Volume 12, Issue 52 ~ • December 23 - December 29, 2004
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Could a Cowboy's Promise Save Christmas?
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Could a Cowboy’s Promise Save Christmas?
by Penne Romar

‘I’m comin’ back for you at Christmas.’

Editor’s note: Traditions return with the holidays, knitting our pasts and present into a garment we wear into the future. At Bay Weekly we’ve made it a holiday tradition to tell you a story of the season’s milestones in our extended family. This year, illustrator Penne Romar takes her turn, recounting her mother’s true story from the early 20th century.

The sun beamed in the window, waking Millie. She looked out over the foothills. The blizzard had stopped. As the morning sun cast its golden rays upon the endless blanket of glistening snow, Millie could feel her mother close by. Good thing, too, ’cause it would be a long time before she would see her daddy, she thought to herself. His truck could never make it through the deep snow in time for Christmas. It was a good old truck, just not big enough.

Now the nuns joined the children in the windows looking out over the landscape of white. There did seem to be something … a cyclone of snow … coming in their direction.

East Meets West
Daddy was a cowboy.

He was one of those “handsome roving cowboys” Maggie’s mother had told her to stay away from before she’d left Fall River, Massachusetts, to seek her future in America’s wide-open West.

Les was a cowboy through and through, from his wide-brimmed hat clear down to his boots. He was handsome and tall, too. But he was no roving cowboy. He had staked a homestead up in Sweetwater, Colorado, not far from the White River. He’d built a home, a cabin and a barn. He was clever, too, for he’d channeled spring water through the trough in the barn, satisfying the stock with fresh water before it continued down the mountain. And he had work: He rounded up wild horses and broke them for the Army.

It was beautiful up there, he said.

But Denver took on new appeal to Les after he met Maggie at her job waiting tables. Then he figured he might just want to spend a little more time in town, get to know this Irish lass with her Colorado-sky blue eyes.

Maggie might have been wary at first, but fear of the unknown had never gotten the best of her. Back at the turn of the 20th century, it took courage for a lone young woman to board a train bound for Colorado.

Borne to the Angels
Six years later, Millie held her daddy’s hand as they walked a long hillside stairway up to the hospital. Millie would soon become a big sister, and she could hardly wait.

After Daddy disappeared beyond heavy doors, Millie waited on a green bench, where her father told her to stay, for children were not allowed inside hospitals. She dangled her long legs from the green bench. She could easily touch the ground without slumping. Most everyone said she would be tall like her mother and father. Would the baby be tall, too, she wondered?

Staying in one place was hard work for a five-year-old. She tapped her toes in rhythm to a song her mother and father sang: “My wild Irish Rose, the sweetest flower that grows.” Daddy would then sweep Mommy into his arms and they danced around and around.

At last Daddy came back. He hugged Millie and sat her on his lap. He hugged her hard, almost too hard. Millie had never seen her daddy cry, but she could tell he had cried.

“Mommy is with the angels,” he said.

There was no understanding why Mommy was not coming home. There were only questions. When would Mommy be home? What about the baby?

“No, he was not coming home either,” Daddy said quietly.

On the day Maggie was buried, Millie began to believe. Her beloved grandmother held her hand and hugged her. “Your mommy may not be where you can see her,” Gommie said, “but she will be as near to you as I am right now whenever you need her the most.”

Daddy’s Promise
The Colorado mountains were no place to raise a little girl alone. Les would have to find work in Denver. In the meantime, Millie would need looking after.

Gommie, Lester’s mother, lived in Denver. The thriving theater business provided her an income as she rented rooms in her home to the many traveling actors and actresses. Les could stay there while he looked for work, but Gommie’s theatrical boarding house wasn’t the right place for a little girl. School was on the other side of town, too far for a little girl to walk.

“I don’t want to go away, Daddy,” Millie said

“Sweetheart, it will not be for such a long time. And you’ll make lots of friends. There are lots of other children your age there.”

“I don’t want friends,” Millie said. “I want to stay home with you.”

Les lifted his girl onto his lap. “We don’t have a home to go to right now, Millie,” he said. “We will, though.”

