On a Sunday morning before church, my young daughter appeared in the doorway of my bedroom. She wore cream tights and a dress full of frills and satin and folds of fabric formed for—I think—the sole purpose of twirling in a circle. Without my prompting, she spun herself around, elevating the pink and gold dress for a moment before the hem gave in to the weight of gravity.
“Beautiful,” I told her. “Do you want to wear my pearls?” Her smile transformed to awe as I held up the shimmering necklace.
My pearls remind me of my past. I spent the decade before my daughter’s birth attempting to inhale the fullness of this globe. I backpacked across Europe, traveled to the Dominican Republic and China for graduate school, and visited places like Kenya and Malaysia. I held my passport close, the stamps and visas becoming colorful artifacts of my desire to better understand our world. Everywhere I went I collected objects that would remind me of my travels. Delicate teaspoons from Barcelona. A purple wrap skirt purchased in Nairobi. And in Beijing, I bargained with a shop owner over the price of a strand of simple pearls.
In the years since my daughter’s birth, my pace of taking in the world has slowed to less than a crawl. Instead of collecting stamps and visas, my passport—along with my family’s passports—sits unused.
In a way, this fact goes against what I believe is true: That the act of seeing other places and people helps us better understand and appreciate the beauty and humanity that stretches to every corner of the globe. As the child of immigrants who married an immigrant, I value teaching my daughter and her little sister to see themselves as part of a vast world. And yet, the reality is that my family is not currently in a position to travel the way I once did. Instead we read books about places my girls have never been, and we find countries on the map hanging outside my daughters’ bedroom.
“Where have you been,” my daughters might ask, and I’ll point to countries and continents. I’ll speak of people I met, foods I ate, or a strand of pearls I purchased one winter evening in Beijing.
It’s often said that pearls arise from a single grain of sand caught between an oyster’s shell and mantle. The oyster covers this particle with layer after layer of the same substance that forms its shell until the grain of sand is at the center of a pearl.
My necklace is like a grain of sand I tuck within the folds of my daughter’s life. A particle I coat with the shine of layer after layer of stories about the places I’ve seen, the places I say she’ll one day go.
That Sunday morning, I clasped the pearls around my daughter’s throat, iridescent gems that caught the light in a certain way and made my girl stand a bit taller and perhaps feel a bit older.
“Once I spent 10 days in China,” I said, recalling an indoor market that gave me respite from the cold and a shopkeeper who laughed with me as we shared stories and eventually settled on the price of a strand of pearls.
My daughter listened as she twirled again in her wide-hemmed dress, pearls from Beijing smooth and cool against her skin, her heart holding another story that speaks what is possible. Just as her mother explored cities replete with new sights and smells and wonders, she one day could too.
Patrice Gopo is a 2017 – 2018 North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellow in Literature, and her essay collection about race, immigration and belonging will release in 2018. Go to patricegopo.com to read more of her work and sign up for updates about her book.