My aunt is wearing a striped tube dress with spaghetti straps. When she sits, love handles circle her tummy like three rubber tires. “Timi, where have you been?” she asks, but does not expect an answer. I am there and it is enough. She sucks me in a tight embrace, her warmth spreading over me, her smile wide.
The years apart are too many to fit into an evening. We make small talk highlighting the events that count. Did I hear what happened to her son? Only God could have saved him. And what about me and my hopes for tomorrow? I do not burden her with sad news; there is no need to slow down the tempo of the music we are making. Soon we are silent, each of us locked in our world, making sense of words.
When my sister says, “Aunty you look as young as ever,” she returns to the present.
“No o. I am old.”
My sister counters, “You’re looking young. No one would believe if you tell them your age.”
“Please don’t deceive me, don’t give me false hope,” she says like a woman who has been lied to and preyed upon. She pats her Halle Berry wig and looks at me with a small smile.
She is seeking corroboration from me. I cannot just give it, mouthing empty words. I do not know how old she is. I have no compass with which to navigate true north, therefore I cannot tell if she is indeed looking young. Having not seen her for years, in which I harboured memories of her younger fashionable self, she is in fact looking old to me.
My sister and my aunt continue the cycle of compliments and weak rebuttals. I fight within myself. Where is true north?
“Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place,” Cormac McCarthy wrote.
My aunt’s husband is long gone; one son is far away, the other closer by, and her only daughter died too early. She has forged a whole life for herself apart from them. Her carefully made up face—thin black-pencilled brows, two large dots of muted raspberry rouge, and red lips that complement her hazel skin—is like a photo from another era. She has weathered storms and raised many children that are not hers, including me. I sense her hunger to be seen and admired as I too have on occasion hungered to be seen and admired.
I stop fighting because I have conquered myself.
“Aunty,” I say, “You look young and beautiful.”
It is not false hope; it is true. I remember learning that a (magnetic) compass almost never shows true north. True north is different from magnetic north, which changes depending on local magnetic variation. About a million years ago, the position of magnetic north even wandered closer to the geographic South Pole.
I had planned to ask my sister how old my aunt is. But when we leave, I let the question die in my throat. What does it matter? I am in charge of my compass. Moreover, she is more than the sum of all that.
©Timi Yeseibo 2017
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