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A Tale of Two Aunties

It was the best of times, it was the best of times.

A late October weekend, I mean – a very good time indeed.

And no, I was not in Paris, nor in fact in London. As it happens, I was careering around Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and the Cotswolds in the pursuit of Aunts.

Ok, I’ve milked this rather weak misquote enough now. Especially as I propose to refer to more than two aunts anyway. Cheating, I suppose, but just too good to miss. 

My short trip was a multi-purpose adventure, including a need to get away (I know, any excuse to book a B&B – and nice this time that Mr J would be with me) but it was very much an Aunt Theme weekend. A prime objective was to visit my two aunties, and also to be an aunt, and indeed a great-aunt, myself.

What is it about aunts?

Aunt: Noun. ‘The sister of someone’s father or mother or the wife of someone’s uncle…’ (Cambridge Dictionary)

Nothing very special there, one would think. As with family more broadly, you get what you get with an aunt. The relationship could be remote or even unknown; it could be comfortingly familiar and everyday, or it could be strangely more than that. In my case, I have been very lucky.

My father and my mother had one sibling apiece – in both cases a sister. Dad’s was younger than him; Mum’s was her ‘big’ sis. Both these sisters have outlived my parents, already by some considerable years, and I try to keep in touch. Flowers on their birthdays and at Christmas, and every few months a lengthy phone call. I can witter on with my Mum’s sister Daph for hours and have been known to complete a full hour’s Richmond Park wandering plus full meal preparation whilst chatting with her on my phone. Thank goodness we no longer have to sit under the stairs with a land-line, and hurrah for unlimited minutes. 

Before we renewed our acquaintance in person with these two octogenarians, I had an auntly duty to fulfil myself: a visit to my brother’s place to meet his grandson for the first time. Shamefully, the child is already in sight of his second birthday and I had so far failed to clap eyes on him other than in the multiple Facebook and WhatsApp images that have been shared since his birth. My brother is besotted, which is rather lovely to see, and – now that I’ve got over the effrontery at making me a ‘great-aunt’ and thus desperately old – I thought I should have a vicarious share of this. 

I’m not sure I prepared properly for the encounter. A serious role model for me was a Great Aunt who lived to be 103 and was gloriously independent and strong-willed, enduringly glamorous (at least by my family’s standards), exotically well-travelled (as a children’s governess to a wealthy family, she had lived on three non-European continents) and often spectacularly rude. I would like to think that some of this might rub off on me in my new aunticular capacity (apart from the glamorous element, clearly, and anyway my sister-in-law’s sister can probably tick that box for him).

Nephew and great-nephew

But when confronted with a toddling strawberry blond with a cheeky face and a propensity to play for hours with toy cars, there was little I felt I could do to impress. Witty and scathing one-liners, even if I had been able to summon up such things at the pre-midday visit time, would have entirely passed the little chap by, so a few gentle encouragements and references to “your aged grandfather” (the latter for my own silly amusement) were the best I could do. Perfectly reasonable, after our ambitiously early start to the day, due to the ridiculous geographical position of my brother’s Herefordshire abode (“Practically in Wales! Haha.” “No it’s not, you insufferable townie.” Etc. Forever.)

Great-nephew ran out of steam after an hour or so of extended family time and was taken away so that he (and his ever-so-slightly hungover father to whom I am, of course, also an aunt, generally of a rather remote sort oI guess) could have a sleep, while the rest of us repaired to the pub for an extended natter at which most of my family members excel when given the chance. 

After treating ourselves to an overnight stay in a rather nice Bed & Breakfast establishment in the relative civilisation (in comparison to the wilds of Herefordshire) of Gloucestershire, Mr J and I were up and readying ourselves to pay visits to both of my elderly Aunties. Enjoying an unaccustomed hearty breakfast with the one other pair of overnighters, a bonus entertainment was the surprise arrival of an actual shooting party of eight gents in proper huntin’/shootin’/fishin’ garb who turned up claiming they had booked a breakfast party. This was news to the B&B staff who had expected to cater for just 4 people on this quiet Monday morning, but they clearly rallied round splendidly and no-one went away hungry. (Best porridge I’ve had in quite a while –  we stayed at The Beckford Inn if you’re interested.)

Replete and back in our room to pack up, I received a message from my brother which informed me that there had been some sort of mix-up and my Auntie Daph had gone to work rather than waiting at home for our visit. Now, at 89 you would perhaps not expect someone to be out working, but this one is still only cautiously contemplating retirement. Anyhow, I rang her work number which mysteriously I found in my phone contacts, and we worked out that neither I nor she had done anything wrong (phew!), but the young girl who provides a lift to work had forgotten she was not supposed to come, and this (and my unsurprising inability to answer my home phone, when she rang to check) flummoxed Daph into agreeing to go to work after all from which she had called my brother in case he knew what was going on. Never mind, all was well and by the time Mr J and I had taken a nostalgic drive around some of my childhood haunts, she was back at home and ready to be picked up by us and whisked to a nearby Worcestershire village hostelry for lunch. 

