by Nonnie Augustine


by Nonnie Augustine

After my mother died, I met Aunt Shirley.

I found her in dozens of snapshots piled in falling 

apart cardboard boxes we hauled down from the attic. 

Small girls, with huge bows bobby-pinned 

right on top of their heads, play with three 

little brothers on Staten Island sidewalks. 

Faces solemn, they pose in First Communion 

veils in front of Sacred Heart Church. I once 

wore white lace gloves like theirs to Mass.

Teenagers during the Great Depression,

they wear their dark hair in the same page-boy style, 

dress to show off their tiny waists, smile in every picture.

(Did they help each other sew those outfits? How lovely they were!)

In my parents' wedding pictures, Mom wears an ivory satin gown.

Her train curls all the way down the church steps. Shirley,

Maid of Honor, wears a knee length dress. (I wish I could see

the color.) My father's in his Army uniform. It was July, 1942.

Shirley laughs with a sailor she dated, and there's a photo

of her with Joe Louis, the fighter! (Dad told me they'd been friends.)

I found a studio portrait taken of my aunt after the war, 

but then she disappears from the boxes.

My Aunt Shirley, who had a good job in Manhattan, 

who had her own apartment off Washington Square,

who was in love with her best friend's fiancé,

slept with him and became pregnant, 

who was the most devout Catholic of the bunch of them,

slit her throat with Grandpop's razor in the white tile bathroom 

of my grandparents' old house on Castleton Avenue. 

A man, a neighbor, broke open the door, and so Nana found her. 

Blood, screams and whispers, then a priest who refused 

to say Mass at her funeral or bury her in a consecrated grave. 

And maybe my mother wanted to die too, but she was a wife 

who had children to raise, and a house in New Jersey to keep.


Dad didn't tell my brothers and me the truth about Shirley's death

until we almost grown. My mother never talked 

about her sister even to me, her only daughter.  

Not until I searched through those old photos did I see how close, how alike 

they'd been back then—smiles unguarded, brown eyes kind.

After Mom died, I met Aunt Shirley.