1954, Fourth Grade. I wake up on Christmas morning knowing that George the Chimpanzee is waiting under the tree for me.
Why a chimpanzee? My favorite book was Chimp on my Shoulder. The cover photograph shows a baby chimpanzee peering over the shoulder of the author, Bill Westley, an adventurer who lived with chimpanzees on his farm in England. What better life could one have?
When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “A chimpanzee collector and raiser.” My mother and father said, “Well, that would be a fine occupation for you.” I knew then that my parents understood that I needed my own chimpanzee to start on my career.
My mother grew up in the Philippines before World War II where my grandfather, the Colonel, rescued a baby monkey and brought it home for her to raise. She named him George.
George ate the laundry soap and hid pieces of candy in his cheeks and had big dark brown eyes. If my mother once had a monkey, wasn’t I meant to have a chimpanzee?
I had not yet told my parents that I did not believe in Santa Claus. Grown-ups, I felt, were very sensitive on the issue and became sad when their children stopped believing. So I wrote a letter to Santa telling him that I wanted a chimpanzee and why, hoping that my parents read the letter. I never spoke directly to them about my chimpanzee, as I believed expressing my wish would be a jinx.
My mother hinted about my main Christmas present, words that had to do with jungles and tigers and lions and bears, solid evidence for my chimpanzee. Two days before Christmas, I heard my parents whispering. I could taste the excitement in our house. I knew that George, my chimpanzee, had arrived.
I worried. Where would my parents hide George until Christmas Day so that he couldn’t be found by me or the dogs or my snoopy brother? Of course. In the chicken coop, tucked behind the garage, away from the normal traffic of the house.
How would George be fed? I decided that my mother would sneak food out back when we weren’t watching. I was very careful not to go to the back of the yard near the chicken coop, or turn my head in that direction. I didn’t want to accidentally discover George and spoil my parents’ surprise.
On Christmas Eve I kept myself from peeking out my bedroom window in case my mother carried a pan of bananas and grapes to the chicken coop. I went to bed early to make the night go by. I lay under the white sheets, eyes shut, envisioning my tiptoeing out to the living room in the early morning light, finding George under the tree. I could feel his big hairy hug and his weight as he jumped up onto my shoulder.
Well, you have probably guessed how this story ends. No chimpanzee under the tree on Christmas morning. My main gift that had to do with jungles and animals? A pair of tiger-striped toreador pants that my mother was obviously very proud of. I acted very excited about this gift and wore the pants right away.
I never did tell my parents that I truly believed that I would be getting a chimpanzee for Christmas and how disappointed I was, not because I felt foolish, but because I knew their feelings would be hurt knowing that they had not fulfilled my wish.
I wore and wore and wore those tiger-striped toreador pants until they were too small, which was the following summer, when I read The Black Stallion and knew I needed a horse, a large black steed to carry me over the mountains and across the plains. I would name the stallion George. He would live in the side yard by the chicken coop and I would grow up to be a cowgirl.
As I think about my childhood fantasy about having my own chimpanzee, I remember all the books on the shelves in our house, just waiting for me to open them and read them. We were lucky because these books let us adventure around the world way before we were ready to leave home.
What books helped you create your own stories, your own adventures as a child?