When Aunty Lesley died — a poem

Dark-eyed beauty Aunty Lesley, bridesmaid at Celia's wedding. From a painting by Lesley Evans.

Dark-eyed beauty Aunty Lesley, bridesmaid at Celia’s wedding. From a painting by Lesley Evans.

When Aunty Lesley died of tuberculosis
she was thirty and I was only three.
I have no memories of Aunty Lesley
I have no memories at all from little me
only the mythology of tragic death embedded
but now I think of Celia giving birth
in the deep midwinter to daughter number five
and four days later
her lovely sister dies
only a hundred miles away.
Celia can’t help, she can’t attend the funeral
her duty is to David
in an icy mountain vicarage
swarming with kids already.
We were told the story of the dark-eyed aunt
and her husband Captain Jack in the RNZAF
and the motherless child she left behind
as cute as Sailor Girl
and the kind cousin who took the baby in
when Jack went back to the war.
Later we heard of quarrels over open windows
as if that would have cured TB
but it helps to have someone to blame
someone to drive away and not forgive
when you lose your only sister.
The fact was there. The fact of death
skimmed across the shallows of my child mind
along with the hurts of the plaiting of plaits
or a skinned knee
a short hurt that might or might not
ever occur again.
I had no scale of terribleness
and never imagined my mother’s lonely pain.
That death was just a fairy tale, far away and veiled
a tale she muffled for her daughters
while she gave us sister after sister
a sister for every season for every reason
while her bones surely wept and wailed
and with a broken heart she managed to be brave.

Audio track (mp3)

It’s only recently that I have started to imagine how terrible this must have been for our mother, to lose her only sister, and to be so close and yet out of reach. The pain was worse because she wanted desperately to adopt her niece, but with five daughters of her own already that was not a realistic option. What does death mean to a little child, when it’s somebody else’s mother who dies, not your own?

Portrait of my aunt from a painting of my parents’ wedding, by Lesley Evans, my sister. Lesley was the baby who was born four days after Aunty Lesley died. Poem and recording by me, Rachel McAlpine. Feel free to repost and otherwise share, with attribution. 

Alternative audio track (m4a)



24 thoughts on “When Aunty Lesley died — a poem

  1. I love the audio tracks. I am Canadian, you sound to me as if you have an accent. I suppose to you, I would have an accent. There is something mysterious and appealing about accents.

    1. I do, I’m a Kiwi. When David went to the US in the 1950s they found his accent “cute”!!

  2. lifecameos says:

    I had a difficult half hour a little while back putting my two year old great nephew to bed while their Grandma put the two older girls to bed. They and I all knew that their parents who had gone to the city two hours’ drive away for a vital appointment would be back after the children’s bedtime. The girls were old enough to understand. The little boy was too young. After his light was put out, he asked for his mother and father. I explained what was happening but he was too little to really understand. He did go to sleep after half an hour but it was a very difficult time hearing him wanting his parents, unable to understand what was happening. After his parents came home he woke up as they moved around the house, which he does not usually do.His mother ended up sleeping with him in the spare bed for the rest of the night. Hearing of small children separated from their parents is really hard for me now, s in this case of the baby girl, and the children in the USA.

    1. Oh both our stories play out against this massive international horror story. You have a heavy responsibility— but you are there, a point of stability and a link to his mother. How hard this is for everyone. My heart goes out to you.

      1. lifecameos says:

        Thank you. Of course this is not to deny what your mother went through. His parents have not had to leave him for such a long time since then thank goodness. In fact just recently his parents gave the children dinner and baths then went out for dinner themselves because I had been able to get the young man off to sleep. He went to sleep much more quickly that time and slept the night through.

      2. That is good indeed. But it gives insight into more serious separations.

      3. lifecameos says:

        Yes it does.

  3. Lovely post. I find as I grow older and have more perspective, I look at the way my parents must have felt very differently. I also notice my young adult son and daughter are a bit indifferent to my emotional pain–or at least, not really in touch with it. Maybe it’s the way of things.

    1. Maybe that’s as it should be. Too much empathy in youth can be painful. We learn what we can bear to learn, I suppose. I am not afraid of using plain English however, when the moment warrants it.

      1. Maybe if there’s too much empathy in youth, those who are young won’t be able to propel themselves into all the phases of life.

      2. Luckily we mature cognitively and physically, in our own good time.

  4. So very sad yet that’s the world. You have captured the essence.

    1. You are right. And the innocence/ ignorance of small children can be healing.

  5. So many lovely phrases; “the shallows of my child mind”. “scale of terribleness”. A sad but beautiful post. My mythological memory is of a great grandmother dead at 28, leaving three motherless children.

    1. Oh. That must have been so hard.

  6. It’s really only at an older age, when we have the time to reflect, that we realise how difficult things must have been for our parents and their parents. A time when death was so common and no less tragic and one just had to soldier on.

    1. Very true. The time, the experience, and the wish to reflect, perhaps.

  7. Aunt Beulah says:

    This line went straight to my heart and struck me as an apt description of how a young child would feel: “The fact of death skimmed across the shallows of my child mindalong with the hurts of the plaiting of plaits…” The poem includes many sadnesses. I am so glad you are doing the audio tracks. i think poetry is better heard than read.

    1. I’m writing these particular poems expressly to be read aloud, so I’m glad you like the readings.

  8. Joared says:

    I identified with wanting…..needing……to be with a loved one, but responsibilities for another prevented doing so — a pain not soon forgotten, if ever.

    1. That truly must be difficult, I think.

  9. Robyn Haynes says:

    Rachel there were so many heart tugging and beautifully articulated lines in this poem … ‘The fact of death
    skimmed across the shallows of my child mind
    along with the hurts of the plaiting of plaits
    or a skinned knee …’ being just one of them. It’s strange the places are minds take us when we revisit our younger selves.

    1. True. I am pleased if my strange childhood places remind you of your own.

      1. Robyn Haynes says:

        More than you think.

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