Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Green Squaw Dress



Do you have a memory of a precious child hood possession? Certainly I do.

The affluence of the family in which any of us was raised, the time we had to enjoy or despair of our parents’ involvement with us, where we lived, and how large or small a family raised us often impact our memories of precious childhood possessions.

However, one item swirls into memory as my most important when I was eleven years old. A pale-green cotton squaw skirt made by my mom for me signaled my first step into what this sixth grader considered high fashion. 

We were poor. My dad was then a first-sergeant in the Michigan Air National Guard that had been nationalized as a result of the Korean War.  You know about that stuff? Similar to the National Guard troops nationalized and sent to Iraq and Afghanistan today.  Same deal only in 1951.  There was this war going on between North and South Korea.  Nothing to do with us in America except one of those countries was communist and supported by their northern neighbor, China, and one of those countries was capitalist and supported by guess who?  Yup..USA.  World politics via the United Nations encouraged folks to take sides and go to war to defend the economic system of their choice.  Europe and the U.S.A. were concerned that China was about to overtake even  more acreage in eastern Asia than they already governed. Capitalists didn’t much like that idea.

So, we, my family, were moved from our home in Michigan where we froze in the winter and sweltered in the summer, where snow mobiles had not yet been invented, but sleds worked really well on the low hills of our neighborhood. We were sent to Glendale, Arizona, just a few miles north of Phoenix, which in 1951 was a po-dunk town in where the rodeo was the best show in town. As an eleven year old, I loved it. 

I started reading westerns at age eight. My favorite author was Zane Gray who wrote novels like Riders of the Purple Sage.  I didn’t know what sage was, but I loved the lonely heroes who saved the girl or defended hard working ranchers from  outlaws, where sheep herders and cattle wranglers were bigger than life. I loved the hole in the wall gang and all of their kindred.  As they rode into the sunset, my imagination carried me across open spaces. In the midst of these stories I forgot which younger sibling I was supposed to watch or which dishes needed washing. When old man winter frost-bit my fingertips while I hung washing on the line or carried frozen clothes inside the house, I imagined I was rescuing yearling cattle from fingers of frozen snow near Flagstaff.

Moving to Arizona changed all of that, ‘cause there I no longer had to hang out clothes in winter storms. Phoenix may have had temperatures in the 40s at night, but the sunlit skies were warm enough that sheets dried long before sunset.

Mother worked early in the day.  She was a pretty good grape packer at the railroad.  All those desert grapes had to be hand packed before they were shipped to northern markets. Paid by the packing box filled and loaded, she claimed what she called ‘decent money’.  However, we lived pretty close to the bone in those days.  There was no extra money although gasoline was less than eighteen cents a gallon and we already owned our own car, a dandy, huge Nash on whose back floor my little sister and I would lie side by side and squeal with delight whenever mom drove over a dip in the road.  Our tummies floated for a moment.  It was the most fun of the day.

All that changed the day mom called me into her bedroom where she kept her Singer sewing machine.  She was in the midst of gathering up three rows of fabric to attach to a waist-band, creating my first squaw skirt.  The fabric was dyed mesquite green. I loved this skirt.  As I walked in it, I could kick the bottom fringe up in the air.  It was such fun.  The hem didn’t quite touch the ground, but close enough so that my black patent leather shoes would push it in a puff forward with each step without catching me and causing me to trip.  There was a blouse to go with it with short sleeves and an elasticized scoop neck.  It tucked into the waist-band showing off my very slender tomboy self. 

When I wore it to school the first time, I told my classmates, “We visited the reservation, the one down by the River yesterday, and my mom bought me this skirt.  The Pima Indian woman who sold it to us said she had sewed it all by hand.”

“Sure she did.  Looks like an old sheet to me. She probably stole it from some ladies clothesline and ripped it up into layers and pinned it together.

“Indians don’t sell clothes. You’re lying.”

Despite my lies and the attitude of the other students, I could have worn that outfit every day of my life and been happy. I didn’t need any of the other clothes I owned, not that there were many.

Naturally, the skirt of a thousand gathers is the one I chose to wear to the spring concert at school that year. We were to sing Arizona cowboy songs while Ms. George, the second grade teacher accompanied the choir on piano.  It didn’t take the teachers long to discover, however, that I couldn’t carry a tune, but that didn’t hinder the loudness of my contributions to the choir. After all I was the eldest child in my family and was accustomed to being heard.  The teacher in the classroom always waited a bit to call on me.  I suspect it was because my answer woke the whole class, so she waited for some of the slackers to almost fall asleep and then call on me. My mid-western ‘warsh’ startled them all awake. I’m not subtle, especially with the cowboy songs like “Home on the Range”.

“Trudy, would you step over here for a moment?” directed my teacher, Ms Ambrose.  I have a special job for you for next week’s presentation.  Ms. George cannot play and turn the pages at the same time. Would you like to sit here next to her and when she comes to the end of a page in the music, turn the page.  You may need to stand up to reach the top of the page.

I was thrilled.  I did want to sing with my classmates. But to be singled out and given this important job made my heart sing.  I could still mime the lyrics under my breath and I could read them on the page of the music so I would know when Ms. George needed the page turned. And if I wore my green squaw dress, everyone would see it because no other students would be standing in front of me.  It was almost like being asked to sing a solo. I was in heaven. 

The concert went off without a flaw, almost.  My dad managed too make a scene, but no one knew he was my dad cause he had never come to any other presentation at school before.

It was then I learned where my loud voice came from. He came in a bit drunk and as he entered the auditorium, I could hear him say, “where’s my kid? I came to see my kid, how come she isn’t on the stage?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw mother tug on his arm from where she was sitting.  Always a wise woman, she chose a seat closest to the door knowing he might come in and wanting to stop any scene he might create. “She’s on the piano bench, dear.  See her there in her green squaw dress.”

I heard mother.  I didn’t turn to see ‘cause I had to keep my eye on turning the page for Ms. George, but I heard and I knew everyone knew it was me who was responsible for turning the pages correctly.  I had to do it right.  No hitches.  I was so proud of my dress and of my black patent leather shoes and my braids. 
Mother had braided my hair in the French style.  I knew I looked pretty. And I paid attention to my job.  No foul ups here. 


When the concert came to a finish and Ms. Ambrose turned and pointed her baton at the choir so they could take a bow, I was proud of them.  We had done a good job.  I loved the music.  But, then I was surprised because she turned to Ms. George, who pushed the piano bench back just a tad, took my hand and both of us stood and bowed while holding hands.  The hem of the green squaw dress touched the floor as I bowed. I was so proud.  I loved that skirt.