by Leah Vahjen

– For the family I love, all of whom still buzz around in my mind as we did around 353 Columbus Avenue: Lindsay, Timmy, Tracy, Ian, Graham, Tara, Sean, Thomas, Luke, Jesse, Shane, & Kyle


I. Uncle Timmy

Queen Pauline’s vibrato buzzes about long, glass honeycombs

filled with ginger snaps and marshmallows.

The screened door slaps shut at my back.

Wedged beside the Radarange,

last to be smothered in the long greeting line,

I am tight-eyed and trying to hide

when my Uncle Timmy flips me

round asking, How’d you get so pretty?

I wonder what he would ask me,

what all those expectant eyes would hope to see

if they were still looking at me.


II. Uncle Tommy

Aunt Kris is not to be found;

she’s in their big white split-level

in Caramel, with another man.

UT wears a black turtle neck.

His eyelids flutter while he says hello.

One of his teeth looks whiter

than the rest, and his crowded smile

overwhelms me as we lean

in for a hug.  He bends back, hands

clasped as if he hopes

he is not in the way.

I don’t mind if he takes up space.


III. Aunt Barbara

sits at the circular Hitchcock dining table placed

square beneath the pendant light’s stained-glass canopy.

The same, red, woven sweater.

She gives me a bump-cheek kiss,

and I wonder how her face

is so flushed but not warm.  She picks

from plates of fruit, Clubs and Cabarets,

muenster wedges.  Her voice rings

around the hanging copper molds—

a lobster; a fish; a bushel of grapes

in which I now see my own face,

as I strain to recall the sound of my family.


IV. Aunt Colleen

I wonder if the tremors

began to build in her body

while she sat among the lace throws

of the living room; quiet, kind-eyed.

Dark pixie hair and a long, gentle witch’s nose.

The same laugh lines as my mother’s

made me want to hug her,

and I should have always taken the chance.


V. Uncle Peter

In a congested family room that was once a foyer,

clocks dance and many mirrors reflect his long dimples,

hugging roseate cheeks—an unmistakable Santa Claus;

it is truly Christmas when he smiles.  He stands,

always a beverage in his hands,

watches a Mets game with Al

on a brown-paneled TV

that nearly blocks the long-unused front door.

I do not know how much time he spent

among all those antiques and patterned wallpapers,

or whether he even liked 353,

but I know I felt at home there, each time he spoke to me.


VI. Aunt Jeri Lee

Somewhere in her house down the double-drive,

Jeri Lee is laughing.  Ice tinkles around her glass

of Dewar’s and ginger ale.

Her feet, like matchboxes in thin black socks

and plush black clogs, raise from the floor

while her mauve La-Z-Boy rocks back

beneath her weight, and her eyes crest closed

behind petri dish glasses.

I almost wish I did not see her that one last time,

sitting pallid and out of her mind in a wheelchair

just weeks from dying—just days after our Queen died.


VII. Aunts Donna and Carol, Uncles Ken and Bob, Cousins Chris and Lisa

Their faces are familiar, but they are largely names to me.

A woman whose eyes never meet mine

in the same way they must meet those of her beloved horses.

An Asian man I assume to be the reason they’ve moved from New York.

Their gentle son, Chris, many years my senior,

and the only person I know to have taken paternity leave.

Carol, a pair of short-heeled white pumps,

a red wrap-dress, and a face cream-caked like fashionable icing.

Bob the bus driver, with his exquisitely smooth olive head

and a dark, thick bend of moustache.

Lisa: body-builder, West Point grad, FBI employee.

Sometimes, child-like, I imagine her repelling into a criminal’s house,

busting in the windows, clad in combat boots and an official jacket,

and I see no relation to me –

but somehow it is enough to know they all are family.


VIII. Uncle Jim

The sliding door suckers open

to a sunporch whose floor of Peter Pan green

synthetic grass is never-ending, crunching

like grains of sand from a broken hourglass

beneath our feet.

Jim stands among my sitting uncles

with a long cigarette burning down to his knuckles.

Phlegm catches in his throat

at the punchline of his joke—the same suffocating smoke

that choked King Robert to death.

I inhale deep and exhale slow.


IX. Time

The cuckoo clock mocks its unyielding reminder:

another whole hour, gone.  Too late,

I scramble inside the hive, stockings sliding on soft,

slick linoleum.  “I didn’t see the bird,”

I coo.  Someone I love simply spins back the hand

and makes it happen again.