My Aunt Who Changed Her Name by Cecilia Donohoe

*with Featured Artwork: “Childless Madonna” by Fierce Sonia

In my first memory of her, Peggy is tickling me. I see her face hovering above me: deep-set blue eyes and a wide smile. She pokes me in the belly three times with a long slender finger.

Deet deet deet! she says. Her pokes are delicate, like the imprint of an insect’s legs on a leaf. I hardly feel her touch, yet scream in delight and terror. She is my aunt — my godmother too — and has held me before, perhaps tickled me before, but it is this moment that is sealed in my consciousness.


I am eight. Christmas dinner is over and the three sisters — Peggy, my mother, Kathleen, and their oldest sister Philomena — linger over dessert, telling what I think of as their out-in-the-fields stories from their childhood in County Mayo, Ireland. The time they threw pebbles on the corrugated tin roof of Eddie Kennedy’s milking parlor to spook the cows, the time they tied a balloon to the pig’s tail and it leaped around like a mad thing, the time they threw buckets of water at Tony Dunleavy’s window, then dashed into the house and warned him there was a terrible rainstorm. The time when poor Tony was staying with them because he was dying, and Peggy climbed into a trunk and moaned, “Tony! Tooonnnny! There’s a ghoossst in the hoouuse!”

The badder they’d been, the harder Peggy laughs. She lets out surprised-sounding yelps and doubles over, clutching the edge of the table for support. She shrieks and snorts. No other adult I know laughs with such whole-bodied abandon.

God, we were wild! she says when she can speak again. Weren’t we awful?


I am in fourth grade. I’ve come to Peggy and her husband Alan’s for a sleepover. They live in Manhattan, on West End Avenue. Peggy has a city job and wears sophisticated clothing and chunky gold jewelry. The one-bedroom apartment is decorated with the brightly colored paintings, masks, and quilts that she makes herself. Alan is not home and they don’t own a television and we don’t know what to do with ourselves.

Why don’t we make you a skirt? Peggy asks. We’ll run it up on the sewing machine.

She brings out a length of pale blue material and wraps it around my waist to see how much we’ll need. God, you’re tiny! she says, and laughs.

We sit next to each other at the table and she helps me push the material through the gobbling mouth of the sewing machine. Waistband, hem, seam: three times we run it through. When I glance up at Peggy’s face, her dark brows are drawn together in concentration, which means that she wants the skirt to turn out well, which means she wants me to be happy, which means she loves me.


I am 10. Peggy can’t come for Easter, my mother says.


She’s very upset. She and Alan are getting a divorce.

Upset? I repeat, confused. I have only ever seen her happy and playful.

Yes, my mother says. She’s sick in bed, crying.

When I’m older, mom tells me that Alan had become controlling, calling Peggy at work multiple times a day, following her.


I’m about to turn 12. Peggy and I are driving to my aunt Philomena’s summer house in Cape Cod. She is silent for much of the drive. I watch her pale, long-boned hands on the steering wheel, on the gear shift. We stop at a gas station rest stop and she buys me a sandwich. We sit across from each other at a small table.

Is your sandwich good? she asks.

Yes, I lie. She sips her coffee and gazes past me. Her mouth, usually so mobile, goes still, and her alert blue eyes turn blank, unseeing. I am filled with the uncomfortable awareness that her thoughts do not involve me.


It is the summer before I leave for college. Peggy is telling me about a man she met.

He says I’m a natural healer! I’m going to visit Sedona, this fantastic place in Arizona, she says. It’s a great center for energy, for healing.

Within weeks or months, she holds a sale of her belongings in the hallway of her apartment on West End Avenue and moves to Sedona.


My mother reads aloud a letter from Peggy. She’s been making dreamcatchers and joined a drumming circle. She took a hike in the rocky landscape of Sedona, where she had a revelation.

From Spirit, she says.

My true name is Sarafina Raphael! she writes. That is the name I will now answer to.

To my friends, I tell the story as a joke. If Sarafina comes up in conversation, she — who bought me a beautiful pink tutu when I was nine and gave me beads and clasps to make my own jewelry when I was 14 and took me to Birdland to hear jazz when I was 19 —  is now cast as an eccentric. She is my crazy aunt, the one who changed her name.


Peggy’s new name and lifestyle elicit revelations within the family.

We used to find her lying on the ground, staring, my mother says. She’d bless herself over and over.

She was sent to a psychiatric hospital when she was 14 years old, Philomena says. They brought her back to the house for my going-away party when I left for America. So the neighbors wouldn’t know.

Why was she in the hospital?

She took blue stone.

What’s that?

A pesticide.


To end her life.


It’s 2003. I’m divorced with two young children. I write to Sarafina and ask her to send me one of her paintings to brighten the wall of my apartment, and that I will pay for it. She had to leave Sedona because she couldn’t afford the rent and now lives in the less-desirable Cottonwood. I ask my mother what she does for money.

