Christmas Baby and Her Doll
Have you ever thought about the real value of the gifts or toys you put under the Christmas tree for your children? Is their significance in how much your child plays with them? Is their worth in the number of dollars you were able to spend on them? Will they cherish them beyond today, or will this year's Christmas gift, be tomorrow's forgotten object of yesterday?
This true Christmas story is more than about a little girl and her special doll. Anyone with a daughter or granddaughter, knows that little girls and dolls go together like little boys and their toy trucks. There are girls who grow up to cherish their dolls, and there are girls who discard their dolls and never give them another thought. Dolls are timeless, just like the original Christmas story. No doubt, regardless of the current economy, some girls of all ages, will still find, or at least want a doll or two beneath their Christmas tree this year.
The Christmas baby and her doll is the story of my paternal grandmother, Sarah Dunleavy. The doll was her gift, but the story she told about was mine. I hope you find value within it.
When I Was Twelve
My paternal grandmother's visits were a several times a year thing, not always an event to be looked forward to. She wasn't the easiest person to know or understand. The year that I turned twelve, she came for Christmas. Stuck in the house for the afternoon with her while my parents and siblings went Christmas shopping -- amid choking clouds of chain smoked cigarettes, I watched her take out an old china-faced doll with a faded gilded emerald dress, and place under our Christmas tree.
Her signature turban crowned head whirled around, and studied me curiously, no doubt reading my mind, when it came to how thrilled I was to be stuck in the house with her all afternoon.
"Would you like to hear the story of my one and only doll? she asked. Well, at my ancient age, I was certainly thinking I'm too old for stories and dolls, but curious enough to hear what she had to say, considering she wasn't a big conversationalist normally.
"It's a story about my doll, my brother, and a tree named 'Big John.' Most of all, it's a story about endurance. It happened the year I was born. I was the Christmas baby, born to the Dunleavey family on December 25, 1901."
"We lived in a little camp of what is now the town of Ouray, beneath the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. It was a place where no community was big enough to be called a town in those days. It was a very isolated and special place in which to grow up."
"There, the colors are high, from the crimson reds in the soil, to the fall gold of the great aspen tree leaves -- all of which are sitting are below the indescribable ever-changing sky of the Rocky Mountains. It's a place were winters seem to stretch endlessly. This is because, in spite of long periods of brilliant sunshine, the heights of the mountains, the depths of its canyons, are all beyond sunlight, and the comprehension of anyone who has ever been to that part of the country."
"Ouray is in the bottom of such a canyon, along side the Uncompahgre River, where snowdrifts are higher than most houses. Snow ploughs did not exist during the time of my story. After each storm, the merchants in the camp shoveled the snow off the wooden sidewalks onto the edge of the street. By March, the shoveled snow was often taller than most women and children."
"Family legend claimed that from the moment my brother, Robert Dunleavy could talk, he loved trees. He loved to climb them, play beneath their branches, and just be with them. He could sit for hours listening to the wind rustle through their leaves.
Robert even gave names to the trees he liked, the way other boys and girls named their dolls, stuffed animals, or pets. They were in some ways his friends. Perry, Red giant, and Big John are some of the names that he gave his statuary silent friends who only seemed to talk to him -- those are some of the names he gave them."
"Family members would later claim that there was always something magical about Robert. Every day he used to say good morning to his trees. And when the branches blew in the wind, you could almost imagine that the trees were saying good morning back to him."
"I heard that his favorite tree, a blue spruce must have been well over a hundred years old. It was the one he called "Big John." As always, it towered over him on the morning of my story. That day, he stood beneath its branches and thought about how the woods were so dense that hardly a ray of sun could find its way to the floor of the clearing where Big John grew."
"The tree was on a certain plot of land our father had bought for him. He was only seven years old, but already our father, Alexander Dunleavy had purchased property as an inheritance for him. He and my other two brothers became land owners out of the money our father made from his silver mine, 'The Golden Rose of Ireland.'"
The Golden Rose
"The mine was named in part after our mother, who was known throughout the other mining camps as, 'The Golden Rose.'" This was her stage name, her real name was Elizabeth Anne. Prior to meeting our father, she had been what was then called a "hurdy-gurdy" girl. She traveled with a mountain troupe of actors, dancers, and singers of the then famous Jack Langrishe Performers."
"As they traveled from mining camp to mining camp each night, she would usually stand upon a make shift platform. Amid saw dust on the floor and candles for foot lights, she sang old Celtic ballads that she had learned from her grandmother. As the troupe made the rounds of dirty mining camps, she dreamed of performing on the famous Central City Opera House. She usually wore an exquisite emerald green gown, trimmed in gold roses and ribbon. At her throat, on a ribbon, she wore an antique Celtic Tara brooch."
"Often after performing, it was required that she dance with the miners, who paid fifty cents gold just for one dance. In fact, our father danced with her the entire night they first met, paying fifty cents gold each and every dance. That night was her last performance, and he was to be her last dance partner. Both of them knew by the end of that evening they had finally found their 'Anam Cara' in each other."
