If we’ve had a normal, reasonably happy childhood our memories of it tend towards the sentimental. This is well documented. The summers were always warm and sunny. We made sandcastles on the beach. Parties were the simple kind, with jelly and ice cream and musical chairs. We had beloved pets-seemingly for an implausible number of years; we wore leather sandals with a cut-out flower in the toe, walked to school along lanes where the tar bubbled under the sun’s heat. We had a rope swing under the apple tree, played ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and watched ‘The Lone Ranger’ on tiny, black and white TV sets in huge, wooden cabinets.
My memories of childhood, and in particular, childhood holidays are peopled with extended family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles and the friends of parents [who were also ‘aunts and uncles’] and especially that section of the family that no longer seems to exist-the maiden aunt.
I had maiden aunts on both sides of the family. I loved them. They visited from other parts of the country, sometimes for weeks. I’d share my room with them, sometimes even a double bed, if expedient. One, my father’s unmarried sister, had been engaged to an RAF pilot who’d met his end during the war-a common reason for fifties spinsterhood, no doubt. So she stayed with us often-once, memorably getting snowed in for six weeks and unable to return home. She accompanied us on several holidays, providing useful babysitting services and assuaging some of her maternal urges by borrowing us, the children, for some of the time.
We’d visit, too and be given huge spreads of ‘tea’, with bread and butter, scones, jam, slices of Victoria sponge, tea in bone china teacups from a large pot clothed in a hand-knitted cosy. There were even occasions when I stayed overnight and was able to explore the domain of this maiden lady, delve into the contents of her dressing table and ponder over the mysterious items it housed; delicate webs of hairnets, perfume atomisers, corn pads, monogrammed lace handkerchiefs, a tumbler of water containing pale pink and white dentures, like undersea coral. She loved entertaining children, relished the chance to instruct in gentle pastimes such as crochet or ‘patience’ [solitaire], or simply sorting the contents of a button box, laying out the contents as if it were a treasure chest.
My mother had a maiden aunt herself, who visited-though never without her inseparable friend, Rose. They’d share my brothers’ twin-bedded room and I’d pay morning visits, enthralled by the sight of them in their lurid, floral patterned, winceyette pyjamas as they sat sipping their tea. They exhibited a mild, old fashioned humour and exasperated my mother by needing to add to their silver teaspoon collection whenever they were taken for a day out by car [none of the aunts drove].
Now, of course it seems obvious that my mother’s aunt and her friend, Rose, were a gay couple, although I’ve no idea whether my parents realised and if they had it wouldn’t have been discussed except in the whispered confines of their own bedroom. The women certainly didn’t share a home so perhaps those summer holidays spent with my family were an opportunity for them to find happiness together? I like to think so.
I never thought of them until now, as middle age morphs into older [elderly?], presumably because it is natural to become reflective, but what has replaced ‘maiden aunts’ in today’s world? Answers on a postcard…or the comments section?