Wednesday, June 1, 2016


I killed Cowboy on January 30th, 1987.  Over forty years of life had left him filthy, bedraggled and tattered.  His ears were in shreds, there were moth holes in his greasy threadbare forehead (when I was a kid I’d rubbed Vaseline there), his dental floss whiskers were drooping, and his paws were festooned with peeling remnants of the circular iron-on patches my mother had used for repair.  If he’d ever had a nose, there was no trace of it – his muzzle was pushed into his already flat face and had been sewn and resewn.

His head had been firmly stitched to his shoulders, no longer swiveling as it did when he and I were young.  There was a jagged line of thick stitching running down the middle of his chest where his stuffing had burst out again and again.  The little plaid shirt which my mom had so skillfully stitched for him was filthy, as were the dungarees which used to be mine that she had cut down and fitted to him.

I had not planned to kill him.  My first action was to merely wash his outfit.  The water turned brown.  I realized he was equally soiled so taking a deep breath, I began to disassemble him.  I pulled out his wadded once-white stuffing which was as brown as the wash water.  There were so many repairs to his muzzle I feared I would tear his face apart when I tried to free the stuffing in his head.

By midnight I was weeping.   I had killed Cowboy, my dear old friend and constant companion.  What had I done?  But I forged ahead bravely, washing the sad limp body and all of the stuffing.  I could have used new stuffing, of course, but somehow it did not seem appropriate.  I washed and I washed until the water ran clear and then I toweled and pressed out the excess and hung up the little bits and pieces of him to dry.

As his body was drying and his stuffing was fluffing the next day (New Year’s Eve), I began searching my fabric stash for appropriate materials to repair him.  I found small scraps of the perfect color of thick cotton velvet for his ears and paws, and a small amount of soft natural linen that matched his poor bare forehead.  I rummaged through my grandmother’s and mother’s button collections and finally found two matching black buttons for eyes.


On the day I was born my sweet grandfather presented his first (and only) granddaughter with a pale blue plush stuffed toy, which though shaped like a classic teddy bear was clearly a kitty with pointed ears and long whiskers.  I guess you could call it a teddy cat.   This toy was my favorite and never far from my side.  Mom began sewing outfits for it; the first was a pair of summery short-legged rompers in a beige fabric with a brown pattern. 

Age two - see how fluffy he looks!
Age three - wearing the rompers.

Age four - wearing one of my sweaters.   

When I was five, Mom pulled out all the stops and not only forced me to take a loathsome ballet class, she made itchy ruffled pink tutus for both me and my teddy cat.  I simply cannot tell you how disgusted I was by this hideous turn of events.  It was shortly thereafter that I made the announcement that “His name is Cowboy and he is a BOY!”

I have to hand it to my mother.  She swallowed her hopes and dreams of having a girly daughter and immediately set forth to create a suitable cowboy outfit for Cowboy.  In addition to the meticulously crafted plaid shirt and recycled dungarees, she made a brown felt cowboy hat (long gone, unfortunately) and a brown felt holster with a metallic plastic Cracker Jack six shooter.  Later she even made him a marvelous pair of chaps (also long gone).

Cowboy and Penny.

Wearing his new chaps and posing with Hilton (Mom's teddy bear).
Over the years of my childhood I fear I treated poor Cowboy very carelessly, dragging him through the dirt and flinging him about with reckless abandon.  I have memories of bringing him, headless and filthy, for my mom to wash and repair.  Mom had reattached his head so many times she had given up on the swivel and just stitched it in place.  It must have taken days for him to dry because we did not have a dryer until years later – she would have had to hang him on the line.  He may have started his life as pale blue, but my only memories of him are his present coloring of pale brown.

When Grandma took up painting she used Cowboy as a subject for several paintings.  One early maquette for a larger piece with all of my toys had this written on the back, “Mr. Burchfield liked this very much.”  That’s Charles Burchfield, now world-famous artist, before he was famous.  Grandma used to take lessons from him.  Grandma painted Cowboy’s eyes as green in this little watercolor; maybe these were his original eyes, before the black buttons!

"Mr. Burchfield likes this very much."
She also painted a small oil on board featuring a black-mustachioed Cowboy as a pirate complete with an eye patch, a hoop earring, and two knives thrust into his heavy belt.  The stitches zigzagging up his shirtless chest made for a very fierce appearance.  This was a pure flight of artistic fancy – I cannot remember any such outfit in Cowboy’s wardrobe.

Cowboy the pirate.
As a child, I also painted his portrait – in this one he “almost” appears blue!  I may or may not have employed artistic license in making a pink nose and paw pads.  Also, notice the black whiskers which may have been the original color.

Looks blue to me.
One Christmas I was recruited to play an angel in the Christmas pageant. After obtaining my permission to do so, Mom made an angel costume complete with tinsel halos for both of us and cellophane wings for Cowboy.  Poor Cowboy doesn’t appear very happy in this photo!

Two Angels
My friends always enjoyed Cowboy’s company, whether we were camping in the backyard tent, sitting on the front steps, or tooling around the neighborhood on our bikes.  But mostly, Cowboy was my little brother, my other half, my confidant.

Joey and me, Cowboy and Hilton.
Peggy with Cowboy, me and Donna.
As an adult, still collecting stuffed toys, I chose Cowboy to accompany me on my travels to folk festivals.  He always guarded our motel room while we were out listening to music.  One year he expressed a desire to meet Trout Fishing in America after hearing their version of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”.  He wanted to meet Mister Bear.  I brought him to an afternoon workshop, met Ezra between workshops and asked if I could take a photo.  He told me Keith would be back soon.  When Keith arrived, he took one look at Cowboy and exclaimed, “My God, how old is that thing?”  I informed him he was my age.  They posed for this photo, one of the last to feature the original Mister Bear who was stolen shortly thereafter.

Trout Fishing in America: Ezra Idlet & Keith Grimwood, Mr. Bear and Cowboy at Summerfolk.
Several years ago a new friend came to my house for the first time and burst into tears when she met Cowboy.  I thought it was pretty cool that she felt so moved by his sweet countenance. 


New Year’s Day, January 1st, 1988:  The resurrection of Cowboy.  The stuffing was clean and dry; the husk of a body was at least somewhat renewed.  Deep within his oft-sewn muzzle I found a small fluffy patch of pale blue plush – proving the verity of his original color. Slowly but surely I began the reassembly process, stuffing and stitching and sewing and sewing.  The stuffing had fluffed out to such an extent that I couldn’t stuff it all in – Cowboy was bulging like a body builder and barely fit into his shirt. 
I fashioned new ears with soft velvet on the outside and linen on the inside.  I covered his holey forehead with clean linen and reinforced his front paws with the remaining velvet.  I sewed the new black button eyes into place, added fresh dental floss whiskers, and embroidered his small mouth.  He looked like my dear Cowboy again!  And the swivel mechanism, a simple flat bolt and a leather pad, was intact and is now working!

"I wasn't always like this."
I made a polymer clay version of Cowboy, riding a painted pony.  This is how he thinks of himself - riding off into the sunset, on his trusty steed.
Ride 'em, Cowboy!
Look at that smile!
 When I was a child, Cowboy and I used to have many long conversations.  He had a soft kindly voice, but alas, I have not heard it in many years.  Now he sits, seemingly bemused, and gazes into the distance.  Sometimes in my dreams I find I have two Cowboys.  I am happy to have a spare of such a precious soul, but I awaken slightly confused at this concept since I have searched diligently on eBay and never found another vintage stuffed kitty even remotely like him.  He is truly one of a kind.

His name is Cowboy, and he is a boy.