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Seeing the look of anticipation on my face, my mother frowned and shook her finger at me. "This Christmas will be your last year for a doll," she told me. "You're 9 years old and too big to be getting dolls."

"Maryann, I know that look," she scolded. "Don't go getting your hopes up for a frilly, expensive doll, just because this will be your last one. We're not going to be able to afford a big Christmas this year. Cattle prices are way down and we've had to buy a lot of hay, and now some of the cattle have black leg."Life on a remote cattle ranch always included a day-to-day crisis. It was either too much drought, too much rain, too many winters of blowing, drifting snow or black leg. One day, after listening to my father and grandfather talk, I began to inspect my legs every night before I went to bed, for signs of a black leg creeping from my toes up past my ankles and up around my legs to finally cover me completely. If this happened, I feared the worst.

Coming in to breakfast one morning, I overheard my father announce, "Tomorrow, we'll shoot the herd in the west pasture for black leg." From that day on, my dreams were haunted by visions of my legs turning black and of me being taken to the west pasture and shot. To add to my woes, this would be my last Christmas to get a doll.

"This year," I told myself, "this year I will never play with this doll. I'll put her on a shelf where she can stay clean and shining and pristine forever."

No more would I scrub, remake clothes, rearrange and loosen hair and drag my doll with me everywhere I played, outside and in. Most years, by September, my doll, the once pink and glistening doll I cherished so at Christmastime, became a scarred, sometimes bald and eyeless, smudged and scratched daily companion, whom I dearly loved. However, at Christmastime, when a new doll appeared under the Christmas tree, the old companion of last year was carefully wrapped in a sheet and placed in a battered and ancient trunk with a high dome lid where the old ones rested. Six of them.

I began receiving dolls when I was 3. All of the dolls each year received the same name. They were all called Annabella. The name was music on my tongue.

This year, time brought Christmas inexorably closer. My parents began looking sad, with a grim set to their normally cheerful faces. They went to town for their annual Christmas shopping, but the laughter and joking that usually accompanies their return and filled all of us with excitement was gone.

I stood watching the sparse supplies and packages brought into the house by my father. Intuitively I knew none of the packages contained a doll. I silently hated black leg.

I went to bed Christmas Eve feeling weary and old and telling myself I was now grown up and did not need a doll. After all, this past month, I no longer examined my legs every night and I was no longer haunted by the black leg bugaboo that had filled my dreams for some many months.

My grandfather, overhearing my conversation with Annabella about this problem, had taken me on his lap and gravely explained to me that black leg was a disease of cattle and not people. The shots he and my father had talked about were the same kind I received at the doctor's office for measles. He took me to the west pasture to let me see the sleek and contented cattle grazing there. I was comforted and so relieved.

"Come on Maryann," my younger brother was shrilling in my ear. "There's a big box by the tree for you." He stood beside my bed with his gleaming tricycle, waving his arms like a windmill, trying to hurry me along. I entered the living room and stood, transfixed. Beside the Christmas tree was a huge box, gaily wrapped with a big, red bow on top. Surely I was not getting a doll that big!

Excitement lent wings to my feet. I flew across the room to drop beside the gift. My brothers danced around me.

Carefully, I untied the bow and removed the paper. The wrapping fell away to display my old doll trunk. The warped and rusted metal was now a smooth and gleaming white and pink, with the clasp and hinges painted a glowing bronze. A large note on the lid said, "Open me." Hesitatingly, I slipped my fingers under the clasp and pushed open the lid.

There in a row, smiling at me, their eyes, hair and faces restored, were my old playmates. All of my Annabellas clad in exquisite new clothes and all with clean faces.

Behind me, my mother knelt to hug me close. "Merry Christmas, darling," she whispered. "I hope you like your new dolls."

I could only smile and wipe away tears. This was the Christmas I remember best. My most precious memory.


(Additional information)

Helen Gardner is a native of Southern Utah. Born in St. George, she was raised in the vicinity of Veyo and Gunlock, where she spent her early years on a family ranch.

At 12 years of age, Gardner decided that she would become a writer and wrote a full length novel about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which was filling the newspapers and radio newscasts at the time. She destroyed the novel after it was written, afraid that someone would find it and laugh at her.

Gardner's great-grandparents on both sides of her family were early settlers of Gunlock and Pine Valley. She credits her paternal grandfather with instilling in her a love of words and continual learning.

She lives in Gunlock in a house built on the original site of her great-grandfather's log cabin, constructed after he came from England to settle the area. He was a school teacher and postmaster in Gunlock for many years.

Gardner's roots are in Southern Utah.

"It is impossible to leave Southern Utah for any length of time," she states. "These red hills keep pulling me back."