As we packed for their move to North Carolina in a few days, I opened a box of letters my Aunt Vi had been keeping…not like me, who hoards every letter ever received, but selected cards from family that she held dear to her heart.
It wasn’t only keepsakes that were saved in that box. Each card opened to a story, a remembrance, a family connection.
Digging in it, I discovered a watercolor I had sent her with some photographs, and a poem celebrating her 82nd birthday. The pictures inside, though, were mostly taken 67 years ago come November, when she’d flown to Florida to meet my grandparents at their Miami house and surprised them with another guest: me.
Though I’d been born in that city during the war, my father being stationed by the Navy there, we’d moved back when the war was over to where my parents had grown up, my grandparents eager to claim their first. This, then, was only my second flight that far away from home (the first, at six months old, I couldn’t remember), and though it could rightly be called a journey to revisit my roots, the trip to Miami might well have been to another country for one so young as I. So much to see, such a different landscape and lifestyle. I loved the sun and bathing and floating around after my aunt and grandparents.
Card, poem, photos all brought back to me not only that experience, but a more historically significant one, for from Miami we’d flown to Havana, where my grandfather had some business interests. An inventor of machines for special industrial interests, he and his company had ties to the Cuban and American companies that dominated commerce on the island before Castro’s revolution.
Since I was young at the time, the images I can recall from that marvelous visit are few, but still clear: the balcony of our hotel over a street teeming with vibrant life…merchants, shoppers, music, a cacophony of different languages; a dinner at a client’s elegant ranch house farther out in the country where I’d seen my first finger bowl, in each a fragrant flower floating; a walk along the harbor where (remember how young I was) the push and pull of the foot traffic had me huddling between my aunt and grandparents. How I would like to visit that city and country again now, when so much more of my eyes, ears, curiosity, and knowledge would broaden the adventure considerably.
Cuba today…having been closed to us Americans for so many decades, changed in its relationship to us, its culture and its own historical evolution…would be a wonderful juxtaposition to those small scenes of ancient memory.
But back to our own diggings: the watercolor I’d painted for that birthday emanated, as such images usually do, from the day and the recipient. It was raining, but earlier that morning it had not yet swelled with dark clouds. I thought of that first view and how I might preserve it on waking.
Inside the watercolor was the inscription, which rather than explain (we don’t explain poems, I kept telling my students for 40 years; they are what they are…and what you bring to them), I reproduce here:
RAIN, ON YOUR BIRTHDAY
It is a gray day, four hundred-some miles from
where we should be, and will be soon, lunching with you
in honor of your eighty-second birthday, laughing at old
pictures around the table by the window at the shore;
not there yet but here, the rain is falling in that steady, persistent
way you have always advised for growing—grass, flowers,
an even tide of white-edged waves coming in its wake.
And in appreciation, the bright zinnias dance in their pots,
the herbs unfold into dense plenty, the sanctuarial hydrangeas,
even now on their way out of season, preen and shine
becoming the character of the exotic, the faraway.
For I am thinking of other rains…not only there at the shore
years ago, when we play in the garage or bathhouse,
keeping ourselves busy with old slickers and puckered
cast-off hats from the cellar door, you laughing as,
rippling the wet boardwalk, we raced the molded carriage
up and down, soaking ourselves, or washed clam shells to paint
for a sidewalk stand when the sun and beachgoers returned,
but in other, farther places—Miami and Havana for me,
Scotland and the Hague for you—where as well the rain still falls
in our memory. Small and leery of new shores, swarming
marketplaces, hustling streets crowing garbled tongues,
I balk and you coax me down from the high, ornate balcony
of our hotel, taking me to dinner in the tropical rooms of strangers
as if all this were only family again at our own complicated,
complicitous tables at home.
It didn’t rain in the parrot jungle,
or at the alligator farm where the wrestlers pretended to battle
the embattled; it might have rained once or twice the days
we planned to go fishing or bathing, but in those old photographs,
the sun seems ubiquitous—dancing on the picnic table in the yard
of palms and flagrant bougainvillea, chasing away territorial crows;
posing well-dressed and territorial myself against the tall,
white marble memorial to a forgotten city’s past, or sitting
like beauty queens on the sand—you always beside me, behind me,
guardian and guarded guest; still in your twenties then, and I only five,
we seemed like short and long echoes of each other, one practiced,
the other practicing for: a good girl's dream of aunt and me.
That last line, I know, probably resounds in a lot of families...the aunt who took us under her wing, the aunt who was sweet, the aunt who gave us treats (and remembered what we liked best), the aunt who was a shoulder to lean on, an ear to hear what we had to say, the aunt who told us without hesitation family stories, and drew us into them.
It takes no digging at all to bring up the way our aunts all played such enormous roles in our growing years. It hardly takes a photo, for we carry their leanings in us always. But introducing this blog is one of my favorite photos, also found in that envelope with the Miami/Cuba images...three of my aunts at my mother's birthday party a considerable time later in time though not affection. If you are an artist (and even if you aren't), look at the ease with which we arrange ourselves into this composition. This is a picture of what I think of when I think of my aunts.