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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 3, September 2014


Anne Benjamin
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Sister Isabella

Sister Isabella is my husband’s father’s youngest sister. Whenever I visit India, I try to visit her in her convent in Puducherry, the former French territory a few hundred kilometres south of Chennai.

Sister Isabella welcomes me from deep within dark eyes, just as she has each time since we first met, nearly thirty years ago. A tiny woman, she looks up at me and holds my hand. On this hot South Indian day, she wears a brown woollen scarf around her neck. She is eager to hear family news: as usual, she knows far more than my husband and I. She smiles and asks us if we are happy, checks our religious observance, worries about a grandnephew who has not married, about my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, my husband’s health. I watch her, a woman over ninety, take control of a conversation that jumps across three languages.

friends once gave me
fine champagne glasses
as a farewell gift—
the crystal sings
when I rub the rim

Sister Isabella’s home is a hospice for elderly destitute: the concrete cloisters gleam amid a series of courtyard gardens. Between hibiscus, roses, crotons, mango trees and coconuts, dirt paths are swept smooth.

aged laughter
from three stooped women
fills the cloisters
in the Hospice garden
trees bow down with ripened fruit

Sister Isabella fusses around, serving us cabbage, fish and rice. Then, when we are finished, she covers the food, turns off the fan, switches off the light and closes the door.

at dawn
a brown speckled sparrow chirps
always busy
her body pulses
with her beating heart

My family and I arrive, unannounced from Sydney. Aunty is ninety-six and hospitalised. Our three children tower over the tiny bundle lying on her iron cot. She has not seen them since they were small. Her eyes light up and she calls me by name; then, each of the children, one by one. She laughs and recalls how our son as a twelve year old pedalled the Mother Superior in a rickshaw round the hospice garden. As we leave her in her hospital ward that day, I am unbearably sad.

Now, a few months later, I learn that Sister Isabella has died. I mourn even as I smile with her joy.

for a while
we kept two finches—
in the morning
surprised by sadness
before an empty cage

Editor's Note: The tanka, “aged laughter,” was previously pubished in 100 Tanka by 100 Poets of Australia & New Zealand: One Poem Each, Ed B. George, A. Fielden, P. Prime 2013.



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