Dear Aunty Aileen

 

By Roisin McGee

I’m supposed to be writing your eulogy now. Mam called last night and asked if I could speak at tomorrow’s service, because she couldn’t bring herself to. I couldn’t force myself to say “no” to her shaking voice. I haven’t even seen her yet.

Dad picked me up from the airport yesterday. We met Ruarí in the Wilton pub for tea. I had the Sunday roast, pork with crackling. It was soggy. We didn’t talk much at first, just about the weather. The barman changed the channel to the Dublin v Cork match halfway through. Lifted Dad’s spirits a bit. He asked me about football in Australia and I said it was nowhere near as good. He laughed at that, clapped me on the back, ordered a round for the table. We pretended everything was normal, and that you weren’t lying on a slab somewhere.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say tomorrow. Everyone will be expecting some grand speech from me, after flying all the way back from the other side of the world. What do you say about a loved one who you didn’t love? Everyone’s looking back with rosy retrospection, imagining you as this sweet old lady. You were two of those things, at least.

I suppose I could speak of your faith. Of how you believed God had a plan, but it wouldn’t happen by itself. We had to follow our set paths. Complete the Sacraments, have children, go to Church every Sunday, repent for our sins. I’m sitting in your kitchen right now and I can see Jesus on the cross staring down at me. Sometimes I think you placed him (Him?) there deliberately so he’d be staring down at whoever was at the end of the table. You always sat me right here when we came over for tea, my legs swinging off the chair and my face covered in ketchup from all the fish fingers that missed their mark. I’ve always thought you put me at the end of the table so I’d be looking up at the ceramic figurine with his golden halo. More likely, you sat me here because sitting me next to Laoise or Ruarí would result in a food fight.

We stopped coming by as much once we became teenagers. We visited Nana and Granda still, but our great aunt was slowly left out of our weekly visits to family. I didn’t really care. I dreaded visiting here, where everything had its place and it smelt of moth balls and Chanel No. 5. To this day I can’t stand that fucking perfume. It’s being promoted by a supermodel at the moment—a young one who’s friends with the Kardashians—and all I can think is that this girl, worth millions of dollars, smells like my aunt. I doubt you knew who the Kardashians are, but I’m sure you wouldn’t have approved. You were a fan of Marilyn Monroe’s pictures though, and that scent was apparently all she wore to bed. I wonder what she’d think of her sheets smelling of a 78-year-old Irish widow. Not sure that’d sell much perfume. 

Your house is still as pristine as when I was last here, before I moved a hemisphere away. Your mantelpiece is adorned with cards wishing you a happy 78th birthday, a thin layer of dust sticking to all the shiny cardboard. The fireplace even has a stack of wood ready for winter, probably chopped up by Ruarí. He was always your favourite – I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say tomorrow.

I’m trying to think of you through his eyes, but it’s hard. All I can see is the downward turn of your lip aimed at me, the disgust you didn’t even try to mask. There’s a photo of me on your fridge door. That really surprised me, because I never sent you any. Nana must have given it to you alongside photos of all the grandkids. It’s been cropped though, Sophia’s face cut out of the side. Nana wouldn’t have thought a thing of it, just another selfie taken with a friend. She couldn’t possibly imagine her granddaughter, her “shooting star”, being a dyke.

I can imagine you faking a smile as you looked through the prints with your younger sister, only cutting it up when she left and sticking it on the fridge to keep up appearances. Or maybe she gave it to you cropped, assuming you only wanted photos of family and not strangers – Ruarí and Laoise and all the cousins are all mostly alone or with family in their photos too.

I’m probably projecting.

Most of my memories of home blur together, unfocused footage of parks and pubs and greenery. The green here is so vibrant, like the saturation levels have been turned up by a thousand per cent. Australian green is muddied, streaked greys and browns, more dusty than lush. But here? It’s a whole other colour, almost as if your eyes had never really worked until you stepped off that plane. You’d have known this, you spent so much time in your garden. I can see it through the window now, overgrowing from its neglect in the last month. 

When I first arrived, I went straight out there to escape the house. The dog roses are taking over half the garden. I think it’s beautiful, though I’m not sure you’d agree. Years and years of tending to the flowers, pulling weeds, keeping pests out, and now it’s going wild. Back to nature. Maybe your house will go that way, moss growing along peeling wallpaper and weeds shooting through the floorboards. Chanel No. 5 replaced with mildew and dirt. Your front hedge closing up and hiding your home away. Dad says the market is shite at the moment so we might not be able to sell.

It’s raining at the moment, like it always seems to be when I come home. The garden is alive, dancing as it’s pelted with raindrops. Even in its current state of overgrowth I think you’d still enjoy it, or at least its potential. It’s the only place I ever saw you act human, smiling and laughing whilst you got dirt under your fingernails.

