In 2012, my dearest Auntie Lilly passed away. The following is a letter I wrote to Uncle Dave a few months later…
Dear Uncle Dave,
Sandy and I were deeply saddened to learn of Aunty Lilly’s passing away recently. Although I’ve been privileged to have travelled far and wide and have enjoyed many benefits of this, the sad reality of living on the other side of the planet often brings with it some unwanted downsides. Our inability to be there, close to family and loved ones on such occasions as this, is one such downside that we’re forced to live with. I dearly would have liked to have been there for Aunty Lilly’s funeral and to have been able to see her again. The only comfort that I can take now is that I will be able to remember her when she was in good health – or at the very least outwardly appearing as such. A scant comfort but it’s now all we have.
I have tried several times to call you by phone over the past few months but have never managed to get you at home or whilst inclined to pick up the phone. Judy tells me that you may not have wanted to answer the phone if the calling number was unfamiliar. I doubt you’ll have recognised an incoming international call from Australia as familiar and so can understand not being able to reach you by phone. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I would have known what to say even if you had answered the phone. Judy tells me she has been reading my writings over the Internet and she has complimented me on my ‘way with written words’. This got me thinking that perhaps a letter would be the best way for me to reach out to you, hence this letter I’m now writing.
Since I had the idea to write to you, I’ve been trying to think of what to actually say. Rather than some of the various throwaway cliché lines that people often come up with whenever there is a family bereavement, I thought I’d instead tell you about how Aunty Lilly has affected my life over the past four and a half decades. So if you’ll forgive the conceit and indulge me a little, that’s what I’d now like to do.
My earliest memories of Aunty Lilly are quite vague. What I mean to say is that I have memories of the memories more than anything now. All of those early memories, however, are fond and warm ones. Mum always considered Richard and me ‘the babies’ and I remember that he and I always used to visit you at home together with Mum whenever she’d visit, which was often as I recall. I can distinctly remember sitting in the corner in the kitchen feeding sunflower seeds to the parrot and allowing it to take the seeds from between my lips through the cage. I’d sit there and repeat ‘Pretty Polly’ and ‘Who’s a pretty Polly’ over and over. It used to squark a bit but never really had a complete vocabulary, although I can hear that distinctive squark now in my mind as clear as day. During those earlier years when I was still at Dilkes Primary School, you used to have a light brown coloured dog too called Sandy. It seemed to forever be ‘in your way’.
Aunty Lilly would forever be making tea for visitors, as I remember. She had a very particular way of stirring the tea. It wasn’t just a round and round motion but more of a top to bottom circular motion. I used to sit bemused at how she managed to stir the tea so beautifully and never managing to let the tea spill over the side, even though it would always came perilously close. I can hear that familiar spoon on porcelain sound in my mind even now. I remember thinking of just how efficient that stirring technique was and how it made the milk mix with the tea quickly so that it arrived at it’s brown colour faster. This seems like such a small detail but I actually stir tea this way myself now and it’s because of how I remember Aunty Lilly doing it all those years ago. Strange how small things like that have stuck with me since very early on.
From my ‘knee high to a grasshopper’ perspective, I always found that your house was always the same – everything had it’s place. You used to have a spherical vacuum cleaner where the exhaust air was directed towards the floor underneath it and this would create a cushion of air on which it glided and this made it easy to pull around as Aunty Lilly vacuumed the place. I always used to think that it looked like an elephant with the flexible hose being the elephant’s trunk. I used to love watching Aunty Lilly pull this thing around the place and got a real thrill once when she suggested that I might have a go myself. This made me feel so very special. I made it move up and down the hall in bemusement at how it glided but I doubt I actually managed to vacuum anything up at all.
You used to have a wooden shed out back (down the side) and remember that you once had a large barrel in which swam a shark. I don’t know if it was a real shark (it’s entirely possible that one of my elder siblings was pulling my leg) but it seemed real enough to me. You also used to have an aquarium with tropical fish. I remember once asking Aunty Lilly what the fish were and she would tell me that I should ask Uncle Dave. Perhaps it was because I was a little shy but I remember never getting the nerve up to ask you about the fish outright.
