Aunty Helen was a perfect aunt. She never scolded or punished. She could make up bedtime stories which carried on for weeks in a comforting, never-ending saga. She believed in fairies just as I did and didn’t mind tiptoeing on a damp lawn peeking in foxgloves and snapdragons, all excellent hiding places for the wee folk. She rubbed legs aching from growing pains until the sufferer fell asleep. The smell of 4711 Eau de Cologne marked Aunty Helen’s ministrations when I was fevered with tonsillitis or exhausted from throwing up last night’s dinner. She would generously sprinkle the astringent perfume from her precious bottle into enamel basin of tepid water and bathe my sticky hands and flushed face. Wordlessly she exchanged soiled nightclothes for clean ones and tucked a clean towel over the top sheet in the case of any other mishaps. She took me to symphony concerts at the Cape Town City Hall before I was the proper age and ignored my squirming on a creaky chair. Afterwards riding on the top deck of the bus headed for her bedsitter in Green Point, we talked earnestly about how music made pictures in my head: galloping steeds, dancing girls in silk garments, crashing waterfalls and placid streams. She heard my brother and my bedtime prayers and was persuasively behind our enrolment in Sunday School at a time my parents were only occasional churchgoers. She allowed me to brush her thick brown hair, which never greyed, into exotic styles, pinning it with jewelled clips and tying it with scarves. Then she would go downstairs and eat dinner with the rest of family without altering a single outlandish strand. When I had my girls, I watched her, thinner, wirier and wrinkled, do exactly the same for them, weaving a childhood magic they have never forgotten.
Was Aunt Helen happy in her spinsterhood which, according to family legend, was the consequence of her weak heart? Why did she arrive at our doorstep for an extended stay in the 50’s wearing a pixie cap of pink flowers and a set of leather suitcases embossed with her name? Was she always so reserved and shy, sometimes hardly speaking a word to the adults and favouring the children’s company? Did she really spurn a wealthy Scotsman because she didn’t like his bald head? With the self-centeredness of childhood, I never bothered to really find out. Later when these things interested me, she had become more and more taciturn, a precursor to Alzheimer’s and her last years in an old age home watched over anxiously by my mother.