When our daughter Sally was 4, she spent an afternoon playing at a new friend's house, and when my wife Betsy went to pick her up, the mom asked, "Do you live on a farm?"
"No," Betsy said, "Why do you ask?"
"Sally told me you did. And that you have three ponies - named Betsy, Rick and Buttercup."
"Sounds like a great life," said Betsy, "But I'm Betsy and my husband is Rick, and we just live in a regular house on 12th Street. And Buttercup is a name she calls her bike."
I had to admire the magnitude of Sally's whopper. Sure, she would like to have ponies, but for her this was a casual gag, not a heartfelt dream. When I was a kid, I yearned for a pony day and night; it was nothing to joke about. It was an objective that called for serious campaigning. And year after year, I pinned my hopes on Christmas.
For about six years in a row, my Christmas wish list had only one item on it - A PONY!
I loved animals, and I wanted to be a cowboy, so obviously I had to have a pony. Penny, the girl next door, was also crazy about horses, but we lived in spilt-level houses on quarter-acre lots. "Horses need a lot of room," my mom would explain. "They need a big field, where they can graze and run around."
"Mom," I'd say, "You're thinking of pastures; I'm thinking of corrals. If we put a fence around our back yard, you could fit 10 horses or 15 ponies. Sure, cowboys' horses are used to having lots of running space, but horses that belong to gamblers and gunfighters stay in livery stables and only go out when their owner has to leave town in a hurry. They eat hay and oats and maybe some canned food, and they do fine. Our garage would be perfect for horses like that."
Mom was unconvinced, and Dad felt like he was already bending over backwards letting us have Cindy - a cat, which is a species that doesn't even exist as far as cowboys are concerned. (I used to pretend Cindy was a coyote.)
Penny and I collected porcelain horses, drew pictures of horses, and pretended to be horses. We stepped on soda-pop cans so they'd crimp onto our shoes, and we'd scrape and clank along the sidewalk trying to approximate a clipclop. We named our bikes Red and Cyclone and spoke encouraging words to them when we rode uphill. In the back yard we practiced roping them. One Halloween, Penny's dad, who was an art teacher, made us a beautiful two-kid horse costume. It had a tall sculpted-cardboard head, yellow yarn for mane and tail, and a brown chenille bedspread for the body.
But as for actually owning horses, Penny and I might as well have been wishing for mammoths.
Every December, my mom would read me a short story called "A Miserable Merry Christmas." It was about a little boy who wanted a pony so much that he told his folks, "If I can't have a pony for Christmas, give me nothing."
On Christmas morning, he awakes to NO PRESENTS. He does much quiet weeping while his mom shoots accusatory looks at his dad. But then along comes a man to deliver the pony.
The first few times I heard it, I thought it was a great story. The author seemed to address my condition and offer hope to any child who wants a pony that badly. But I did want one that badly, and by the time I was 10 my vicarious joy was turning sour, and I realized the story didn't make sense the way stories are supposed to. The years passed and, not having a pony, I failed to become a cowboy.
A while ago I found that old story in a Christmas anthology and discovered why the story had been so pointless - it was not properly a story at all, but an excerpt from Lincoln Steffens' autobiography. It had been presented by Steffens merely as one of the doggonedest incidents of his childhood.
Nevertheless, nostalgia caused me to read it to Marie and Sally, ages 7 and 4. Afterward I told them that I'd been like that boy.
Marie sympathized, "That's too bad, Daddy. But I don't want a pony. I want a dog."
Sally said, "I don't want a dog; I want a live chicken that lays golden eggs. Do you still want Santa to bring you a pony, Daddy?"
"Yep, and jingly spurs," I said.