She gets disability for her bad back. Or for being bipolar. I’m not sure which.

Bipolar? She was diagnosed?

Oh, I don’t know. Once she told me our dead mother appeared to her and flew around her bedroom ceiling. Utter nonsense. I don’t know what she has.

Sarafina sends me a long-petaled flower rendered in slashing brushstrokes of bright red and yellow. Thank you for liking my art and trusting me to send you a piece, her note reads. I haven’t been ready to part with it until now…I call it my Monet…I am a bit tired of what I’ve been doing and am looking forward to expressing my art in new ways.


Five years pass. Sarafina no longer flies from Arizona for Christmas. She finds air travel confusing and stressful. Phil has been getting phone calls from Sarafina’s friends. She’s become forgetful. Once she was housesitting and locked herself out of the house and was found wandering outside, distraught. The burden of caring for her has become too much for her friends. She will have to leave the place where she has been so happy and move back to New York. She is only 60.


It is 2010. My parents bring Sarafina to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. She and her cat

Tooperina live with my parents now, and it is causing strain.

She embraces my eight-year-old son from behind and leans down to his ear.

Do you have tickles? I bet you do.

He squirms uncomfortably as she pokes his stomach. Ten minutes later she does it again, and he looks at me for help. I take him aside and explain that Sarafina has a kind of sickness where she doesn’t remember things. She doesn’t remember tickling him the first time.

Around this time, Sarafina gives me a typed manuscript of a book she’d been writing for years. It’s called Shakins ‘O the Bag. A yellow sticky note is attached. Here are some stories I wrote. Maybe you will have some use for them.

I skim the pages, looking for revelations about taking the blue stone and her year in the psychiatric hospital, for she has never spoken of them to me, and the time when I could have asked her about it is now past. The answers aren’t in the manuscript, but I learn other things.

Young Peggy experiences compulsive behaviors (crossing herself again and again, avoiding cracks in the sidewalk) and is often conflicted and unhappy. She resents her mother, Mam, for not understanding her and yearns for her affection. She helps deliver a young calf; watches her father, Daddy, slaughter a hog; covets a skipping rope with pink handles; waits for her sisters to walk up the road from school; rides a bike that’s too big for her past a barn where a man committed suicide. She cuts turf with her father and sisters and visits an aunt, a nun who’s been cloistered in Kylemore Abbey for 40 years. There’s a list of the sayings she grew up with:

I’ll gee you a puck in the mouth. It’s hard to kill a bad thing. Hair like the cats were sucking it.

Silence in the courthouse, the cat is having pishings. Thick as a double ditch.


October 2011. Sarafina and I are chatting on the flagstones outside my front door. She wears bright red pants and a red shirt with a long Aran sweater coat over them. Her hair is slightly greasy. Alzheimer’s is entrenched now and conversations must be negotiated carefully. She masks any difficulty in her comprehension by keeping her answers good-natured and vague:

That’s always the way, isn’t it? Yes, I think so too! Isn’t that funny?

I adhere to safe topics like Tooperina and the people she knew in Ireland long ago. She remembers them the best. I tease her about an old boyfriend and she enjoys this. She shakes her head at memories of her young self, at the pair of them. She and Tommy had been engaged at one time, but that all ended when she moved to America.

My mother says that at home, away from people, Sarafina becomes despondent. She often says, I wish I was dead.

Then my mother tells me something else.

Sarafina once told me she was raped as a child.

Raped? By who? What did you say to her?

I said she was jumping on the bandwagon, my mother says. You know, all the stories were in the news. About the Catholic Church and priests.

So it was a priest who did it? Did you know him? Was he respected in town?

I knew him. He was…an outcast.

That’s not a bandwagon anyone would want to jump on. Why didn’t you believe her when she told you? Or at least talk about it more?

I don’t know, my mother says, looking troubled. I remind myself that she was raised in the same stunted home as Sarafina.


A year passes, then two. Sarafina attends a day program at the Y, where they are good to her. When they have a party, she dances to the music. She often wanders my parents’ neighborhood, gets lost, and is returned by good Samaritans or the EMS. Eventually, she has a bad fall and is taken to the hospital.

When I arrive at her hospital room, Sarafina is lying on her side, thin white arms folded to her chest. She stares sightlessly ahead. Her expression is blank, yet conveys such absolute desolation that her thoughts seem written in the air. She knows that her mind is fading, that she is not the person she was, that things will only grow worse. She is thinking that she would rather be dead.

I learn back from the doorway for a moment and turn my head away, then step back into the room.

Hi Sarafina! I say, and lean down to kiss her.

She is slow to respond, then rearranges herself in the bed. Hello, she finally says.

I tell her my name. I’m your niece.

