were little kids, but when he was a Harvard Dean, he was definitely Jim. I miss him. Sending you holiday blessings and warm Florida sun. It’s snowing here, but not much so far.
Here’s to pine cones for squirrels and a quiet holiday season, Elaine! ;-D
The squirrels thank you and so do I. Blessed Christmas to you.
That’s a beautiful memory, dear Elaine. Thank you for telling us. Al and I are so familiar with these old American movies. Because, when the TV came into our house in the 50s, the channels were showing only Amies productions, especially with Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. I am sorry that your wish has not entirely come true, at least the hat!
Here I live in the country with dogs (not horses)–and I still don’t have a good cowgirl outfit. On the other hand, I have great hiking boots for winter and summer and horses to admire not far from me. I was also in love with my husband–just like Dale Evans–so I can’t ask for more. Solstice Blessings to you.
I love how you wrote this story from the young child’s perspective and then ended it in with the wisdom of the woman in her 70’s. Yes, small disappointments can feel like such big deals when we’re little. My 5-year-old granddaughter told me that “a tragedy” had happened when the leg of one of her little plastic animals broke last weekend. While superglue can fix that one, there is not much that can ease most of the disappointments we inevitably face as we grow up–from having Santa deliver pants instead of a cowgirl skirt to feeling excluded by friends. And then is the grief we carry related to losses and wounds in important relationships that is on a different scale.
I am going to use your piece as a prompt this week with my writing partner: Write about a disappointment from childhood.
I will be thinking of you, Elaine, on the solstice and sending blessings your way.
Thank you, Anne. This was an experiment in expressing the small things kids focus on when they don’t have a clue about the big picture. I had no idea why my mom was so upset in those years (and had severe colitis) because no one explained or said, “Daddy is sick.” It’s a hazy dream world when no one will talk to a child what’s obvious. I know they were trying to protect us and that’s the way things were done in the 1950s. My experience convinced me of the importance of letting children know when their parent is ill–in a way appropriate for the child’s age. My dad had frequent medical crises and hospitalizations with my mom at his side, but no one said a word about what was going on. My grandparents knew, but my parent’s friends didn’t know. It was hush-hush. I get your granddaughter’s tragedy and the practice of learning to cope with small disappointments which train us to deal with big adult disappointments.
It makes me happy that you’ll use this prompt for your writing group. It’s a good starting point for life’s challenges. Blessed Solstice and love to you and your family.