I’ve come home a few times over the last decade, but the last time I was in this house you had just turned 72. Mam and Nana dragged me along and I couldn’t make up a good enough reason not to come so I allowed myself to be driven here and propelled through your front door. I busied myself making tea whilst they went out the back to find you. Looking out the kitchen window was like gazing through a portal to the past, the uneven glass obscuring the signs of your age and leaving a figure in green overalls kneeling amongst the starry eyes. You stood up to greet the others, laughing as you kissed Nana on the cheek. For a moment I had felt the tension in my shoulders soften, thinking that maybe you’d be in a good mood, and I’d ask how the snowdrops were going. I brought a tray of tea and biscuits into the garden, sitting down on the bench that Donal made for you, when you bought your home together. I caught your eye, about to smile, when you looked away into the flowerbeds. You told Mam you were thinking about pulling up the snowdrops. I picked up a sugar cube to stir into my tea and it crumbled beneath my fingers. 

The bench is still under the cherry tree, even though it was a constant target for bird droppings. It’s covered in them, barely hiding the fact the left side is rotting away. It’s neither functional nor ornamental, but there it sits, surrounded by petals and greenery. If I looked, I’m sure I’d find “DL & OL ’62” carved into the back inside a heart. I can’t reconcile the image of a 72-year-old you, refusing to look at me, with a newlywed bride giddy to start a life with her love.

I used to question why you didn’t remarry after him; 38 isn’t that old, surely you could have found love again, or at least companionship. But looking around your house now I don’t think you could have. You never moved on. Your wedding photo is still on the mantlepiece and photos of your life litter the house. His glasses are still on the bedside table, on what must have been his side of the bed forty years ago, untouched. They bear no more dust than anything else. Did you pick them up and clean under them every week, placing them back exactly as they were in 1976? You must have. His suits still take up half the closet, your wardrobe crammed into the left side as to not disturb them. You even have brandy glasses in the kitchen, even though you didn’t drink. Ruarí said your liver couldn’t process it properly, yet there are bottles in the glass display cabinet in the sitting room. The only place free of him seems to be the guest bedroom, with its plain pink walls and a single bed that was piled high with cushions and a teddy bear, before I dumped them onto the floor at 1 o’clock last night.

I still can’t think about what to say tomorrow. This home is full of memories, but none of them are mine. My memories of Ireland are of grandparents and cousins and school and friends, not of great aunts. The memory that sears into my brain when I think of you isn’t one I can tell. I can’t, I don’t want to, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to either. You’d want me to keep it buttoned down, to stay tight-lipped and straight-laced. We kept this secret for so long, what’s another few days, months, years.

I can still feel the jolt in my stomach that Wednesday afternoon, followed by another jolt and a feeling of sickness when I saw you. School had been let out early for the last day of term and I’d snuck into the pictures with Sinead to see some rom-com about a boy and a girl and miscommunication. Afterwards we’d gotten 99s and sat out the back of the shopping centre, gossiping and giggling and doing whatever else 16-year-olds do when they have infinite time and empty wallets. It’s fuzzy in my head, and I can’t really remember how it happened.

I had chocolate on the corner of my mouth and Sinead leaned over to wipe it off with her thumb and next thing we were surging into each other and I could smell her Hello Kitty perfume and taste the watermelon lipgloss she’d nicked from Claire’s. We broke apart, her cheeks were red, and I was going to say something, when her eyes drifted over my shoulder and she froze. I whipped around, my hair stuck to the lipgloss transferred onto my mouth, and I saw you staring at me. I waited for you to yell at me, to drag me back home and tell my mam I was a degenerate, or maybe to church to sit in the confession box.

But you just looked at me. It felt like forever but it must have been no more than a minute before you straightened up, tugging your cardigan as if to cover yourself and turning to the carpark to leave. I almost yelled out but Sinead tugged at my collar and told me not to make it worse. We waited for something to happen, for one of our mothers to call us and demand we come home immediately. After an hour, it seemed like the inevitable fall out would wait till dinner, so we waited around until we saw a sixth-former we recognised, and paid him to buy us cheap vodka. I drank till I threw up, and then more after that. Sinead fell asleep on my lap in her basement, and we never spoke of it again.

I never asked you why you didn’t out me. I never got the chance as you never spoke to me beyond formalities after that, ignoring me at family events and letting your eyes simply slip over me like I was just a shadow. The “inevitable fall out” didn’t happen that night, or the night after that, or the night after that. It’s been 14 years and you literally took my secret to the grave. If I’m being honest, I’m grateful. I was home last year when Ireland legalised same-sex marriage and when the news came out Mam rolled her eyes before changing the radio station. I wonder about how it would’ve gone if you’d gone straight to my parent’s house and told them. If they’d have been angry or disgusted, or just had that look of disappointment on their faces that’s somehow worse than being yelled at. 

If I was to say anything tomorrow, it would be to thank you. You hated me, I’m sure of it. You made no show of hiding it. But I didn’t hate you. I still don’t. In a way, I want to. It’d be easier than trying to figure out how you could call a man on the telly in tight pants a “queer”, but not tell our family that I actually am one. I hate that you thought that way, I hate thinking of the look of revulsion you aimed at me, I hate the fact that your house is dotted with crosses and there’s a bible on the beside table, but I don’t hate you.

Anger would be easier but I never got that experience. I never got the big fight that every single book and movie and TV show tells me will happen, when you’re caught kissing another girl. Instead I got a Catholic great aunt who kept a secret that might have ruined my life if it had come to light, even though it was against everything you believed in. I can’t figure out why. I’m not sure I want to know. I still wish you could tell me. Maybe it’d help me write your eulogy.