Still dancing but to a different song

As a child, I just thought of them as my father’s sisters – two in the line of nine siblings. Not quite individuals in their own right but more pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the full picture of which gave me a better idea of my father and the home he grew up in.

In my 8-year old brain, the two were defined by their job, their quirks and the way they chose to discipline me and my sister.

One aunt was the florist. Snipping away at flowers, tugging a stalk here and pushing a stem there, spray painting gold onto a green leaf, tucking a cluster of baby’s breath into a bald corner of the arrangement. And she always smelled of floral perfume. Somehow I knew – possibly from my childhood habit of eavesdropping – that it had to do with her strong sense of smell and how she hated the stench of our more human odours.

The second aunt was a legal secretary. Her fingers were gnarled from using a typewriter most of her life, and her face disfigured from contracting Bell’s Palsy in her twenties. She was the more disciplinarian of the two: scolding, raising her voice, adding a gruffness to her speech when she would not tolerate any back answers. My sister and I steered clear of her when we had broken a rule.

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That was more than 30 years ago when we were all living in M******.

The two sisters live together now. Not in a spacious Tudor style bungalow in the coastal city of an East African country, but on the 8th floor of an E******* condo that overlooks the S*********** River. They are both in their late 70s. The florist still runs a flower shop, and every Friday, she brings home a bucket of uncut flowers. She changes her clothes and arranges the flowers into a vase, placing them centre stage in the living room. And for 20 minutes after, she pets and prunes the other house plants dotted around the small apartment.

And the legal secretary? She retired 8 years ago, after her speech patterns and facial features deteriorated so much that she couldn’t have a phone conversation anymore – her speech too garbled for anyone to understand. She runs the house for both of them. Now, her raised  voice is merely a rough whisper. And her faux anger prompts a laugh from me rather than a shamed whimper. Gone is the disciplinarian of 30 years ago.

Over time, the two sisters have mellowed and learnt steps to a new dance. But they’re still dancing.

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