BY DIANA KOCH
Copyright is held by the author.
MY AUNT Beatrice was the only one of my mother’s five sisters who never married. I met her for the first time when I was 13. Her striking beauty mesmerized me. She towered over my mother and walked with a natural elegance that accentuated her stature. Her hair was short and curly, the colour of cinnamon. Later she would let it grow out so that it flowed down her back in burnished waves. But it was her unusual eyes that made people turn and stare at her. One was the brilliant blue of a summer sky, the other as brown as a chestnut. Her heterochromian gaze intrigued people and consequently she attracted attention wherever she went. It was probably to preserve some kind of anonymity that she developed an aloofness that was misinterpreted by many as pride.
The summer she stayed with us was a calm interlude in her tumultuous life. She arrived late one evening with only a small carpet bag as luggage, the dust and dishevelment of a long journey still on her person. My mother had not seen her for more than a decade. I watched from the top of the stairs as the sisters fell into each other’s arms with silent tears. That night there were no questions asked about her long absence. She was given a warm meal, a clean bed and the unspoken embrace of welcome that every relative received in our house.
The next morning she came out to the front porch where I was sitting on the worn davenport reading my latest sign-out from the public library. She sat down beside me, as graceful as a ballerina. She wore my mother’s faded blue chenille bathrobe, several sizes too small for her, yet somehow still flattering to her slim figure. With unflinching concentration, she looked out at my mother’s rose garden above her steaming mug of tea.
“You resemble your grandmother,” she said, staring straight ahead.
“I know. She died before I was born, but I’ve seen photos.”
I watched as she sipped her tea and ran long fingers through her cropped hair, her gaze intent on the roses. After a few moments, I said, “You don’t look like anyone in the family.”
“You’re right, I don’t. The fairies must have brought me.” She poked a mischievous elbow into my side. It was the first time that I saw her smile. Her face lit up like a burst of sunshine after a storm.
”I wish that I was more like you.”
She continued sipping her tea with the passion of someone who has not savoured such a pleasure for a long while. Eventually she said, “You shouldn’t make wishes. That way you won’t be disappointed.” She finished her tea, then walked down the steps to admire the roses. Her fingers caressed the delicate blooms as gently as one might a newborn baby’s cheek. She bent to
inhale the intoxicating fragrance, with eyes closed, a far away look on her face. When she returned to the porch, she winked at me with her blue eye and produced another broad smile. This time, I noticed it distorted the symmetry of her face.
“I take back what I just said. You should wish for those things that are important to you. Sometimes wishes do come true.”
“Have you had wishes come true?” I asked, curious to hear about her obscure past.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I have. But I wished for the wrong things.” She turned and walked into the house, letting the screen door bang softly behind her.
My Aunt seemed to adjust to the rhythm of life in our house, helping my mother with laundry and cooking, and later with canning the produce from the garden. They often worked in silence. When they did talk, it was more like an exchange of sentences than a real conversation. At the time I thought it was because the years of separation had formed a curtain between them that they could see though, but not penetrate. I know now that it was personality and life style that prevented any true communication. My Aunt’s experiences and her way of looking at the world were as different from my mother’s as pickles and pie. They were strangers except for their common DNA.
Often in the evenings when I sat in my favourite spot on the porch reading some exotic adventure story, the screen door would open slowly, followed by the fluid figure of my Aunt. Usually she would melt silently into the rocker on the other side of the porch and gaze out beyond the lilac and spirea hedges that separated the yard from the cornfields. So intent was her concentration, and so bleak her expression that I felt certain she must be observing some appalling drama visible only to her. Other times, she would withdraw a scrap of paper and a stub of pencil from her skirt pocket and scribble a few words or phrases. Afterwards, her face would relax, she would lean back, close her eyes and hum a plaintive tune.
“What are you writing, Auntie?” I asked one night when she had filled the backs of several crumpled envelopes.
“Nothing of any importance . . . just some thoughts.” In one flowing motion she pulled in her long legs, stood up and entered the house.
I continued reading until I grew tired of swatting the blood-thirsty mosquitoes. On my way into the house, a fragment of paper lying on the door sill shone white in the light from the hallway. I picked it up, slipped it into my book, knowing that I would do what I should not.
In my room upstairs, with the door firmly closed, I switched on the light, my curiosity itching more than the insect bites. My Aunt’s loopy handwriting was as unique as her person.
Daggers of darkness
a heart impaled.
Crystals of light
a spirit reborn.
