Write Into Life

When Aunty Lesley died — a poem

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)