My aunt survived the Blitz and an orphanage, and taught me how to endure my partner’s death. When coronavirus took her, she gave me one final lesson.
One Wednesday last month, I learned that my aunt Cynthia was dying from coronavirus. She had declined to be intubated or put on a ventilator, so by the time I knew she had the virus, she had already been sedated and was floating in some liminal place between breath and non-breath.
Cynthia had worked as a laboratory technician and understood what was happening. A week earlier when my mother had called her to talk about the pandemic, Cynthia had explained the wily, adaptive ways that viruses reproduce. Bacteria replicate in straight lines, but viruses are eccentric survivors, she’d said. They will do anything to perpetuate themselves.
* * *
I didn’t meet my Aunt Cynthia until I was sixteen. I had decided that I wanted to be a writer and insisted on wearing battered Chuck Taylors and a corduroy hat to all of my college interviews, thinking that this made me look like a beatnik intellectual. I had grown up in rural Ohio. I didn’t really know what an intellectual looked like. I wrote poems and plays, designed my own clothes, stopped eating meat, read incessantly, and did plein air paintings. My straitlaced family didn’t quite know what to do with me. Then my mother said, offhandedly, “My Aunt Cynthia writes. We should go visit so you can meet her.”
Cynthia lived with her partner in a manor house in Surry County, Virginia. They chain-smoked, talked about literature, sent stories and poems to periodicals, and rented out rooms to boarders. They raised chickens, grew their own produce and cooked delicious, elaborate meals. There were peacocks roaming around on the lawn. Fresh garden flowers and alabaster lamps in the bedrooms. Paintings and books everywhere. A few mischievous kittens, an old black rescue dog, and a pickup truck that Cynthia had named the Silver Queen.
My mother and I settled into the big kitchen with the blue-painted cabinets, smoke-stained ceilings, newspapers and books everywhere. It was the first time I had ever seen Poetry magazine. Cynthia cracked open a beer, set a bottle of Blue Nun in front of me, and said, “Be your own policeman.”
We liked—no, loved—each other immediately, with the kind of affinity that thrums in the blood and announces the soul’s recognition. There was nothing obligatory about our relationship. It was a cross-generational friendship—a relief to see someone and be seen so clearly. After college, I returned to Cynthia’s house for a couple months to soak it all in. We’d read, write, and putter in the garden during the day, and cook and drink in the evenings, while Cynthia told me stories.
Cynthia’s mother, Hazel, was my great-grandmother and the ancestor who most fascinated me. Hazel had gotten pregnant with my grandmother as a teenager, and then left her in her crib in rural Iowa, so I had heard about Hazel mostly as an absence—as the selfish, abandoning mother. But Cynthia had adored her, and she filled in the blanks for me. After Hazel left, she went to New York, where she worked as a model and artist before making her way to London. There, she fell in love with an officer in the British Army. She got pregnant again and followed him to India, surprising him with her arrival, by ship. They married, and a couple of months later, she gave birth on the way to the hospital in Calcutta.
Cynthia was that baby, cherished by her young, glamorous parents. Hazel wore saris, smoked opium and got to know the poet Rabindranath Tagore. When World War II began, Hazel and Cynthia went back to London, where they narrowly survived the bombings by the Nazis. Cynthia told me about hiding in a coat closet under the stairs while the side of the building was blown off. They left London to return to New York, where Hazel checked Cynthia into an orphanage so she could put herself through nursing school. Cynthia survived by picking locks, teasing the nuns, and running a black market of pilfered candy. As an adult, Cynthia joined the first tour of the Peace Corps and went to Malaysia, then called Malaya. She earned a master’s degree in laboratory science, and ran a lab in Norfolk, Virginia. She rode a motorcycle, painted and wrote. She seduced a priest at one point, but mostly slept and lived with women.
Cynthia had arrived in my life exactly when I needed her, when I was afraid I would never escape my conventional upbringing or find anything to write about. I was fascinated by her freedom, by the stories she had lived, and by the ways that her life kept intersecting with history. I didn’t understand then what I’ve begun to understand since—that living through dramatic stories usually means living through trauma, and that the chapters that qualify as “history,” like the coronavirus pandemic, are at once overwhelmingly vast and intimately specific.
