by Tara Laskowski
We will call her Pearl, a soft white gem in a large sea. We will wrap her in blankets and hold her against our hearts. Pearl, daughter of mine, entering the world like all the rest of us, in blood and tears, through pain and screams, her first cry in this world as hopeful as the sight of chimney smoke on the horizon.
My wife will call her P. She will dance with her around our room, the sunlight filling in behind her, coloring her hair a light strawberry. My wife calls me John. “John,” she will say, “Come here,” and grab my hand, pull it close to her breast. Or she will call me “Dear,” her voice slightly fearful, slightly timid, her eyelashes flickering, downcast, a gaze always focused on one child or another.
My first wife called me Jay Jay. She touched my cheek with light and airy fingers. She always smelled of lavender. She called our children her saviors. Even when it was bad, in those days when it was bad, she would retreat to their rooms and rock them, even the sick ones. She sang lullabies. She drank whiskey. She said, “Jay Jay, you can stand next to any man and still be the most important person in the room.”
You never forget your children. One, two, three, four…fifteen—like stars on the map of my life. Our first baby, Mary, during those early Virginia years, then later, Tippecanoe and Tyler, too, kneeling down on the carpet with Alice, hefting Tazewell on my shoulders and twirling him around. Then after the White House, after Letitia died and Julia took my hand in marriage, there were more miracles. I can still hear the giggles, like ghosts, echoing in these walls.
There will always be this moment, this one here, the first time I hold them, their soft faces looking up at me, searching, squirming, hoping. The girls will grow up one day to have babies of their own, making sweet Pearl an aunt before she even says her first word. The boys will become men, leaders, important and strong. These men and women will carry on, multiply, sow seeds across this great land. They will sit down to dinner, mend socks, drink whiskey, watch the sunset, cry themselves to sleep, break bread and love, love, long after I am gone.
I roll out of bed, walk softly to Pearl’s bedside. She is sleeping peacefully in the cradle that all her brothers and sisters slept in before her. It is quiet on this hot summer night and for a moment I can see clearly.
I am old. I am done. There will be no more children, no more glory. The world is shifting, changing, and I am not strong enough to see it through. Those that once called me Mr. President will now call me Traitor. The women that once slid pretty handkerchiefs in my pocket now simply bow and turn away. The men that offered me fine cigars and rich cognac are dancing at other parties, drinking at other houses.
Though the country is dividing, lines being drawn, there is still this, there will always be this: a fragile infant, innocent and new, opening her eyes for the first time and blinking at the light. And to this, Pearl, my fifteenth child, your tiny hands weak and pale in my palm, I say: do not forget me. Do not open your eyes and run your gaze past my cheek, off into the distance where I cannot meet you. You are my legacy. You are what I leave, the part of me that continues on. Look upon me and remember, Pearl. Look upon me and call me Father.
Tara Laskowski is the author of the short story collection Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons (Matter Press 2012). Originally from Pennsylvania, Tara now lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, son, and two cats. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. She is the senior editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. Her short story manuscript won the 2010 Santa Fe Literary Awards Series, and her stories have been published widely both in print and online. Find her online at www.taralaskowski.com
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.