“I was a pretty young gal wen I was young ” said Aunt Hilda, her voice trailing off as she gazed afar – way back into the distant years.
It seemed she was reliving every episode of her life. I remained silent, holding a tuft of her hair in my hand, waiting patiently for her to continue.
“You’re still beautiful, Aunt Hilda. Even more so now,” I said, trying to bring her back from her journey into time.
She sat in the old rocking chair with her now withered hands on her lap. The veins on the back of Aunt Hilda’s gnarled hands rose defiantly beneath her skin. Each vein was like a conduit that told a tale of years of hard labor.
The joints of her fingers were grotesquely swollen with arthritis. She ignored my compliment and began to speak, once again.
“Dat Busha Wallingford was a good lookin’ white man. Yeye dem blue like di sky. I use to wuk fi dem up a di big ‘ouse. Yu si Busha two bwai dem? I raise dem. Fi mi two han tie nappy pon dem bahine,” she intoned, rocking gently.
Aunt Hilda shifted awkwardly and I couldn’t be sure if her apparent discomfort was from sitting for such a long time, or from the pain of reliving the memories. The old rocking chair was padded with some of Grandpa Clarence’s old clothes and two pillows, to make it more comfortable. She spent most of her days sitting on the verandah which offered a spectacular view of the valley – a sight not now for her sore eyes.
Her failing eyesight now imprisoned her in that rocking chair. Her memory was rapidly fading too. However, on her better days she would regale us with warm and exciting stories from her youthful years, and although aunt Hilda was particularly fond of the story of her and Grandpa Clarence’s courtship those umpteen years ago, she couldn’t remember me, her only grandchild, the living testament of that courtship. She kept calling me Cislyn. Cislyn, her long deceased daughter, and my mother.
I remember Aunt Hilda from an earlier time when she was a vibrant woman. In these twilight years I chose to remember those days. I brushed what was left of her once lush black tresses and was transported back to the days when, as a child, I spent summers with Aunt Hilda in this same house. I remember my excitement when the big white house on the hill came into view, as we approached in my mother’s car. I remember, with especial
clarity and fondness, Aunt Hilda, standing midway up the hill with her arms wide open, waiting to envelop me in her warm embrace.
I was always fascinated by her beauty and her strengths.
She was a tall, buxom, curvaceous woman, with a crown of thick, jet black hair which she wore in two thick braids on either side of her head, tucked under her signature red madras-plaid scarf. Aunt Hilda’s smile was warm and bewitching, and her dark, deep-set eyes sparkled like black pearls.
She possessed a physical strength that was unequalled by any of the women I knew then. I still marvel at the way she balanced two bunches of green bananas on her head, toting a basket full of yams or other produce in one hand, a hoe in the other, and still managed to walk with such ease. She was regal, even dressed in Grandpa Clarence’s old clothes, with the shirt sleeves rolled up to her elbow, and the water boots turned down below the knees.
Aunt Hilda could fell a banana tree and relieve it of its fruit in two sweeps of a machete, yet she could dance the quadrille like no other. She was as light as a cat on her feet and as agile as a gazelle. Having never remarried after Grandpa Clarence died, she always wore the sadness like a widow’s veil, and despite her best efforts to conceal her grief, her agony was contagious.
“Mi husban gone. Dem doan mek dem like Clarance Morrison nuh mo,” Aunt Hilda muttered.
I stepped to the side to look at her face and she struggled to see me.
“Cislyn? A yu dat?” Aunt Hilda called out. “Mi long fi si yu, yu si. ’Ow yu tek suh long fi come? Weh mi one gran pickney deh? Cislyn?”
I stooped beside her and held her fragile hand in mine.
“This is not Cislyn, Aunt Hilda. This is Camille, your granddaughter,” I whispered softly.
My heart splintered into a million pieces as Aunt Hilda looked past me and into the distance. As I stared into her dimmed eyes, she looked at me, suddenly startled, and I leaned over and embraced her to diffuse her fright. What awful spirit had called her name, I wondered.
I resumed brushing her hair as she began to hum, ‘In the Sweet By and By’. I found myself humming along as my eyes welled with tears.
“It gwine rain soon. Yu si how di cloud dem heavy?” Aunt Hilda suddenly declared with a peppiness I had not seen in months.
Agreeing with her, I fought desperately to suppress my emotions, trying to enjoy this rare, short burst of joy. And then in an instant, I felt an intense anger. Anger at the fact that she had no memory of me and that she was so reduced to a mere shadow of the woman I once knew. I was angry too at my powerlessness in the face of her debilitation.
“Aunt Hilda, would you like to lie down and rest now?” I asked.
“I was a pretty gal when I was young,” she whispered.
I moved to sit next to her and took her weathered hand in mine.
“It gettin late, a haffi guh home. Cislyn a wait fi mi. Is evelin time,” Aunt Hilda whispered.
She began to sing softly and then transited into a meek humming, “In da sweet by an by. . .we shall meet…” I picked up the strain when her voice faded.
Her wizened fingers went limp in my grasp and I clutched them close to my heart, as a puff of wind blew past and the blades of the fever grass bustled in the breeze. I covered Aunt Hilda’s legs with her favourite blanket, smoothed her hair and tied her head with her madras-plaid scarf.
“Desmond!” I called out to my son. “Go get someone to come help me carry Aunt Hilda inside. She’s gone.”
Joan Afflick is a Jamaican writer resident in New York