“Imagine this,” she says “your house is on fire; all the important papers and computer are safe and clear. You can save five things. Now, quickly list them.”
Along with the other students in my writing class, I respond to the teacher’s instructions and launch my mind through my house, racing to cull out anything of grand importance. I push past the watercolor purchased in France and the oil painting above our fireplace. These and other pieces of original art are insured, after all. More importantly, they don’t tug at my heart.
Up the stairs I fly, ignoring my jewelry chest. Those baubles, too, are insured and the most sentimental; my wedding ring encircles my finger. In the guest room’s ample closet, I grab a crate of photographs documenting our son’s lives. I virtually toss this collection onto the safety of the cool grass outside this inferno. While I’m at it, I heave their baby books in the box’s wake, ticking off items two and three. In these treasures, I recorded first smiles and preserved wisps of gossamer hair snipped by my hesitant hand.
The imagined blaze presses closer. No time to linger. Dashing downstairs, I skid into the study. Now used as a repository for reading material and a fuzzy, indigo throw that I like to nestle in, my father’s cradle waits by my favorite chair. My grandmother once rocked my infant father to sleep in this sturdy cradle. Emptying it in haste, I remember the day my mother rescued it from a dusty attic.
“Honey, I found something you might want.” My mother’s voice reaches through the phone but sounds far away. “Your father’s cradle. Do you want me to save it for you?”
I tuck the phone closer to my ear and bribe my toddler with a graham cracker. “His cradle? I didn’t know Daddy had a cradle.” I wag one finger at my son indicating in a single move that he should hush and may only have one cracker.
“Well, he did---if you want it, it’s yours”. My mother sounds impatient. She’s sorting through her mother-in-law’s belongings in preparation for the upcoming sale where both the home and household goods will be auctioned off.
With some reluctance, I agree to keep the cradle---anything to get off the phone before my boy ruins his appetite again. Our first house is small and our son sleeps in a bed now. An antique cradle? Where will I put it?
Later, I stifled a giggle when my father delivered this tiny relic to our home. In my father’s hard-working hands, the cradle appeared almost silly. A man’s man, my father was more at ease at a workbench than in dealing with babies. Still, he toted the cradle inside wearing a rare, wide and boyish smile on his face.
Hand-carved out of old cherry, the cradle’s smooth sides rose steeply from what seems to be a ridiculously narrow base. I peered inside trying to imagine my father as an infant. Impossible, I thought, even though I knew that, of course, this distant and stern man had once been a baby too. From my mother, I learned he’d been sandwiched between a favored older sister and an adored baby brother. My father learned early to make do and to build his own bicycle out of spare parts when there was only enough money to buy bikes for his siblings. He made his own way in a world that offered scant softness.
In turn, he offered little sentimentality to his own children. Yet, my father always showed up when my car broke down or listened to me when I cried about the demands of being a student nurse. As I shivered on a frigid and lonely road, he fixed my radiator and when I cried about school on our nubby sofa, he told me not to be a quitter. His steady presence both grounded me and pushed me towards a future where I would need him less and less.
My father plunked the cradle down and nodded. “What’s up, kid?” he greeted me with his usual endearment.
“Not much. Nice cradle, Daddy.” We economized on words, my father and I.
He ruffled his grandson’s hair. “Well, it’s a little late for this guy, but you never know…..” His voice trailed off.
Over my son’s blonde head, I smiled. “You’re right, you just never know”.
Soon, this cradle did rock a new baby but my father never held his second grandson. Dead so young of a heart attack, he left no anecdotes for his grandchildren to remember him—except through my stories. He left a shoe-string tied stack of letters he wrote in a foxhole as a homesick young solider, a daughter who wishes she had known him better, and an old cherry cradle.
Grasping my father’s cradle, I spirit it away from that imagined fire threatening my belongings, all those things that can be replaced. Brushing off some lingering ash, I imagine rocking my new grandson in it when he visits next week. I’ll nestle my nose in Wyatt’s soft neck, breathe in his powdered sugar sweetness and whisper in his perfect shell of an ear, “What’s up, kid?” And, you just never know. Somewhere, I think my father will smile at what I choose to keep.
♦ Victoria Duncan lives in Annapolis, MD and is pursuing her third career in her first love: writing.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.