My aunt is dying. She’s my mother’s cousin and has no family other than her brother’s children and us. She’s a long way away, the other side of the country. She’s ninety-five and has been in and out of hospital, getting more and more frail, since her closest friend died in the autumn. She’s no longer responding when the people sitting with her say her name and she has a respiratory thing going on, that I suspect is pneumonia, the Old Man’s Friend. I’m going to call her Edith, which is not her name.
When we were very young, a huge group of extended family would visit two or three times a year. Aunt Frances, Edith’s friend, was evacuated from London to Somerset twice during the Second World War and her two evacuee families would welcome them to stay locally and join them visiting us. Frances’ husband would come. He suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and became increasingly infirm as the years went on. My Grandmother and Great Uncle lived next door to us on the farm and we would all sit round a too-small dining table in their dusty dining room and eat piles and piles of sandwiches and cake. Afterwards, all the women would sit in the soft chairs in the sitting room and get out their knitting, whilst the men washed up and then Edith would get on the piano – bought for her and my mother’s shared Grandmother as a wedding present in the 1880s – and we would all sing. Songs from the war, from the East End, from the school room.
Edith was a reception class teacher from the 1940s onward and Frances was her Headmistress. They led Girl Guide troops, volunteered at animal shelters and were active church and chapel members. Frances developed an extended West Indian adopted family in later years by taking in boys who needed support in their army candidacy – the British Army paid for their tickets over, but if candidates flunked out and needed to resit after a few months, they were left swinging. Frances took in boy after boy through her church and was welcomed in to their homes by their mothers and aunts in return.
Edith had the musical gene along with most of my mother’s family. She played the accordion, anything with a keyboard and lots of wind instruments. She played in a jazz band with her brother in the 1930s and 40’s and once took my sister backstage after a concert to meet Jonny Dankworth and Cleo Lane. She would never come and stay until after Christmas because of her organ-playing commitments at the local churches and retirement homes. Her parents moved out of London to Basildon after the First World War and put up a short-term prefab house that she lived in until it more or less fell down around her ears in the late 1990s. Her nephew, who she had signed half of it over to, forced a sale and disappeared with his bit of the cash. She has been in a small bungalow with a warden for the last twenty years or so. Before that though, she kept goats and had an outside toilet that was dug out regularly and eventually used to fertilize tomatoes.
I used to visit her for a week or two in the summers of my early teens and she would take me up the lane to visit her friend who was a reptile keeper at London Zoo and had a huge collection of snakes and spiders.
I am already grieving and she hasn’t drawn her final breath yet. Her passing will be the severing of one of the final threads to my Great Grandmother’s extended East End family. My mother will be the only one left who remembers the house on Rosalind Road, that no longer exists; it was bombed so badly the area was redeveloped after the war ended in 1945. Who remembers the soil toilet and the tomatoes. Who can talk about the caravan that Edith’s guests could sleep in and the way that her brother and my mother’s parents would go to Clacton On Sea on their motorbikes and take pleasure flights with Amy Johnson.
I am mourning the passing of a history I cannot remember as well as the stalwart, kind, decent, loving, joyful person that she was and who I will keep folded in my memories to pass on to my children.
Let this stand here, so you can remember her too.