"Anam Cara are the Gaelic words for "soul friend." A person to whom one confessed, revealing the confidential aspects of one's life, one's mind, and one's heart. The ultimate friendship that cuts across all barriers of relationships.
"Only someone who is one of your Anam Caras can see you from an eternal perspective. Falling in love and marrying your Anam Cara is a very rare and special thing -- for soul friends are not always our mates. Sometimes they can be our sisters, brothers, or just a very close friend."
"The 'Ireland' part of the mine's name was my father's way of paying respect to his homeland. He was originally from the village of Dunlewy, County Donegal, in the providence of Ulster, which is in Northwestern Ireland.
He fondly remembered the broad island studded loughs of deep dark tranquility, windswept sheep grazing on grasses on mountain slopes, and the ribbons of luminous greenery along side it's sparkling streams."
"Our parents had both come to Colorado during the gold rush days of the late 1850s. Mother had come from Kansas, where at thirteen years old she found herself orphaned and completely on her own."
"Like many others, her family had been on their way to California in search of gold. She left with Jack Langrishe's Performers on the very day her parents were buried, after a freak wagon accident took both their lives."
"Father had travelled as a young man -- first from Ireland by boat to Boston, then by foot to Ohio, then by rail to Denver, Colorado, and then by mule to Ouray -- when he heard of gold and silver strikes near there."
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The Solid Muldoon Newspaper
"Early that snowy morning, my fifteen year old sister, Eva May sent Robert down the mountain from our house into the camp to tell Mr. Day, the owner of the Solid Muldoon, Ouray's newspaper, that the camp had a new citizen."
"What she really wanted was for Robert and three year old Roy Alexander to be out of the house, so that our mother and the new baby (me) could sleep."
"Little boys often find it hard to keep quiet. She and my other sister, Edith Almira, who was ten years old at the time, had helped our mother during the night deliver me into the world in the early hours of the morning."
"No doctor, mid-wife, or neighbor woman were available to help her. The only one other woman living anywhere near us, was still to far away to travel with her five small children."
"Our father was seldom home, often only returning to home once a week on Sundays, as the Golden Rose of Ireland, took all of his time. Our older brother, George, who was seventeen at the time, was also away, working at another mine, since ours had not yet made any real money."
"George made $3.50 per ten hour work day toiling along side of all the other men. Times were hard, since the price of silver had fallen to an all time low. No man could afford to lose a day's work."
"We lived as good as anyone did in that time and place. Mattresses and pillows were of straw. Supplies and groceries were scarce and costly. Our meals generally consisted of flapjacks, bacon, beans, beef, mutton, and potatoes -- all of which was cooked in the fireplace as we had no stove."
"Our furnishing and luxuries were few. We each had two quilts, a change of clothing, tin plates and a cup. Mother had her trunk for her emerald dress, her wedding dress, and her jew-harp. George had his fiddle. Eva had her flute. Edith had her rag doll baby and Roy had his spinning top."
"Robert had his special wishing stone, one he'd found under 'Big John.' He had pained a scary looking one-eyed Celtic god of night and darkness painted upon it. He always claimed his stone had the power to destroy his enemies."
Ouray -- A Winterland of Ice
"So after bundling up Roy Alexander, Eva ordered Robert to take him with him to the camp newspaper office. Like most big brothers, Robert wasn't exactly thrilled to be stuck taking care of his baby brother. All of his friends, who like him, were not old enough to work in the mines, were no doubt already ice skating."
"A nearby marsh that had been flooded for the fall, just for that purpose. Other boys would be tobogganing down the steep side streets of the camp."
"Some of the sons of the Scandinavian miners, who made up a large portion of the camp, would also be coming down from the mines on homemade snow boards. These were much longer than those in use today, their bindings were only a leather strap across their boot toes."
"As Robert and Roy made their way down the winding path from our home to camp, Robert deliberately made a detour that day to visit "Big John." Roy made snow angels beneath it, while Robert told his giant silent friend about hearing his mother cry and scream in pain. He worried aloud that his mother's voice got so hoarse from screaming, that she might not ever sing again."
"Evenings being generally boring back then, illumination by candle light or lantern poor, it was her sweet soprano voice accompanied by George's fiddle, or Eva's flute that always made long winter nights seem shorter to Robert. He didn't think he could bear it if our mother stopped singing."
The One and Only Doll
"Remembering the errand Eva had sent them on, the boys made their way down to camp. almost as soon as they stepped into the shack that housed the Solid Muldoon, Mr. Day told Robert he had something very important to ask of him. Mr. Day stated that he had long admired the tree that Robert called 'Big John."
"He wondered if Robert would mind if he used it for the town's Christmas tree. Seven year old Robert, wasn't sure what Mr. Day meant, and told him he'd have to think it over.' After all, 'Big John' was his friend, and he wasn't sure he liked the idea of sharing him.'"
"Before returning home, Robert took Roy over to the display window at the General Mercantile store to see the toy train. There in the window Robert saw the most beautiful doll, with eyes as blue as his mothers, and the exact same color of reddish blond hair. She was dressed in an ivory and lace gown.
