by Nancy Cooper Frank <>

The cowboy, in full cowboy gear, from boots to chaps to low-slung holster and gun to embroidered corduroy shirt to wide-brimmed hat, bends over, lower lip jutting out in concentration, and pushes an iron across an ironing board.

That's me in the photograph, at five years old, a pistol-packing Suzy Homemaker in a frenzy, trying to play with all my toys at once on Christmas morning. The picture is black and white, but I remember that the hat was red. Other people are represented in the photograph too, if you know how to look for them. There's my maternal grandmother, who bought me a "real" iron that warmed up when you plugged it in and an ironing board that Christmas. There are my parents, who gave me what I had begged for and hinted at and circled pictures of in catalogues. As a result of my no-holds-barred campaign, my little brother got full Western gear, too. Otherwise, who could I have gunfights with?

I was thrilled that my parents had given me exactly what I wanted, and not, as I had feared, the "cowgirl" outfit with the skirt in the Sears catalogue. I was not a cowgirl, whatever that was. I was a girl in real life, but I was most definitely a cowboy in another, parallel life that was just as real to me.

At that age it was still possible to be a little girl and a cowboy. By the time I was six, I had outgrown the cowboy outfit and the fantasy of roping, riding and fighting bandits that went with it. I was now an astronaut on some days, a scientist on others. But my best friend Brian pointed out that "girls couldn't be scientists" and "girls couldn't be astronauts." I argued with him, but I could see that he was right. (This was the early '60s. There had been female scientists and even a woman in space -- cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova-- but we'd never heard of them.)

By the time I was nine or so, I was going to be a teacher when I grew up. There were lots of reasons: I was bright, I liked school most of the time, teachers had authority, they could be charming, smart, and amusing, and besides, nobody would tell me that girls couldn't be teachers.

As it turned out, I exceeded my childhood's narrow horizons by going on to a Ph.D., after becoming the first in my family, on either side, to get a bachelor's degree. Instead of becoming a schoolteacher, one of the "realistic" dreams allowed a girl, I became a professor of literature. Among the options left to me after I'd dismissed out of hand so many other "unrealistic" dreams, it wasn't such a bad choice.

Now I smile at the photograph and wonder where the Christmas child has gone. I don't want to be a cowboy; I want to be that kid who knew she wanted to be a cowboy and couldn't be dissuaded.

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