I felt her eyes swing onto us every time we visited Aunt Rose. Her eyes danced, you might say, watching us enter and greet our equally immobile relative, bending over the bed to kiss her nearer cheek. Nurses and assistants had to wash both of them, dress them, and prop them up in wheelchairs before they could move.
There were of course vases of flowers on the night stands beside their beds. Lovely multicolored collections of blooms whose aromas made our nostrils itch and occasionally provoked a sneeze. For us it was too much sweetness accumulating in a confined space, but they abided and seemed to like it, caught in conditions beyond their control.
They never talked to each other while we were there, although Rose always told us, "Say hi to Hilda," and we would. Then Hilda would croak out a barely discernible response, sometimes a question, "What's the weather like?" We'd describe the heat or the rain or the snow, and she'd go, "My, my, you don't say," in a tone that made me think the weather was something I should appreciate more than I did.
Once she said something I had to bend over and put an ear just above her mouth to hear. On stale air it came to me: "Everything's a metaphor." It made me wonder how different things could be so similar.
Like the two of them lying in their separate beds under similar sheets, Hilda the ballerina, Rose the practical nurse, Hilda as slim as a whisper and Rose as round as a cloud, both spinsters, in the middle of flowers in front of wall-bearing snapshots of parts of their lives.
Aunt Rose's white powdered face and hair lay below a half-circular spray of photographs attached to the wall like a fan behind her. I discerned no order to the photos, some from the olde sod of her childhood mixed in with her six sisters' grand and great-grandchildren. The four American sisters in clusters and alone. I couldn't identify the two black suited priests wearing white collars. Nor most of the other people involved in her life. Some ex-patients she'd become friends with in her practical nursing career. Mostly cousins, nephews and nieces. Directly above her head on the wall were the two largest photos: the old thatched house where she was raised, now a cowshed, and the new cottage her family "over there" in Mayo had put up and used now for country vacations. This new building provided, for all the family members, except Rose who'd never returned, something like a base for pilgrimages into the past.
Around Hilda was a more orderly, rectangular arrangement of her life at schools and on stage. Only a few photos of other people. I counted five. She had one regular visitor only, a twice-a-monther. Rare but occasional visitors from out of town, maybe three a year. Mostly there were pictures of herself, snatches of her in costume, in fluffy pink outfits and tutus. I know nothing of ballet and couldn't comment on roles or places where she'd danced, apparently all around the world. She ended up back in Cleveland her hometown where "My parents are buried. I picked out a plot beside them."
On one of her better days, sitting in a wheelchair, her wrinkled face smiling with a glow as if a spotlight were shining on it, she noticed us, or maybe just me, staring at the twisted feet exposed in stockings on the footrests, and said, "Dancing en pointe has done that. All those classes and rehearsals." She shook her head, though I didn't think she did it to express regret. "I was so graceful then."
There still was grace in her. She bore the diminution of her powers like a saint. She read big-print books for hours, nodded to anyone who came in her room, seemed never to sulk.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.