ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Aunt Louise," a poem by Sarah White and a painting by her mother,  Martha Hawley Melhado



Painting of Aunt Louisa, by Sarah White


Friends come to see my paintings. 
They smile, and say I like this on
or thatThis one or that is nice. When 
they see the portrait in the hall, 
I have to explain: ‘That one’s not 
mine, not mine at all.  I wasn’t 
born when it was done by my 
mother, Martha, at age 24. It’s 
a portrait of her cousin Louise.’ 
I didn’t know your mother was 
a painter. She wasn’t.  But she 
was at age 24. 

Louise was Martha’s beloved 
cousin, and her sister-in-law 
as well—married to the brother 
of Martha’s fiancé, Edmund.  
Aunt Louise (I know she did this,
though I don’t know why) 
saw fit to tell Eddie something 
useful, if disturbing, about Martha’s 
art: When she painted, said Louise, 
she was aware of nothing else 
but how to render soft brown 
eyes, how to show a fold of beige 
chiffon, and make the petals 
of a pink bouquet fall down
along the skirt amid silk ribbons. 

Could a woman in this strange 
state of mind attend to her own
wedding clothes, or to a husband’s
job concerns? Could she decide, 
after they were wed, who would 
do the garden chores, or whether 
they should breakfast in an alcove 
or a nook? 

Martha’s mind, said Louise, 
would not be whole were she 
possessed by a yen to paint 
her own Joconde, or Olympia, 
or Aphrodite. The right concern 
for her was having Eddie’s 
boss and wife to dinner often, 
and to serve them dishes they 
had not been served before.

Of course I cannot know 
exactly what she said. I do 
know I never saw my mother 
with a brush, a piece of charcoal 
or a palette  in her hand. She did 
not own an easel. Nor  ever speak
about a time when the Art Spirit 
sustained her. Aunt Louise in oil, 
when complete, was carted 
to the attic and swathed in coarse 
brown paper. She stayed that way, 
clandestine, my whole life, to be given, 
in time, to Mom’s friend, Jane, 
a Dealer with a little village gallery. 
She sold the piece to a painter, 
who, when I said I had
no trace of my mother’s work, gave  
the painted Aunt to me. The other 
Aunt died long ago­ from stroke  
and whisky sours. She’d be 122 today. 

The best Louise lives in my hall, 
with a fine view of everything I do.


In the years since retiring from college French teaching, Sarah White has devoted herself to painting, poetry, and memoir. Dos Madres published The Unknowing Muse in 2014. It was succeeded in 2015 by Wars Don’t Happen Anymore from Deerbrook Editions. The lyric memoir, The Poem Has Reasons: a story of far love was published by Dos Madres Press in 2022. (reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg.) She lives in a retirement community in Western Massachusetts.

Return to Offcourse Index.