Stella Pope Duarte

Christmas under the San Miguelito Vine

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One Christmas Eve, many years ago, as my family slept, I remember waking up and making my way to the living room to check out the presents under the Christmas tree – a real pine tree with stubby limbs my dad had chosen at the lumberyard where he worked. The glow from the portable heater that stood in one corner of the room made it seem as if we had our own small fireplace, and I imagined stockings hanging over a mantel. 

That night, I spied two huge boxes set up side by side, and had no idea how they had gotten there, except that I had heard whispering behind my mother’s bedroom door. My older sisters and Mom wrapped the gifts; not many, and not expensive, but still gifts. My little sister Lupe and I, the last two in a family of eight children, waited, our long nightgowns tangled in our blankets trying to sleep, our feet like icicles in the freezing bedroom we shared.

On Christmas morning, I was to discover that walking dolls were the surprises wrapped up in the giant boxes I had spied under the Christmas tree, two huge plastic dolls Lupe and I named Kathy and Amy. Both had blond hair and blue eyes and didn’t look anything like us, but we loved them just the same. We could barely carry them around and often cranked a makeshift knob that stuck out at the back of their necks to make them walk a few steps. We created a whole world for our dolls: a home, friends and traditions they learned to obey.

The San Miguelito Vine in our backyard, sprouting green leafy boughs accented by tiny pink blossoms, became the perfect cover for the world we entered in through a maze of spindly green growth that clung to the chicken-wire fence separating our house from my godmother’s. The space under the San Miguelito Vine was the perfect hiding place for Kathy and Amy. Lupe and I swept the ground of dried twigs and leaves with an old paintbrush and this became our floor. We arranged faded sheets on the ground, creating our own carpet as we hid from the world of bright sunlight, wind and neighborhood dogs barking in the distance. 

The dolls took up considerable space under the San Miguelito Vine, leaving us little room to do anything more than have them converse with one another and once in a while argue over clothes and white plastic shoes. Our older brother and sisters knew nothing about our hiding place; neither did our cousins who lived all up and down Pima Street. The best part of having a hiding place is to not tell anyone else about it. Once in a while we spotted bare feet walking close to our hiding spot, other kids looking for us, but we kept Kathy and Amy quiet and their plastic bodies out of sight. 

Once our dolls were settled in and their meals delivered, mostly cookies and sweet bread we ate for them and Kool Aid we served from a plastic children’s teapot into flowered cups, we settled back to enjoy the luxurious feeling of being owners of our own mini-mansion. The thought that we alone knew the location of our hideout was an intoxicating one, akin to Aladdin discovering Ali Baba’s marvelous treasure sealed up in a mountainside. We had designed our own solitary place, made sacred by the tangled boughs of the San Miguelito Vine. Christmas for us would forever be a dream world of walking dolls, a tangled vine, pink blossoms and a sister’s love that would last a lifetime.

Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her award-winning career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Contact her at

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