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The Joyces in my poem are an excitable, cardigan-toting gaggle, collectively representing my many aunts and great aunts, all of whom came from Burnley, Lancashire and were the daughters of cotton weavers. So there is perhaps a suggestion of a factory outing here; of general giddiness and letting go.
In reality, many of my aunts await better poems from me: quieter and more nuanced words to hint at their fortitude in the face of two world wars; the loss of husbands, fiancés, brothers; the loss of children to measles and limbs to bombs.
The aunts I was lucky enough to know well had grit and wit in equal measure; made it their business to survive, enjoy themselves and be whole-hearted in their engagement with the lives that came their way. They loved to advise and judge – and I loved it when they did.
Their stories preoccupy me, as do their young faces in black and white photographs.
My last aunty died a few weeks ago. At 90 plus she was very much the tail-ender of an earlier generation, but remained fit, very fashion-conscious and inspirational to the end. I’m even more aware that I have to hurry up and write my own anthology of aunts before their names are lost: Clara, Alice, Martha, Edith, Sarah, Eva, Florence, Kathleen, Barbara, Mary, Elizabeth, Jane, Winifred, Jessie – and Joyce.
|Gill’s aunt Bob|
Bob married Roy Matthews in 1919. The certificate said she had ‘no profession’ though she had served as a nursing auxiliary during the war. She was also a talented pianist and for many years played for silent films. The Matthews, who had one son, lived first in Hampstead, later Solihull, where I attended grammar school. I often used to call in on my bike-ride home and the house usually smelled of rising dough; I have the wooden bowl, now cracked, in which it proved by the hearth. (I also have a lovely satin-glazed pottery coffee-set of hers, stamped 1947.) She served as a Labour councillor during the late ’40s/early ’50s.
After Roy’s death in 1953, Bob bought a New Forest bungalow called ‘Tidbatch’. My parents eventually moved south from Shirley and lodged there while house-hunting. My sister Jen, also now nearby, helped Mum nurse Bob in her final illness and the bungalow was bequeathed jointly to them in 1976. Jen and her husband Jim live there still.
Aunt Syl was six years old when she fell ill with polio. Her sisters took turns rubbing her stricken leg. My mother shrugged, “Did this help? What did we know? The doctor said keep rubbing.”
In my grandma’s eyes, she’d become a girl no man would marry.
In time, she discarded her wheelchair, her metal brace, her wooden crutches and her hooked cane. On her right foot, she wore a heavy elevated shoe, witch-black and thumping like thunder. She was studying to become a social worker.
Then my mother said that a woman could live a good life without marrying and we girls should learn that now.
Aunt Syl took a job six hundred miles away and was gone for forty years. When she came home, she moved into a facility for lower income seniors. Morris was the helper resident who carried her luggage up to her apartment.
Why did Morris marry her seven years later when she was eighty-two?
With her full breasts, narrow waist, and constant blinking, she was cute as a doll. Her spirit was ready and eager. She knew her worth. And she believed in God and life-long learning.
On behalf of my mother who had been dead for many years, I attended Aunt Syl’s bridal shower. The question we debated: Should Aunt Syl let her apartment go or to keep it so she could come and go?
Of nine siblings, five older and three younger, Aunt Syl is the only one alive.
When my mum gave birth to me just over a month after her nineteenth birthday, she and my father were living with my maternal grandparents; it was a bit of a squeeze and money was tight. Dad had not long left the Royal Engineers due to a serious injury. Being an only child, Mum didn’t have any sibling support, but she had cousins and my father’s three sisters, one of whom was Janet. We spent a lot of time with her and she once gave me a ‘walkie-talkie’ doll as a present.
|Kim’s aunt Janet (with the dark hair)|
When I was four, Janet, who was catering manager at Streatham Locarno, organised a birthday party for me there. I remember sliding across the polished dance floor. Around the same time, she took me on holiday to Clacton with her boyfriend and his boxer dog. It wasn’t socially acceptable for an unmarried couple to go on holiday together. I can only assume they pretended to be married and I gave them some kind of credibility!
The poem was written about my aunt Beulah, the youngest of my mum's sisters. Although she never had children of her own, it was always a joy going to visit her, as she knew exactly how to inspire me with whatever she suggested doing. As it says in the poem, this visit was while my mum went into hospital to give birth to my sister and I was six at the time. I must have stayed with her and my uncle for about 10 days and each day she had some new idea to keep me amused. My uncle was perhaps the most avuncular of my uncles, a studious man, serious but kind and a lovely counterpoint to my aunt's light touch on everything she did.
|Kathleen’s aunt Hilda|
The adults used to talk about Hilda and Fred when they thought we children weren’t listening. But of course we were! There was a lot of whispering about his reluctance to ‘be a proper man’. My forthright Aunt Clara was given the task of ‘having a word’. I think now that he was probably homosexual, but back in the fifties and sixties there was a great deal of ignorance about such things. For Hilda it was a tragedy that denied her the chance to have the children she longed for and it wrecked her mental health. The drama was played out against the background of my childhood and adolescence and it had a big effect on my view of relationships and marriage. I still feel regret that I wasn’t able to be more of a surrogate child to her.
The modern family unit may be getting smaller as we climb the family tree, but the extended family continues to branch outwards. My parents’ siblings and cousins, who belong to the ‘Aunts and Uncles’ category in relation to me, make a multitude of curious connections.
The challenge is finding someone old enough to draw the lines, who can still remember people by their names rather than their titles. In my culture, aunts and uncles are literally numbered; I refer to my grandmother’s cousin as my ‘Tenth-Aunt-Grandma’. The importance of knowing your history shows your awareness (or lack) of your relation to others. Sometimes far-off relatives would visit, and not knowing our connection, I would not know how to address them. Embarrassingly, it took me years to realize that some old ‘family friends’ were, in fact, blood relations (counting back a few generations). My mother’s youngest uncle’s daughter, who is younger than me, is generationally speaking, my aunt (!!!)
In traditional Chinese families, what you name your child directly indicates the generation they belong to, so you can (somewhat) deduce your relation to someone who shares the same surname. For example, my female cousins on my father’s side share a name with me (so out of three Chinese characters including our surname, we all share two), and refer to me as a ‘sister’ rather than ‘cousin’. If I ever come across someone who shares the same two characters as my mother and her sisters’ names, I will have discovered another aunt!
Growing up I was blessed with many aunts on my dad’s side of the family. He was blessed with lots of brothers and sisters. My mum was an only child, so from her I had those ‘aunts’ who weren’t blood relations, but were always there for us. There are fewer of them now, and my poems in the anthology are intended to celebrate them, and my mum, and a time and place – my happy childhood on the Riddings Estate in Scunthorpe. The poems are based on truth; though they may contain inventions. On a recent visit to my mum and dad I went to see my Aunty Brenda (and Uncle Reg) for the first time in many years. I was so pleased I did, and so glad of the warm welcome I received. When I think of my aunts I think of love and food and happiness. And laughter over the odd glass of Babycham.
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The Emma Press Anthology of Aunts is available to buy on our website.