Florence May Dunkley (1909-2005) was my mother’s only sister and four years older than her. The name May was popular when she was born and a number of my friends had their own Aunty May. She was the 7th child and first girl of George and Catherine Dunkley, who lived in Silverstone, Northamptonshire. Life was hard for poor rural workers and May’s mother was an obsessively fussy housewife so must have been delighted to have a daughter to help out at last. That certainly set the tone of May’s early life – she was made to go to the butcher every morning and then punished for being late for school with a wallop across her hand and had many other domestic burdens besides. She came home from domestic service to nurse her dying mother during WW2 and then dutifully stayed to look after her widowed father. It was taken for granted that was her role in life. She never married. May was deeply scarred by her mother’s painful death from bowel cancer and her father’s vascular dementia in the last few years of his life. She was hysterical at times and bitter about lack of support from most other family members. Perhaps they were afraid to encourage her weaknesses or any further dependence. Her younger sister, my mother, escaped into marriage and motherhood.
I have done little to research my mother’s ancestors. They were too poor to leave any records, bar their births, deaths and marriages. I joked to one of my friends that it would be like writing another Akenfield with forestry rather than agricultural workers. Their three-room cottage was replaced with a smart new council house in 1946. When May’s father died in 1954 she was forced to take any job she could find and worked in a shoe factory in nearby Brackley for many years. Energetic, orderly and frugal in her habits, her retirement was a long one which relied heavily on local and distant family for her social life. She took family ties very seriously, was always ready to help out in practical ways and was generous with money from her own very limited means. Her nieces and nephews were the greatest pleasure in her life – she had a rare childlike empathy with children of all ages.
When she died in 2005 the local Methodist minister spent most of one afternoon drawing her life story from me in preparation for his funeral address. He
chose the Biblical story of the Widow’s Mite from the Gospel of Mark. In it Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem. He tells the story of a widow who donates two small coins (generally thought to be lepton) – the smallest and least valuable coins in circulation in Judea – while wealthy people donate much more. Jesus explains to his disciples that the small sacrifices of the poor mean more to God than the bigger, but proportionately lesser, donations of the rich. How apt. May touched many lives and held the extended family together in a way no-one else could. We miss her still.