Divided Family
Daddy’s old truck labored up through the foothills that surrounded Denver before stopping at a high, red brick building past the reach of the developing town. Daddy called it a convent with a school for little girls. Here lived ladies called nuns or sisters, “and they liked to help God out by helping folks who were going through hard times,” Millie’s father explained.

A small, round woman all covered head to toe in a long black gown and veil opened the thick, squeaky doors. She smiled first at Millie’s father, then down at the small, cautious girl. “I am afraid you have arrived too late for supper with the other children, my dear. But you may eat with the sisters while your father and I talk,” said the nun, for that, Millie thought, is what she must be.

A younger woman dressed in all white floated into the room and took Millie’s s hand. With the most pleading eyes she could muster up, Millie begged her daddy to let her stay. He nodded in the direction of the door.

The sister spoke in a voice warm and welcoming, but Millie did not hear her words. It was all she could do to remember to breathe. Then she remembered Gommie’s words: “Your mommy may not be where you can see her, but she will be as near to you as I am right now whenever you need her the most.”

Millie felt her mother come close. And she mustered up the courage to take the young sister’s hand and part with her daddy.

They walked through the biggest kitchen Millie could have ever imagined. It did not smell like Mommy’s kitchen, though. They passed through two swinging doors each with a small circular window. Before her in a long narrow room was an endless table. Seated on each side of the table were rows of women in black. They seemed to be a very big family of sisters. On the distant wall hung a plain wooden cross.

Millie was seated next to the angel-like sister at the far end of the table. All the sisters said prayers and sang. Millie couldn’t understand the words, but they sounded sweet.

Way down the long wooden table, Millie struggled to remember the manners her mother had taught her. No one spoke a single word during the meal, and Millie wasn’t about to break the silence. After everyone was finished eating, they methodically folded their napkins. Only then was the silence broken. The smallest of the women in black — she seemed the oldest soul in the world — asked, “Did you get enough to eat, dear?”

“Why I’m full up to here,” said the polite, startled child, holding her hand high above her head.

As the silence resumed, the sisters bowed their heads, tucking slight smiles into their dark habits. Millie felt her mother close.

a a a a a

At the heavy doors, Millie hugged her daddy as hard as she could. The truck was waiting, its exhaust making foggy breath in the crisp, cool mountain air. She didn’t want to let go. “Daddy, don’t leave me,” she whispered.

He kneeled to look her right in the eyes. “I’m comin’ back for you at Christmas,” he said. “I have to work hard between now and then and get us a home. You be strong for me. Understand, honey?”

Millie nodded, pretending she would be strong, but the tears flowed as she watched her father’s truck disappear into the night.

Autumn in the Convent
Millie made sure she would never again be late for supper. Eating with the nuns was too quiet for her tastes.

Like all the girls in this strange new home, Millie dressed in uniform. It itched unless she wore an undershirt. As fall came on, she was glad for that extra layer.

In the dormitory where the children slept, each girl had a wooden chair with a cushion worked in needlepoint. The beds were warm, and everyone got a pillow. Sometimes Millie would hug her pillow and think of Daddy or Gommie. Then, when she felt the loneliest, Millie would feel her mother close.

Nights seemed to be endless. The days were short, and mornings were dark when the girls got up for prayers at their bedsides.

As her father promised, Maggie made friends. Her best friend, Sally, slept in another dormitory, so they didn’t meet until lunch hour. After classes, no matter what the weather, Millie and Sally broke out into the open air, running and pretending they were riding through the mountains on horses that Millie’s father broke. But as the days crept on, there was hardly enough time to play outside before the sky got dark. Would Christmas ever, ever get here?

The best time of the day was mail call. Her father wrote once a week for sure, and sometimes more.

He would tell her of his progress in Denver. The town was turning into a big city with lots of possibilities. The railroad that brought all those actors and actresses into town also brought theater stage sets, props and backdrops. “Things you’ve never seen the likes of,” Daddy wrote, and all these things needed to be transported over to the theater.

Les had a truck and two strong arms. He put up a sign and called the company SWIFT. “Swift is the name. The service is the same,” he wrote on the side of his truck.

November brought bitter cold. The previous year at Thanksgiving, Millie had helped her mother bake acorn pies to give to the other families that lived in the mountains surrounding their little cabin. “The whole darn mountain smelled like heaven,” Daddy had said.

