Born in the 1880s my great-aunts were already well into their sixties by the time me and my brother arrived but to us they seemed ageless. They had recently moved from Croydon to a colonial style bungalow in The Byeway, Little Common on Aunty Glad’s retirement and it was there we sent many sunny Saturdays (Sundays being reserved for church and then tea at granny’s). Once, when our mother had to go into hospital, we spent a week of the summer holidays there. A week stepping back in time with porridge for breakfast and baps, a floury bread roll, spread with crab apple jelly for tea. I remember Aunty Glad taking us to the recreation ground, complete with her football to run around and the photograph she took of us and had framed in her bedroom shows us uncharacteristically in shorts sat on their lawn holding tennis rackets. How she must have hoped for more sporty nephews and nieces than we were. At bedtime Aunty Ethel read to me from Robin Hood, not the child friendly version but a far more scholarly tale ending with Robin’s death, my first experience of an unhappy ending. I still have that book along with many others of theirs in the same bookcase they housed them in.
Once the bungalow with its lawns and flower beds and productive vegetable patch became too much to manage the Aunts now in their late seventies moved to a ground floor flat opposite my parents’ house. Near the centre of town and the congregational church they were still able to keep active. Aunty Ethel ran the schools debating competition and flag day for the local UNA branch and Aunty Gladys turned out menageries of felt animals for sales of work for the church and the WI. They were very active in the Liberal Party and read the Guardian daily. They had no television, Aunty Glad had lobbied hard for one “just for the sports” but Aunty Ethel would not countenance it although she watched my parents’ set avidly. They travelled widely, I have their diaries and photograph albums from their voyage to New Zealand in 1953 and later Gladys went to Canada to visit more family. They loved Switzerland and Austria and again I have photo albums and the dolls they bought me. I can remember other presents, the camera for my first holiday abroad, Aunty Glad hoping to pass on her love of photography and the writing case for when I went away to university, just like theirs.
On Friday nights my mother would join them for a game of scrabble which Aunty Ethel until just before her death always won and I often joined them, first after the church youth club and later when home from university. Here, in their sitting room over post game Horlicks and milky coffee they would tell stories of their youth usually linked to something in the news. My favourite grew out of an item about teenage girls queuing to see the latest pop sensation. They had being queuing for first night tickets for a new Gilbert and Sullivan production when Ethel felt faint, a young policeman came to their rescue finding them a quiet doorstep to sit on and then took their place in the queue gaining them the precious seats.
They told tales of being called into the headmistress’s room at school having been reported for talking to boys on the tram, their explanation being that these were their brothers’ friends and anyway Gladys was the mascot for their football team. They broke the dining room table playing progressive ping pong, still played at my church youth club, and rode their bikes all around the country lanes.
They both lived into their nineties, Aunty Glad just managing to meet her great-great niece. Many of the books in the bookcase still have their bookmarks in them. When I needed to find a poem to read at a Burns night party it was their book that I took down from their bookcase.