* * *
If it were not this specific time in history, if she’d had anything but coronavirus, if hospitals were allowing visitations, I would have booked a flight to make it to her. The only thing that mitigated the crazed, helpless feeling of not being there to hold Cynthia’s hand was the fact that most of our communication had been out-of-body.
We wrote each other letters. For nearly thirty years, Cynthia sent me weekly or monthly missives that functioned almost like journals for her, full of news of the garden, humorous observations, memories of the war, and stories of past lovers. “Dear Mind of My Mind,” she’d begin sometimes, speaking to the closeness of our relationship and to the practice of reflection that was central to her wit and resilience.
Without being didactic, Cynthia’s letters showed me how to live. She wrote to me through my twenties, when I was living in Chicago, going to school and working. She wrote to me through my thirties, when I married, and when I left my husband for a musician and moved to Kauai. She wrote when I got unexpectedly pregnant on that island. She wrote when my partner was diagnosed with ALS, and I realized that I would somehow have to support our family financially while caring for him as he gradually grew more paralyzed and died. After we learned his diagnosis, she wrote:
You must drop the dream, roll up your sleeves, tuck your hair behind your ears, thin your lips, pull your gaze away from the horizon and focus on the unexploded bomb in the garden. This is how war is. And this is how survival is.
And a postscript:
This was a different kind of letter for me to write you. But I felt I had to. I have had more brutal choices presented to me than I thought I could bear. I BORE. Was I stronger for the experiences? No, never. Just braver, less naïve. There really is a dark side of the moon. There are also sunrises, birdsong, stained glass, hot dogs on the grill… .
Living, Cynthia understood, didn’t only mean forging ahead with exuberance. It also meant loving fully, making impossible decisions, and living on after losing the people we cannot imagine living without. At the same time, it meant taking ownership of your life as a space of perception, pleasure, and meaning. It meant delighting in your specific memories and singular days. In one letter, Cynthia recalled the bombings of London alongside a scene with her mother:
I can still smell the cloth as I stood beside her treadle sewing machine. We had a basement flat in Kensington, and in winter the light was low early in the evening. I had a block of plasticine—four sticks in primary colors. Mama let me roll out my creations on the right side of the machine table. I would idly roll balls, and I remember thinking that I could roll one so big that it would go on forever until it was too big to be imagined. I told my mother, and she said, “Of course. That’s called infinity. It’s the forever place.”
Rereading her letters is to sense the forever self, the historical self, and the sensory self mingling on the page. They remind me that just noticing these moments of heightened connection can be a stay against the relentless passage of time, and against the onslaughts of fear, information, productivity metrics, and surveillance that alienate us from our own lives. In her letters, Cynthia would often interrupt her memories with descriptions of the present moment:
God, I wish you could smell the beef, carrots, oils and the hair of wine, snips of thyme and parsley. Bubble and toil, no troubles. It is thickening from flour dredging and trying to lure the potatoes in. I can think of nothing more satisfying than writing while one cooks.
These details weren’t fillers. They were her life. In sharing her life with me, she was tenderizing us both to what a life can mean. Survival, she kept showing me, is intimately related to creativity, to reflecting on what you’re living, and articulating your particular insights, griefs, and delights. This reflective writing made the inner life real and the self more individuated, while acknowledging that we are always shaped by other people, and by the times outside.
I think of what Cynthia survived: World War II, the orphanage, the tragedy of her parents’ brilliance, addictions, and deaths, as well as her marginalization as a queer person who was ahead of her time. She lived through several historical epochs with utter élan, and she went out on another one called coronavirus. She would not be able to describe this one to me. But it occurred to me that she had shown me something about living, and now dying, consciously.
* * *
I stayed up all that night rereading Cynthia’s letters as a way of sitting vigil. I shivered all over with a kindred coldness, my shirt soaked with tears. The sun rose, and although it was mid-April, I saw that snow had fallen during the night, blanketing everything in white. It was just the kind of unlikelihood that Cynthia would appreciate. I would have begun a letter with it. I would have told her about the skeletal shapes of the trees and the pink magnolia blossoms bowing under snow like sodden cotton.
* * *
Cynthia Erskine died on April 22 of complications from coronavirus.
Rachel Jamison Webster is a Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern University, a 2019-20 Kaplan Fellow in the Humanities and author of four books of poetry.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.