“Her Father Calls to Explain That Daughters Aren’t Easy” by Elizabeth Johnston Ambrose

Elizabeth Johnston Ambrose


Sons are indeed a heritage of the Lord, and the fruit
of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand
of a mighty man; so are sons of the youth. Happy
is the man that hath his quiver full of them …
—Psalm 127:3–5

She was always a disappointment.
Mom said Dad came to the hospital with blue baby sneakers;
on seeing her pink hat through the nursery window,
he trashed them and wept.

Two more girls before Dad got his reward.
It wasn’t easy, he tells her. Three daughters.
It’s Saturday morning. She’s hung over
again, watching her daughters from the kitchen window
as they chase cabbage butterflies across the dew-
glittered grass, tennis rackets swinging, blur
of bodies tumbling into each other

and she’s thinking of the wild swing of Dad’s paddle, 
how he chased her sister down the hall
after she wiggled out from where he had pinned
her across his lap, tulip-pink imprint from the first whack 
already blooming on Leah’s bottom.
He used to say a paddle was less personal;
a hand can get carried away.
But an upcycled cutting board, that’s all business.
Spare the rod, spoil the child. And keeping daughters
from spoiling requires a proactive approach.
After all, an ounce of prevention
is worth a pound of cure.

It’s like with these moths she’s been battling all summer,
seeding marigold and thyme, tying tissue to poles, draping
pantyhose over crowns. Undeterred, they laid their eggs.
So she tried BT, pungent Neem oil, mixed homemade cocktails
of garlic, pepper, and Dawn.
Somewhere along the way she must have screwed up 
the recipe: too many cups of this, not enough teaspoons of that.
Lord knows she’s never been good at converting
anything, except maybe
marriage into divorce.

Not easy, her father sighs again,
trying to prevent daughters from turning harlots.
He was just trying to do what the Bible taught was right.
But, anyway, none of his prophylactics worked.
Neither his belt nor the paddle, nor later,
as they began to fill out and feel out
their dangerous, endangered bodies,
his other tactics:
the picture Bible with its throng of dogs
licking Jezebel’s blood, the banned
Cyndi Lauper gloves, forbidden
Daytime soaps, post-date interrogations,
calling them Whore so they could try
on the shame ahead of time.
Still both her sisters got pregnant at nineteen.
For her part, she just spent her twenties letting
lots of men fuck her and her thirties married
to a man who mistook her flailing arms
for worship.

Under the maple, her oldest swats a flicker 
of white to the ground, stomps on it.
Through the window she gives her the thumbs-up,
has promised them a quarter a kill. Later,
while they’re napping, she’ll crouch
over her broccoli, one by one pluck plump
larval bodies from their leafy cradles,
drop and drown them in soapy water.
Sorry, she will say as they sink,
but you’re destroying my garden.
She supposes that’s how God felt when Eve ate
his apple. How her Dad felt raising daughters.
Now, they have settled into whatever this is.
Across the distance, he is collecting himself as he does,
picking up his conscience like a coat draped across a barstool.
He tells her before hanging up,
I must have done something right.
Look how you turned out.

from Imago, Dei
2021 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner


Elizabeth Johnston Ambrose: “I grew up in the Church, and by that I mean in a fundamentalist, evangelical home where we spent Sunday dinners debating things like the meaning of the Greek word ‘Baptismo,’ whether it meant you had to be fully immersed or whether a sprinkling was sufficient to keep you from the gates of hell. Because Jesus was ‘the word,’ and because I spent so much of my youth analyzing the ‘good word,’ it’s fitting that I wound up pursuing a degree in English and becoming a writer. Ironically, the close-reading skills the church taught me was what ultimately undid my faith. Thank God.​” (web)

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