What I remember most about being at your house was Christmas. Oh the fun Richard and I had playing with our Christmas toys in the hall. The most vivid memory I have of Christmas was the year Richard and I were playing with some toy guns that fired little arrows with rubber plungers on the end of them. These toy guns came with a rudimentary target that we’d balance on something and we’d try to fire at the target whilst lying on the hall floor with our feet at the front door and aiming at the target we’d laid out by your kitchen door. You also always had the very best Christmas decorations as I recall. My favorites were the paper ones you used to have that hung from the ceiling. They had folds in them, which allowed them to expand as they dangled and I remember that they were coloured very pleasingly with pastel shades. To this day, I always try to set up Christmas decorations to achieve that same effect that I remember experiencing at your house when I was just five or six years old. Nowadays, all you tend to be able to find is the gaudy, tinsel type decorations. I’ve still yet to achieve that look and feel that I’ve always remembers from all those years ago. About 20 years ago, I distinctly remember asking Aunty Lilly about those decorations but she told me that you had gotten rid of them all some years before. I can remember now how upset I was to hear this but I never did let on.
You might remember that I was a pretty good chess player at a very young age. I can remember a time, again during one of the many Christmases that we enjoyed at your house, when I was playing Terry in the front room. This was the year that you had a games console connected to the TV and were playing a bowling game. Anyway, there were a lot of people there (well, there always were) and I couldn’t have been more than six or seven at the time. It seems a bit heartless to mention it now but I remember finding it pretty easy to wipe the floor with Terry. Within the first dozen or so moves, I’d taken his queen and it was all downhill for him from then on. I remember one of his Brothers (it might have been more than one actually) taunting him about loosing his queen so quickly – and to a child no less! Terry’s reply to this was that it wasn’t about which pieces you loose but about how well you played that matters. Although I didn’t utter it at the time, what I was really thinking at the time was ‘actually, Terry, loosing your queen is pretty serious whatever way you look at it – and it’s now just a matter of time before I can polish you off and go and play something more interesting instead’.
Another memory that has stuck with me was when I was at your house for some reason and I was working on some maths homework. I can’t remember exactly what it was but I was struggling with it and Aunty Lilly told me that David, if memory serves, could give me some help. David then proceeded to show me how to answer the dozen or so questions, which I still didn’t follow. Anyway, I brought that homework back the following week and pointed out to David that I’d been marked mostly incorrect on all the questions for that particular week’s assignment. I remember him chuckling about it and from then on, I decided I’d work on my own maths homework after all. Who knows, perhaps that episode actually did me some real good after all.
As I’ve moved about the planet and lived in various countries, Sandy and I would often visit back home and we would very often have to be very judicious about who we would decide to visit whilst back in the UK due to the lack of time. With such an extended family, it was always just impractical to see everybody every time we visited. I can quite literally count on one hand the number of definite must-see people that would always be on that list during our brief visits – such as Mum & Dad, obviously. You and Aunty Lilly were always on that list. Even if it were only a brief visit just to pop our heads through the door and to say ‘hello’, we always made it a point to try to visit you and Aunty Lilly. Returning back to the UK and not coming around for a cup of tea just didn’t seem right otherwise.
Something that I suspect that people take for granted is the fact that you tend not to see how someone ages over time – particularly if you see them regularly. As someone that has lived out of the UK for several decades and who has only had fleeting visits back there, I can vouch more than most for just how people do age and change over time. You’d think, then, that I would be the first person to admit to noticing how people age. Well, that’s certainly true but for whatever reason, however, I can always remember thinking to myself just how little Aunty Lilly changed each time I saw her. In my mind, she never seemed to aged at all.
My dear old Aunty Lilly will forever be deeply missed and will equally forever retain a special place in my heart. Although we remain separated by great distances, please know that you are often in out thoughts. We have no idea when we will next be in the UK but if at all possible, I would like to arrange for a video conference call over the Internet so that we can speak and sea each other. Hopefully, one of your many children, grand-children or even great-grand-children could set that up for you.
Sandy and I miss you and love you very much. Please take care and we hope to see you soon.
Lots of love,
Christopher, Sandy, Joey & Jennifer