As the days at the convent crept by, most everyone got sick. Even the sisters were getting sick in spite of all that praying they did. Praying brought up other questions in Millie’s mind. She didn’t think she was so good at praying.

“You don’t have to be good at it,” a sister told her. “The heavenly Father can still hear you.” Plus, like anything else, praying took practice to get good. That seemed to be about right, because Millie was getting real good at feeling her mother close when she needed her.

Snowed in for Christmas
As December closed in, so did the snow. Endless storms were whipped by hollowing winds. What would happen if it never stopped snowing? Would Daddy’s truck make it through?

The week before Christmas, the sisters were fretful. Snow was preventing food and supplies from getting through. For the past week, it seemed every meal was soup and potatoes.

Every day, the sisters struggled to shovel a path to the coal bin to replenish the supply for the furnace. But keeping warm was getting harder as the blizzard dumped blowing drifts of snow against the convent doors and walls.

Finally one morning, the sun beamed in the window, waking Millie. She looked out over the foothills. The blizzard had stopped. As the returned sun cast its golden rays upon the endless blanket of glistening snow, Millie could feel her mother close by. Good thing, too, ’cause it would be a long time before she would see her daddy, she thought to herself. His truck could never make it through the deep snow in time for Christmas. It was a good old truck, just not big enough.

With the break in the storms, the sisters returned to the urgent job of shoveling their way to more coal for the furnace. First they had to break through doors blocked by enormous drifts of snow. The children watched from dormitory and classroom windows as one of the smaller sisters was hoisted through a window closest to the door that lead to the coal bin. The white snow swallowed up her black habit.

After a long silence, her voice rose from the depths demanding the shovel be dropped and quickly. She cleared her way back to the door, where the sisters forced a slight opening through which the petite figure emerged looking more like a snowman than a nun. It was time for a break, and lunch was ready: more soup and potatoes.

After lunch, again the windows were lined with anxious children’s faces as the sisters launched their second assault. Peering out from their high vantage point, the children could look out over the mountains. All was quite and still but for a distant rumbling. Great billows swooped off from the blanket of white snow stretching far in the distance.

Now the nuns joined the children in the windows looking out over the landscape of white. There did seem to be something … a cyclone of snow … coming in their direction.

As the rumbling white funnel cloud closed in, it grew larger and larger. At last, children and nuns were shocked to see the
source of the white cyclone: The biggest truck anyone had ever seen rumbled and plowed its way through the snow with its big wheels, barreling toward the convent. Millie squinted to make out the letters on the side of the truck. S-W-I-F-T. Then she saw the words “Swift is the name, and the service is the same.”

It was Daddy!

Children cheered and the sisters folded their hands and looked to the heavens before following the scurrying children down the stairs. Daddy had brought other men with him, and together they would break the snow’s hold.

He directed the sisters to the large gymnasium doors. The men all shoveled the doors free of the binding snow. Inside, everyone stood back while the men jimmied the doors free from the remaining ice.

The doors creaked open, very slowly at first, and then swung free and wide to reveal the biggest Christmas tree in the mountains. A unified gasp followed by cheers and laughter filled the large gymnasium.

More good things were still to come. The huge truck was filled with supplies: food, even turkeys, Christmas cookies and candy. Children and sisters helped the men unload.

Then Daddy swooped Millie up in his arms. “Honey, we’re goin’ home,” he said.

Millie grew up helping in the office of her father’s growing business. Every morning as the fleet started their roaring engines, she felt a bit of the thrill of that Christmas her father’s truck roared up to the snow-bound convent.

Mildred Wittner, now 91, lives in Annapolis, where once more this Christmas she remembers how in 1912, the worst Christmas of her life became the best.

About the Author:

Penne Romar, Annapolis illustrator and sailor, is one of Millie’s three children from a long and happy marriage. She and her sister Meg joined their mother on a visit to the family homestead near Sweetwater, Colorado, in 1962. The cabin and barn were still there, then part of a cow camp where cowboys sheltered on their way down the mountains from the spring round-ups. Fresh, cold water still flowed through the trough in the barn. The cabin was still standing when Millie last visited with her son Dale in 1987.

Romar’s last work for Bay Weekly was the cover illustration “Fear the Goat” on December 2.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.