I DREAM OF AUNT JEANNIE
by Ronnie Sirmans
Anthony Nelson, retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former NASA
astronaut, died Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, after a brief illness. …
Interment will be at Cape Canaveral National Cemetery. …
— Florida Today, Jan. 16, 2018
Uncle Tony and Aunt Jeannie were married for close
to fifty years and lived on the Space Coast for as long
as I can remember, although they must’ve spent time
in the Houston area when he was a working astronaut.
But he’d been retired for years and I now recollect sand
and sand and sand when I think of them. The sun kissed
their skin like it does oranges, geckos, and palm fronds.
Florida seemed so magical to me when I was younger,
my parents and sisters cramming into our station wagon
for the hours-long drive down the mostly flat interstate
to visit Uncle Tony and Aunt Jeannie every summer.
“They seem too happy,” my father once remarked
to my mother about his brother-in-law and wife.
“That’s because they don’t have kids to drive them
crazy,” he added, staring at us in his rearview mirror
in a futile attempt to make us stop nagging each other.
Our only cousins were from Dad’s side of the family.
Tony, Mom’s only sibling, and Jeannie always doted
on us since they never had any children of their own.
“Some things cannot be wished,” Aunt Jeannie said
once to my mother when I was covertly listening;
I sensed there was a secret inside a secret somehow.
“She’s making herself older for me,” Uncle Tony told
my dad offhandedly when I was about ten and sneaking
in on their conversations. I didn’t know what he meant.
Even all these years later, I don’t understand what he
was trying to relay to my dad in secrets husbands had.
Now my siblings and I have returned in our own vehicles
to Florida for Uncle Tony’s funeral, and it’s still summer
even in January, we remark to each other as if this state
were some make-believe place we’d forgotten to visit.
Before his funeral, I had a dream about Aunt Jeannie
from when I was a boy and she was asking me again
what I wanted for Christmas. She always delivered.
In my dream she began speaking in a foreign language,
and I awoke to find my hotel TV showing the Mideast
and tanned people laughing and talking amid large dunes.
In my boyhood vision of marriage, I would have gladly
stolen her away from my Uncle Tony and forged a life.
As people talked about his flying into the outer reaches,
I regret now that I never asked Uncle Tony more about
his missions and unimaginable wonders he surely saw.
At some much younger age, I had to have wondered
what adventure brought him and Aunt Jeannie together.
At family reunions, she became the center of attention
along with the astronaut. But, like trips to the moon,
reunions eventually came to end, an earthbound distance
somehow too great. While she held the tightly folded flag,
only stars showing, we hugged a long time at the gravesite.
“Come by the house one more time,” she told me as if
she knew it could also be the last time. My recent dream
came back to my mind as she turned, sun glinting so
her graying hair shimmered back to blinding blondeness.
After everybody left, widow’s food still piled so high,
we sat for a while in her living room and she asked me
about how my life has been. Oh, when she smiled, oh,
I was that little boy awaiting her Christmas gifts again.
I noticed what I supposed could be an urn, but like when
I eavesdropped on adult conversations long ago, I stayed
silent about it but figured it was too small to properly
contain anyone. The colorful design might belie its use.
Perhaps it was an antique decanter, like a special bottle
that Aunt Jeannie had found for drinking a toast each night
to the way things used to be. “You take care of yourself,”
she said with a hug. When the door closed, I realized
we hadn’t exchanged phone numbers like we’d wished,
so I popped my head back in. She was gone. I whispered
her name and like a mirage she was there, she was young.
She blinked as if holding back tears, but her eyes were
as dry as a simoom, a word that I knew must have come
from my dream like some Arabian tale I had forgotten.
Ronnie Sirmans is an Atlanta Journal-Constitution digital editor whose poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Tar River Poetry, Plainsongs, The American Journal of Poetry and elsewhere. His work has appeared previously in Deep South Magazine during National Poetry Month. You can read his work here.