Auntie George was my maternal grandfather’s spinster aunt, his mother’s youngest sister. She had been christened Georgina, my grandfather always called her Georgie, but to the three generations of family that followed – my mum’s, mine, and my children’s – she was known affectionately as Auntie George.
My earliest memories of Auntie George were of her living with another aunt, her older widowed sister Eliza, in a small fisherman’s cottage in a little village here in the Scottish Highlands. We used to visit as a family, and I remember the tiny cottage mainly as neat and old fashioned and dark and smelling of moth-balls, quiet apart from the tick of the large clock on the sideboard. I remember, while the grown-ups had tea and cake, being allowed a glass of fizzy lemonade in pretty tumblers that were kept in the sideboard, and the bubbles going up my nose.
After her sister died, Auntie George moved out of the cottage and in with my maternal grandparents, where she lived until her health deteriorated to a point where my grandparents simply became too old themselves to care for her. Although she lived to a ripe old age sadly she necessarily ended her years in a local nursing home, dementia robbing her of her past and so all knowledge of who any of us were, turning a neat-framed meek and mild-mannered genteel old lady into someone unrecognisable, violent and vitriolic.
But while she was alive and well and living amongst us all, Auntie George was someone who was simply always there as I was growing up, an integral part of my extended family landscape. She happily joined in with family occasions big and small, formal and informal, but always quietly hovering in the background, remaining self-contained and small in that inoffensive and unobtrusive way she had.
Embarrassingly in all those years I don’t remember ever having had any deep and meaningful conversations with her about anything that mattered. And in spite of me having had a living great-great-aunt in my life until I was grown up and married with children, I’m ashamed to say I know so very little about her younger life other than the fact, always relayed in hushed reverent tones, that her young man had gone off to war – this would have been the First World War – and had never come back.
I grew up surrounded by family photographs, and even now my mum still has several old boxes of tiny black and white family snapshots she inherited after my grandmother died. A few years ago we were looking through them again and I found a photograph I hadn’t ever seen before, of a tall young woman standing in front of a fancy car parked in front of what looked like a Swiss chalet, with a clear snow-peaked mountain range on the horizon. From her style of dress and bobbed marcel-wave hair and cloche hat, it must have been taken in the 1920s.
Intrigued, I asked mum who it was, and she said it was Auntie George, taken when she was in service with a well-to-do family who travelled a lot, taking some of their staff with them wherever they went. I was amazed to see her standing so tall in her youth, because the elderly Georgie I knew had both a scoliosis and a kyphosis, twisting her spine forward and sideways, giving her a rather crumpled, apologetic stance. And I was stunned to realise she had travelled so extensively in the past, even if only in the employ of others. How could I have known her all those years and yet not have known that?
Thinking about that little photograph and the untold secrets of the life behind it, I look back today and I wonder – did Georgie enjoy her single life? I realise that like so many other young women of her generation she effectively lost the chance of marriage and children when her fiance was killed in the war, but had she got married as intended she would most definitely never have had the chance to see any more of the world beyond her kitchen sink. Did her long-term single status and a chance to earn her own living actually give her more freedom to be herself in the end? That’s something I’ll never know.
One thing I do know, she outlived everyone else in her generation and even her neice and nephews – my grandfather, his elder sister and his younger brother all died before her. When I knew her, admittedly in her later years, she certainly seemed contented enough with her lot. Not left on a shelf but included and embraced and always there in our family snapshots, smiling and a definite part of the proceedings even if on the periphery.
I’m really sorry I didn’t ever think to try to get to know her better as I was growing up, but nevertheless I’m very proud to have had her as my great-great-aunt. I still have a few little sentimental trinkets of hers that I’ve kept close all these years, including a glass hairpin jar with silver screwtop, a cut glass perfume bottle, and a beautiful hand-sewn linen handkerchief sachet, pictured above. Thank you, Auntie George, thinking of you! 🙂