a crown of sonnets for “Ma Tante”

My great aunt Amaryllis, rest her soul,
was lucky born into a kind of tribe and time
polite and quite untroubled by the paradigm
of woman singular.  She could shovel coal
down-cellar and, upstairs, create a buttonhole.
A whiff of peril made her pinch the thinnest dime
to thinner, to a store of more.  Thus, in her prime
was she a fearful thing:  a woman in control.
These truths meant nothing to a child of ten.
Auntie was the only grown-up who could play
real make-believe, was all I knew.  Time and again
leaving her dresser drawers in disarray,
her best silk scarves adrape my tragedienne,
I bowed to her, received her tossed bouquet.

I bowed to her, received her tossed bouquet
as if I heard applause and saw it fall
over the sepia sofa’s sepia shawl
into the amber spot of fading day
I stood upon.  The last sip of tokay
out of her goblet told us:  that is all.
I remember asking things about a doll
atop her dresser as we tucked the scarves away.
“That doll is not a toy, it’s a keepsake,”
she told me, of the plastic lady, almond-eyed
and permanently smiling, “meant to stand upon a cake.”
Then should there not be a boy doll by her side?
impertinent thought.  An inquiry I did not make
of possibilities, such as a groomless bride.

Of possibilities such as a groomless bride
there was no scarcity.  For instance, Mister Mac,
the uncle who was not.  He bought a Pontiac
so Aunt could take them Sundays for a ride.
To all appearances he did reside
alone in a small rent out back of
Auntie’s building, and would stop by for a snack
or something, now and then, she would provide.
What promises were made, kept or unkept,
dressed in a morning coat or negligee–
whether this uncherished woman soundlessly wept
for herself and all the world’s sad prey
to gossips, or whether, defiant, she soundly slept–
the doll on the bedroom dresser could not say.

The doll on the bedroom dresser could not say,
dumb witness as it was to all it could not see,
whether a sob, an epithet, a vain sililoquy
or simple breaks of wind had come its way.
Perhaps the doll did not imply a wedding day,
I came to think, wearing as it did, cap a pie,
a gabardine bereft of lace or filigree
and, where a veil should hang, a cocky plaid beret.
These words, embroidered and proclaimed
across its tiny bosom on a band of blue,
calligraphed the lady as THE UNCLAIMED 
TREASURE. Treasure?  Here in plain view?
The world was full of objects oddly named
and saying things a child could not construe.

And saying things a child could not construe
the world went on its way, leaving the air
heavy with questions.  Great Aunt was the rare
exception:  “An unclaimed treasure is a woman who
has never married,” she explained and slowly blew
the hold of smoke deep in her lungs up to the ceiling where
it lingered and awaited more.  Her game of solitaire
calling her back, she stopped to play it through.
Then, to finish the story, told me how
her bridge club once had come to celebrate
her turning-fifty year, bearing a bittersweet bough
and a cake with that tiny doll to decorate
its topmost tier, that UNCLAIMED TREASURE.  Now
there seemed little more to contemplate.

There seemed little more to contemplate
once facts had closed the door on doubt,
though missing parts remained to figure out.
What did it mean to be unclaimed?  A reprobate?
A wild thing no one could domesticate?
Or was it to be odd, and hard to think about;
better abandoned; something one should flout.
No answer came.  All I could do was speculate.
I asked a relative what “unclaimed treasure” meant.
He made a sour face screwed up his nose
as if succumbing to a most unpleasant scent.
Like other relatives, he hated Amaryllis, I suppose
because he’d not returned some money she had lent.
The debtor hates the lender, as the story goes.

The debtor hates the lender, as the story goes,
especially the debtor who can’t or won’t pay back.
So to make her very being seem a lack,
mean feelings grew into mean prose.
Especially unsettling was the scorn of those
who’d benefitted most from Auntie’s stack.
From a vaguely felt permission to attack,
their repertoire of evil words arose.
Long as she lived, nobody spoke them to her face.
To be the unrequited was her family role.
She played it bravely, wanting love, still living grace.
Waltz could not woo her, nor could schmaltz cajole.
She’s buried treasure now.  I know the place.
Rest, dear aunt Amaryllis, rest your soul.

11 responses »

  1. Unclaimed treasure, she truly was/is. And I wholeheartedly agree that “the debtor hates the lender” – how very true as I know from much experience – more than I care to recall.

    Enjoy the retreat, Cynthia.

    All good wishes,

  2. What a what a wonderful eulogy to a maiden aunt. The name Amaryllis blends beautifully with her other name Unclaimed Treasure. In the spring when I plant my bulbs I always marvel at the beauty which I know that water and sun will coax out of them . Now I shall always think of them as my vehicles of possibly unclaimed treasure.

    • In a dry season I like to sometimes try a formal tour de force, which is what the crown of sonnets really is……one sonnet is difficult enough but to commit to seven that must be interrelated and come full circle is probably masochistic … any rate, it keeps one busy. I am honored that you read the whole thing through!
      About the Amarillys…I especially treasure it in the doldrums of winter on a windowsill overlooking bare branches and mounds of snow…..

      • It is 10 below zero, a wild winter night that began too soon (early November) and I wanted a taste of your words. I have finished reading this one (How had I missed it in late summer? I think I imagined that you would be unable to write poems while moving…) several times and it is now a favorite! I will print this out and share it with my nieces and nephews as a way of opening the “forbidden conversation”: “Why didn’t Julie ever get married?” “get married”, hmmmmm, quite an expression, revealing the too-often-felt-as-shameful secret.
        Reading this tour de force brought to mind how often my young self asked that very question….”Mum, how come Nana never got married?” and then, after being dissatiosfied with my mother’s answers, I dared to ask herself, Ada Mae Descambeau…..and I loved th answer she gave me, every time I asked her, there would be new, fascinating details.
        Thank you, Cyn, for opening up for me this closet, this memory and the way I am living it myself. We will speak more of this when we talk.

        • I would love to hear about Ada Mae Descambeau…the very name conjures interesting associations…to my own perverse way of thinking, the question is not “Why did she never marry?” But “Why does anyone marry?” Of course we know the usual answers given to that second question, but what about the more hidden, or inexplicable, reasons. Nous en parlerons, ma chere, prochainement.

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