I seem to be in a real wallow of nostalgia at the moment, as the last few posts demonstrate. Never mind, it was part of the reason I started this blog anyway, to note down some memories before I lost the will to tell them or the means to share them. Nowadays I am assuming the old folks’ home will have Internet access as standard, but who knows?
The other day I wrote about my memories of Auntie Brown and so unsurprisingly she has been uppermost in my thoughts. She kept on writing to my mother for years after she moved to the Land of the Long White Cloud. She was certainly still writing after my mother moved up north to be near us, back in 2000, and must have been well into her eighties. At some point she may have died, but I don’t know because my mother will not have remembered to tell me (if she knew, but I think the family would have been in touch). My mother was already getting more forgetful than I realised, even in those days.
I felt a bit sad about that and thought about my other aunties. What you need to know at this point is that the term “auntie” is more an honorific than a genealogical title. These women were simply my mother’s friends and neighbours. There were associated uncles but in some cases I don’t think I even knew their names. They did not feature in my young life because they were out winning bread, while we women and children lived in a separate, parallel world.
Auntie Brown was also called by her first name sometimes, Auntie May. However, the woman on the other side of our house was never an auntie. She was a Missus: the subtle clue that we did not get on. She was often very nice but liked to show off all the time, and as we were not very well off it was usually at our expense. On the rare occasion we were allowed into her house, she would literally be plumping up the cushions in the sofa as soon as we stood to leave. It was unnerving.
The next few paragraphs are probably for the girls. Chaps, you may wish to skip them. They involve lady stuff. It’s entirely up to you. To skip, look for **.
One time my mother and I went to see her because they had just had a new boiler installed to provide central heating. This was pretty uncommon, although we did have a coal-fired boiler in our house which had been a major bonus in the winter of 1962 but was pretty inadequate to the task of heating radiators. Nevertheless there was always hot water. Anyway, Mrs Next-Door proudly showed off the clean new boiler, all white and shiny and not coal-dusty at all.
“So how do you burn rubbish?” I asked, in my innocent child fashion.
By rubbish I was not really sure what I meant but I knew we did sometimes burn additional items on the boiler. We had no open fires in the house, so it was a handy means of waste disposal. What I didn’t understand, although later I learned and was very pleased, was that mostly the rubbish consisted of sanitary items. Let me tell you, girlfriends, when I went to university I had no idea how to dispose of such items as there was no incinerator in the residence. I soon got over the rather quaint prejudice the teachers at school had instilled about ladies not using tampons. Honestly, when I left home it was like I moved centuries as well as geographies!
Mrs Next-Door cottoned on to what I was talking about and she and my mother went red. I soon got a nice drink of orange squash and a biscuit to shut me up. So she wasn’t all bad.
** Welcome back fellas. You only missed some menstruation chat.
Realising that I have probably missed Auntie Brown’s demise, I quickly catalogued the other key aunties to make sure I knew their current status. This brought about the realisation that I was blessed with aunties even though my actual family was pretty small. I also realised that mostly they are now dead.
Auntie Peggy was a marvellous, hearty woman who always complained about her health, I learned the word “hypochondriac” before I was 10. It eventually turned out she was an undiagnosed coeliac. She died of cancer. She was bright and beautiful and always talked to me like I was a human being. She didn’t have children but she had a real niece she doted on and she spoiled me too. She had a huge laugh and dressed like a film star, usually in cherry reds or something bold. She spent her life helping other people, caring for elderly neighbours, growing and giving away vegetables on an allotment, volunteering with an old folks’ day centre. She was always honest and cheerful, even when the cancer was over-whelming her.
Auntie Sheila is living in the West Country now; we wrote to each other at Christmas. She and my mother met in maternity hospital and she had a son my age, and later a daughter. I loved playing with one or the other of them but as they always fought I couldn’t play with both at once. She was a kind, intelligent, creative woman who did the flower arrangements for my wedding. I spent a lot of time at her house in the holidays, although sometimes we had to be very quiet because Uncle Ian (there was an uncle here, and he was great to me but strict with his kids) was asleep after night shift as a policeman.
Auntie Marjorie was like a person from an old novel, like in an Agatha Christie story, a real lady in the old-fashioned, quiet English way (only not murdered or murdering of course). There was Uncle Malcolm too but I didn’t see very much of him, although he had a cute little white moustache and dressed like a proper gent. I don’t think he was, it was just their era, and everything was smart and tidy and lovely. The house was chintzy and had very thick carpets and heavy oak doors. She taught me how to make toad in the hole. After the first Offspring was born we went to visit, and I was shocked to discover Auntie Marjorie had had two sons; they both contracted measles and died when they were 5 and 3, the elder catching it at school and infecting the younger.
Auntie Betty, I fear, was an exception in the pantheon of Good Aunts. Whenever someone uses the word “waspish” I think of her. She lived on her own with her cats for company. The cats scratched, inevitably. One was Siamese. When she came to our house she was incredibly nosy; she went into my bedroom and looked in the drawers and rearranged things. I was livid, of course, and even my mother ticked her off. Dad and I would hide when she was coming, and one weekend I went to stay over at a friend’s to avoid her. We spent the morning making each other up with glitter and stars and all kinds of glam rock goodness. Then I realised I had forgotten something and had to pop home to pick it up. Auntie Betty nearly fell off her chair and shrieked when she saw me, and my parents nearly died laughing at her. The poor old dear, she was sad and lonely, but she didn’t help herself. My mother eventually didn’t let her know her new address because she couldn’t stand the complaining. I’m sad Auntie Betty ended up that way really.
Big Auntie Kath was another loud, funny, extrovert auntie, like Auntie Peggy. She also died of cancer, and it’s hard to tell you more about her because she was a force of nature, and how do you describe that? She was lively and happy and kind and boomed into the house when visiting. She did exciting things like going abroad for holiday or colouring her hair.
Little Auntie Cath was a school teacher and the sister of my mother’s best friend, after whom I am named. She used to test me on spellings and times tables, but she also took us to the zoo and the seaside in her terrifying jumpy mini. “I put a kangaroo in the tank!” she would yell cheerfully as we lurched along the road and my mother sat in the front seat white-faced and gripping her handbag in terror. I thought it was hilarious, of course.
Having two auntie K/Caths was educational in its own right. I learned two different spellings, which was one way to tell them apart. Fortunately they were also physically inches apart in height, hence the nicknames.
There were also all the aunties who were the mothers of my friends: Auntie Meg, who used to tell my friend to behave more like me but let us watch Pogle’s Wood, which my mother thought was too scary; Auntie Hazel, who took me to church to save my soul and wouldn’t let us ride bikes on Sunday, but also took me out all the time and gave me tea and meant well; Auntie Grace, who gave me pocket money to buy sweets and let us ride tea trays down the stairs for fun.
There were very few men involved in our children’s world. Reading Kozo’s post the other day also reminded me that my aunties were wonderful, for the most part, but that I missed out on uncles along the way. Perhaps they too missed out on us.
So here’s to uncles Dick, John, Bill, Ian, Malcolm, Pat and the rest: thanks for the go-carts and kites and lifts to and from parties. Thanks for the bread you won, the days out we shared, the fireworks and bonfires and the footballs and punctures repaired. You were an important part of our lives, but we didn’t see it clearly enough then.