the day mrs. nixon asked for my elephant pin, a poem

illustration Pat-Nixon-9424065-1-402

The Day Mrs. Nixon Asked for My Elephant Pin

Though my star-struck grandmother urged,

I wouldn’t give it up.  Well, what did the President’s wife

expect?  She, mother of two, should have known better

than to ask such a thing.  Granted, I was tall

 

for a five-year-old; perhaps she thought I was six or seven

and capable of giving — the just-bought plastic trinket

was fastened tight over my heart, shiny red,

two imbedded rhinestone eyes, the elephant’s mouth

 

and trunk drawn back in a premature but apt leer

of triumph.  Everybody knew the President

had the nomination.  Hustled along the receiving line,

elaborately outfitted in my pale yellow spring coat and hat

 

from Sak’s, I reached for Mrs. Nixon’s offered hand,

scared silly when she didn’t let go.  All around stood

blank-faced men with crew-cuts.  “That’s such a pretty pin.

May I have it?”  She leaned in close and I could smell her

 

breath, sweet dried apricots, her hair-spray, each fragile

lock shellacked into a precise curl.  Mrs. Nixon’s face

was gaunt, her sad eyes sunk deep within her cheeks,

but her toothy smile was kind, her voice gentle.

 

My squirmy hand lay trapped within hers — her grip cool,

dry, firm, not the sort of woman who easily takes “no”

for an answer.  I couldn’t speak a word, just stared

at my feet and shook my head, ashamed.  At eighteen,

 

when I registered to vote for the first time,

I wrote in “Democrat” — the perfect coda.  Years later,

looking for a place to rent, my husband and I

toured the Nixons’ condo development in the remote wastes

 

of northwest New Jersey, and I saw my ancient nemesis

getting onto the elevator; wincing a little in sorrow

at her fixed, glassy expression, wondering if she still

remembered me, or even that breezy day in Miami.

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