She lets out an irritated huff. I know that.

Here, I brought you a book I thought you’d like. Annie Leibowitz. You like her, don’t you? Here’s John and Yoko in bed. Remember them?

Sarafina bends over the book and stares at the black and white picture of two figures, one clothed, one naked.

Oh my. That’s nice.

Together, we bend over the book. Her depth perception is poor, so I help her turn the pages. Sarafina traces the images with her long index finger. She once complained to my mother that no one ever touches her, so I rub her back with my hand. Always spare, she has grown reedthin. Under her hospital gown, I can feel the outline of her ribs, her vertebrae. When I leave, she is still gazing at the book in her lap.


By 2013, Sarafina is living in a nursing home. Younger and more able-bodied than the other dementia patients on her floor, she walks the floors at night. I imagine her striding through the empty corridors, quiet as a wraith. Sometimes when the aides try to bathe her, she becomes frightened and runs naked down the hallway.


September 2015. Sarafina falls while walking the halls of the nursing home in the middle of the night, breaking her hip. Within days of her surgery, she has pneumonia, then MRSA.

When I get to the hospital, my parents and Phil are already there. Sarafina lies on the hospital bed, sedated, breathing through an oxygen mask. Her chest rises and falls effortfully.

Her eyes, always so deep-set, have sunken deeper into her skull. Her skin is smooth and unwrinkled. I take her hand but she winces as if my touch causes pain, and I quickly release it.

My mother tells us that when Sarafina woke up after her surgery, she and my father were standing by the bed. Sarafina looked at them, eyes clear and lucid, and spoke.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Later that afternoon, Sarafina regains consciousness, or something close to it. She moans in distress and pushes her upper body off the pillows, then raises her arm and begins striking her thigh rhythmically. She opens her eyes momentarily, a flash of blue, before closing them again. I take her hand, and she curls her fingers around mine in a strong grip, continuing to beat her thigh with the other hand.

Sarafina, my mother says. Phil strokes her forehead, which still glistens with oil from where a priest anointed her.

I visit two days later, but Sarafina’s condition has worsened. When I take her hand, it lies slack in my grasp. She dies that night.


Sometimes when I’m alone, driving to work or walking the dog, I talk to her. I tell her that I’m sorry that I never visited her in Arizona, sorry that I laughed at her life there, and that I dismissed her choices, rather than wondering why she made them. I tell her that I wish she’d gotten the love she sought as a child, instead of rape at 4 and electroshock at 14. But most of the time, the only words I can summon for the aunt I knew and remember —  leaning intently over the sewing machine, painting her Monet, snorting with laughter — are Sarafina’s last: I love you. I love you.

I love you.

Cuckoo Flying

I fled the kitchen and off behind the garden. I knew my secret hiding place was waiting for me. I gave a quick look around before I entered, making sure no one saw me. And then I entered. t-Ir na n-Og.

With my hands, I carefully pushed aside the briars (BRIAR AVENUE); next came a layer of thistles; then the nettles and finally the buholans. They all snapped back behind me, swallowing me into their thorney, stringey, colorful hole. I was safe now. No one could touch me. The earth was black here, not the usual brownish. And I knew this was specially for me. It was different, like me. They didn’t care about anything in here. Everything was happy to see me. We had a secret conspiracy going on amongst us. And only we knew or would ever know. I pulled out my sitting stone, cleaning off the dirt, before sitting on it. It was cold. And I liked that. It cooled me off. And soon, with the bootrys covering my sky, the dirt under me, and all my stinging, thorney friends, this was a good world for me. I began to breathe slowly, and then rolled off my stone onto the dirt, my face shining up at the trees; and breathing in the shining sun way way off; but close too. It shimmered on and between the leaves; shimmering, playfully–I’m gonna get you — as it twinkled in and out through the trees. I rolled over on my stomach, crossing my arms and resting my head on them. It got quiet. I could hear the cuckoo high up, and far away. 

Peggy Egan/Sarafina Raphael



Cecilia Donohoe has spent the past 20 years as a writer and editor for higher education. The mother of two grown children, she draws inspiration for her personal writing from her Bronx childhood, her Irish-American family, experiences living abroad, conversations with strangers, and the natural world. She earned an MFA in memoir from Hunter College, and her writing has been published in Vine Leaves Press and Irish America. She lives in New York State and is working on a memoir.

Fierce Sonia is a mixed media artist. She builds a substrate with acrylic paint and collage. A narrative is constructed by the tension between the lush layers moving to dreamy feminine  mindscapes with a brighter palette. If you listen closely her work has a soundtrack, a rhythm, a pulse that will give you a magic carpet ride to a fairytale that restates your own heartbeat. She has a public studio at Torpedo Factory: 105 North Union Street, studio 5 Alexandria, VA 22303

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