Fate, fickle and furious
a passion subdued
Assassin of dreams
Two final lines had been scratched out. All I could make out were the words life and death. It meant nothing to me at the time, other than my Aunt Beatrice wrote poetry. I had no idea what tragedies she had endured or what demons haunted her, or if she was just morose by nature. The next morning, I dropped the slip of paper in the rocking chair and watched her pick it up when she sat down with her morning tea. Without looking at it, she stuffed it into her pocket before resuming her morning routine of admiring the roses.
“I’m reading a book about Africa,” I said, holding it up for her to see.
She didn’t answer for a long time, as if she had to search her memory for an appropriate response. It surprised me when she said, “I lived there for a number of years. I liked it, but I had to leave.”
“Where do you live now . . . I mean when you are not with us?”
“Oh, wherever the winds take me.” She sighed, repositioned the cushion at her back. “I guess I’m not meant to stay in one place. I told you that I was probably related to the fairies.”
I looked at her with envy. How wonderful to be able to live wherever your fancy takes you. I began to wish that I could go with her when she left. Then I remembered what she had said about wishing for the wrong thing.
The last week in September, my Aunt Irene, who had just given birth to twins and had four other children, sent a plea for help and a money order for the fare to Edmonton. Aunt Beatrice packed her battered carpet bag, said her good-byes and promised to keep in touch. At the train station, she gave me a hasty hug and a delicate kiss on the cheek. I was certain that I saw one perfect tear escape from the corner of her brown eye as she turned to board the train.
That evening, I asked my mother why Aunt Beatrice had never married.
“She almost did. Beatrice was engaged once when she was 19. Her fiancée was killed in a car accident. She left shortly after the funeral. None of us heard from her until a few years later when she was living in Africa.”
“What did she do in Africa?”
“She trained as a nurse, worked with some charitable organization. That’s all I know.” My mother’s tone of voice indicated that there was no more information forthcoming.
Aunt Beatrice lived with her sister in Edmonton for two years. During that time, my mother received monthly letters from her with news about Aunt Irene’s bustling family. She never mentioned herself. It was through her final letter that we learned she was planning to go to Vancouver and from there to China and possibly India.
I was thrilled when I received a photo of her standing on the Great Wall, with her now long, luxurious hair streaming behind her in the breeze. Even in the photo, her contrasting eyes gave her an exotic look. Perhaps that is why she was drawn to such places. Her pensive expression, however, gave no indication as to her state of happiness. As always, her thoughts remained an enigma.
For the next several years, my mother welcomed the odd letter. I received a yearly postcard from some foreign place with a name I could barely pronounce. I used to dream of meeting up with her in Hong Kong or at the Taj Mahal after I finished school. Whenever I thought of our parting at the train station, I was certain that she would be pleased to see me.
Then suddenly all communication stopped. No one in the family had heard from her in almost three years when an unexpected parcel addressed to me arrived one cold, snowy February day. I was home from university for reading week, fantasizing about distant destinations that radiated warmth, romance, adventure — anything other than the grey bleakness of a farm after months of Canadian winter. How extraordinary, I thought, to receive such a gift from Aunt Beatrice at this particular time.
The packaged contained two scarred volumes in my Aunt’s distinctive hand. One was a journal, the other a collection of her poetry. A brief letter accompanied the books, explaining that my Aunt had requested they be sent to me upon her death.
My mother seemed not at all shocked to hear that her youngest sister had died. She often referred to Aunt Beatrice’s vagabond life as “unsuitable” for a single woman. When she locked herself in her bedroom after dinner, I knew that she was grieving in silence, as was her way.
It took me several days to piece together the events of my Aunt’s unusual life from the disjointed accounts in her journal. I learned that the time she spent in Africa after the death of her first love was one of hardship and gruelling work in a make-shift hospital sponsored by a Catholic charity. Working with patients who had so little and expected even less helped her forget her own pain. In time, she thought she had found a purpose in life. It was there that she met a young priest whose vows of celibacy were temporarily abandoned when he fell in love with her. She didn’t tell him of her pregnancy. Instead, she left, gave birth to a daughter in Johannesburg and put her
baby up for adoption. It was shortly afterwards that she had appeared on our doorstep and spent the summer with us.
The last few years of her life, she was again trying to find some meaning for her existence. She had been working in the slums of Calcutta when she became ill with an infection that led to her death.
The voice in the journal, though often fragmented, was factual and lacked the emotion that would be associated with the tragedy and hardship outlined. It was through the poetry that my Aunt Beatrice opened her heart to portray the rich tapestry of her emotional interaction with the forces that shaped her life.
The day before she died she made one final entry.
How long the journey
How short the dream
For those who wish
Instead of lead.
How cruel is fate
How swift is sorrow
For those who wait
To live tomorrow.