Auntie Daph was surprised I had her work phone number, as was I, but I told her I would have been able to find the number online anyway. “But how do you know the name of the business?” “Daph! You’ve worked there pretty much all my life, of course I know the name.” And it’s true; she’s worked for the same company since 1969. Even when the boss died a couple of years ago, his son and heir to the business couldn’t do without Daph and her younger colleague who has worked there even longer but is now only in her seventies, so is still ‘the girl’ in my mind despite there being an actual girl in training now. My mother died at the age of 80, having lived with dementia for her last 7+ years and this older sister is endlessly saddened by that, but I have to hope, with both my ageing aunts, that I have somehow acquired some of their genes for longevity rather than those of their siblings, my parents.

More nattering ensued and a happy lunchtime was spent. We returned Daph to her house where she showed us her elderly cockatiel in his cage. Aged thirty, he has apparently outlived normal life expectancy and, although he no longer talks and is not really able to fly properly, he seems to be carrying on regardless like his owner. Maybe it’s something in the water. Daph claims the first thing she says on arrival downstairs each day is “Morning Bertie! We’re both still alive then.” Magic. Bertie quite literally falls off his perch from time to time, and when the window-cleaner comes he’s so scared he occasionally tumbles completely out of his cage (left open during the daytime) and is unable to get himself back in until Daph gets home from work. Although he seems largely obsessed with his cage-mate – his own reflection in a dinky mirror – I suppose he is company of a kind.

We had to tear ourselves away, as we were due at Auntie #2 for a late tea in Oxfordshire. It was a beautiful drive through the Cotswolds. I grew up on the western edge of this area, looking up at the first of the hills and had regularly visited the nearer parts, including the tourist honeytraps of Bourton-on-the-Water and Broadway, but our journey today took us through several previously unvisited places and we thought perhaps an excursion would be in order another day. Our final destination today was a retirement complex in the centre of Bicester (not the famous Bicester Village of shopping fame – the thought of which always fills me with horror) – but the Oxfordshire town, where my aunt has a small self-contained flat with access to shared facilities such as catered meals, laundry and 24 hour emergency help – with the gigantic service charge to cover, although she makes the absolute most of the benefits. Today those benefits had extended to having the kitchen conjure up plated sandwiches and scones for our tea – my aunt having declined our invitation to a local pub for early supper in favour of her usual £5 communal lunch with her friends, Fair enough.

Although in many ways my father’s sister Pam is very different from Mum’s sister Daph, (Daph still goes out to work, cooks all her own meals and only allows herself a ‘ready’ meal from ‘Mr Marks’ once a week, goes line dancing, minds and walks other people’s dogs and has only given up driving because her son borrowed her car and knackered it somehow, whereas Pam doesn’t go out much), they both have their wits very much about them. Daph will pick us up on comments about news items and has plenty to say about the youth of today, the state of the town in which she has lived all her adult life and modern life in general. Pam, at 87 a full two years younger, is much less physically active and will tend to opt for an easier life if she can, but is not averse to pulling people’s legs (as reported here previously in fact) and enjoys regaling us with anecdotes of her own youthful misbehaviour as well as updates on her vast and ever-growing clutch of great-grandchildren – an area of my family that I tend to ignore when claiming how tiny my remaining clan has become. My bad, but I will almost certainly never meet any of them.

Aunties – me with Pam. I’m annoyed we forgot to take a pic with Daph.

Auntie Pam reminds me of my Nan (her mother, whom she now resembles quite strikingly I feel) but also of my great-auntie Dee. Dee (Edith) was not my aforementioned role-model great aunt (who was a sister of my Grandpa), but my Nan’s sister whom I recall fondly from my childhood as being witty and silly, and endlessly undermining my Nan, often with ridiculous acts – my favourite of which has to be the hiding of plates of dinner in the sideboard after they had been served to the table thus fooling Nannie into thinking she’d forgotten someone. I’m sure I saw her do this more than once. Maybe this will be something I could copy one day, although I doubt I’ll get the chance, and it’s not really a bucket-list contender.

Auntie Dee also had daft names for things and would make up stories for us. She never married and I now wonder if this was entirely because she was the younger daughter and had to stay at home to look after her parents (although it was certainly the case that she did this) or whether there were other reasons, but whatever the reason, she was great value to her nephews and nieces. My dad certainly did a good line in aunts. 

Back home and a few weeks further into wintry season, I am still buoyed up by the visit (“Oh no you aunt!” I hear you cry – oh dear, sorry) and just embarking on a chaotic month of theatre visits, concerts and other jolly social events. Deep breath!

Thinks – perhaps I could be known as the theatrical aunt?





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