He thought all she needed was gold wings and she'd be an angel. She was every bit as sweet and lovely as his new baby sister. He just knew that this doll would brighten their dreary cabin and be the perfect gift to welcome me."
"The price tag of the doll was $3.50 -- a whole day's wages for his big brother. Far too expensive for a nine year old boy with only eleven cents candy money in his pocket. His eleven cents amounted to a life savings and included his first penny that he'd had since he was five years old."
"Then, Robert had an idea and immediately marched Roy back across the street to see Mr. Day. almost breathless with anticipation, he told him about the doll and why he wanted it. He offered 'Big John' for the price of the doll -- without understanding that Mr. Day intended to chop the tree down."
"As the boys watched the shop keeper wrap the doll, the only thing Robert could think of was how excited mother and our sisters would be when they saw the wonderful gift he had for me. It was a small price to pay to have to share his tree."
"He was right. our sisters were delighted and immediately set out to make the doll a new dress. Eva used some left over material that mother had kept from her emerald stage dress. Edith contributed some gold ribbon she'd received as a gift from an aunt, who lived back east. By late that afternoon, Robert was amazed to see the doll in a dress as green as his beloved evergreen tree, trimmed in gold that sparkled like the gold nugget his father always kept for good luck. They all made and signed a Christmas card for the Christmas baby."
"Then, Robert raced out of the house, not wanting to wait another moment to tell 'Big John.'"
Ice Climbing in Ouray, Colorado
Robert's Big Scare
"Robert arrived at 'Big Johns' stand to the shock of finding two men that Mr. Day had hired to chop the tree down, setting up for the job. It almost brought him to his knees. After begging them to stop until he went to get Mr. Day, he grabbed one of their broad scoop shovels, and rode it like a toboggan, in a lightening fast trip down the mountain side."
"I never . . . . I didn't understand . . . . I thought you were going to just have everyone decorate 'Big John' and have everyone would come sing in front of him tonight,' he stammered with tears streaming down his cheeks."
"What would you have me to do? Mr. Day replied. I've already paid you for the tree. I supposed the town could find another tree before tonight's ceremony. I'm too old to wait for you to earn the money to pay me back."
"Robert reluctantly offered to give Mr. Day the doll, thinking his sisters and mother would understand once he explained. Mr. Day, the father of four boys and no daughters, would have none of the plan."
"You know Mr. Levin won't let you return the do either, Mr. Day explained, as he and Robert walked back up the mountain to the hired men."
"Letting Robert stew over his dilemma the entire hike up the mountain side, he tried not to let his amusement about the situation show. Finally, after dismissing the men, he gave Robert a stern lecture. He told him to make sure in the future, that if he struck a deal with someone, that he should always make sure he understood the full consequences."
Ouray Ice Festival
The Christmas Gift of Love
"As a girl, I was too little to fully appreciate the beautiful doll I received on my first Christmas. I do remember it was always brought out of my mother's trunk for me to play with each Christmas Day and put away afterwards. In the years to come, times were very hard for our family. The silver mine never really made any money and we ended up farming potatoes and raising sheep for our income. It was the only doll I ever owned in my entire life."
"Each Christmas, I take that doll out and put her under the tree. I remind myself how my dear brother almost gave up the very thing he treasured most -- just for me to have something beautiful of my own. He always called me his "Christmas Baby." the doll is special. Not just because she is my one and only doll, but also because Robert died a few years later. She is all I have left to remind me of his gentle spirit, she survives and so does his love."
Needless to say, even as a twelve year old girl, I was humbled by her story, so much so that I wrote the whole story down and pasted it into my diary. As an adult, I would learn more about this story.
I wish I could tell you that Sarah and her family had a happy life, but they didn't. Life was very harsh in those mining camps. Her brother Roy, died of pneumonia the same year Sarah was born. Her beloved brother Robert, died a year later when he was nine. When he died, her mother vowed to never sing again.
Her mother was later institutionalized for a period of time, yet she lived to be one hundred and six years old. The daughter of the Golden Rose of Ireland told me:
"I endured and survived. Marginally, perhaps, but it is not required of us that we live well." She said that, and then returned to her play, with the dolls the nursing home staff had given her, without saying another word to me for the rest of the visit.
I've thought about that comment a lot over the years. There are many ways to survive. There is survival by smoke and mirrors (pretense), but subsistence, by sacrifice, by substitution, by subterfuge, by stonewalling, by sedation, and by surrender. I think about how like most women, I've tried them all.
The tradition of giving little girls dolls for Christmas has endured too, just like Sarah's doll endured the lonely anam cara secrets, of a little girl who lived a very harsh life.
Dolls are keepers of the secrets some women know about living to tell the tale of real survivors who resist captivity. Girls who grow up and go on, in the face of the life they were given. They seek better worlds, and perhaps when they achieve their dreams -- only the dolls remember what it means to endure and survive. No wonder they still keep appearing beneath our Christmas trees.
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