Memories Catch us Out... Always #EachforEqual #International Women's Day 2020
As it's International Women's Day 2020: http://bit.ly/2It7GHG I thought I would celebrate the woman who was most influential in my life. She wasn't famous but their wasn't a time when I didn't know her or wasn't aware of her presence; whether by my side or in my mind. And, though she died over ten years ago, she is still with me.
That woman was my aunt. Olive Bentley. She lived with us, here in Pembrokeshire, for over twenty years.
I have written about her before but, today, I'm thinking of her, so I'm sharing this again. Auntie Olive was my mother’s sister.
We had three different relationships during our lives.
When I was a child I was always told she was ‘someone very important in the civil service.’ She was a spinster in every way and had very little time for me. I think I was as much a mystery to her as she was to me. And so we kept our distance from one another. Except for one episode that I can recall, because it caused the only quarrel I can remember between her and my mother. When I was ten my mother had given me a home perm on my long hair; to help her achieve the ringlets she liked me to have. Every night my hair was twisted into rags and my scalp lifted from my skull. Sheer torture! Auntie Olive hated those ringlets as much as I did and one day put a pudding basin on my head and cut round it. I was overjoyed and imagined that I looked like George out of the Famous Five books. My mother was less impressed.
As I grew older my aunt took it upon herself to educate me in classical music but gave up the day she caught me gyrating to the Beatles. She thought then was a good time to teach me how to dance. I can still do a mean waltz and quickstep – and a very sexy cha- cha –cha. (though I must admit she didn’t know about the latter – this I learned from a Victor Sylvester. edition of Learn to Dance. With book in hand, I followed both instructions and the pattern of feet on the page). She taught me to knit and sew which came in very useful in the 60’s. It was surprising how many mini skirts a couple of yards of material could make. And one time I had a nice sideline going; making and selling knitted hats.
Most useful of all, Auntie Olive taught me to drive. And trusted my skills enough to lend me her car – which gave me a lot of kudos in our village (even if it was just a little blue Ford Pop). And though we still didn’t understand each other’s ways, we loved on another. Still, she called me a Beatnik and in the crass way of teenagers I secretly thought of her as sexually frustrated; totally unable to understand the ways of the ‘real’ world.
Even so, her lack of patience for trivial pleasantries, or what she called ‘purposeless pastimes’, and her possession of an acerbic tongue, meant I remained in awe of her.
Which made my next relationship with her very difficult.
Thirty years later Auntie Olive walked past my kitchen window from her flat next door. She was waving the banana that she intended to eat on the way to the shops. She did this every morning- perhaps to let me know she was eating properly, perhaps as a joke. Probably she didn't even realise she was doing it. All I knew was that at one time my aunt would not have done something so ‘unseemly’ as to eat in the street.
As she walked down the drive I realised she had no skirt on. ‘You can’t go out just in your knickers, you’ll stop the traffic’ I joked and we went back to the house. We laughed. She and I laughed a lot in those days- it was the only way to cope; we both knew she was trying to keep some control over her life; and more often than not, failed. When she stubbornly insisted on wearing her vest over her cardigan. When I found her washing her soiled pyjamas in an overflowing bath, wearing a woolly hat because she couldn't find the shower cap she thought she should wear. When, for the tenth time the smoke alarm shrieked because she burned the toast – again - and we both ran to waft at it with a tea towel. We laughed. Who cared?
I did, it was heart breaking.
In our discussions on current affairs she pretended that she had read the newspaper – yet I knew she could no longer read and after five minutes conversation I realised we were repeating ourselves. Sometimes she called me by my mother’s name as we sat in the garden.
She loved the sun. ‘Warms my old bones.’ She'd say, wearing a floral sun hat, which she wouldn’t have been seen dead in once.
She had the same route around the village each day, paper shop, Spar, chemist, Post Office. Not that she always needed anything; it was her routine and at each place they were good enough to make sure she was heading back in the right direction.
Sometimes she walked down the road to the roundabout. I watched from an upstairs window. She had begun to wander. I would drive around in the car looking for her or get a ‘phone call from some kind soul who had ‘captured’ her, and was supplying tea and biscuits, and safety.
She'd started to flash her knickers at the man who took her to the day centre once a week.
Then there was the third relationship I had with my aunt. I was a visitor. We no longer laughed at the silly things she did. I no longer helped her to dress or eat. Someone else did that. Our conversations were a monologue. Did she understand? I hoped so, but I often wondered if I annoyed her with the trivialities of my chatter. Did she silently say, ‘Really Judith … if you’ve nothing better to say…’.
I always think that memories, however long ago they were formed, don’t stay in the box; even though one might try to keep the lid firmly fastened. Sooner or later they creep out and our experiences can influence the way we react to a situation, how we work out what we will do.
Even though I wasn't aware of it at the time, I realised long ago that mine wasn't an easy childhood. But, like many others of my generation, we were expected to accept how things were and to get on with it. My aunt taught me how to cope with so much, so many events; circumstances, when I was young. I'll always be grateful to her for that.
So, i felt guilty when she finally went into care; when I sat alongside her bed there. And guilty when I remembered the times when I would have done anything to have had a bit of peace from her constant need of me in the later stages of her dementia. That memory of guilt comes back to me sometimes and it was from writing down how I felt at the time that the first thoughts of writing The Memory came about.
It has taken a long time to get to this stage; the actual publishing of The Memory on March 19, 2020.
In The Memory, the protagonist, Irene, has one memory, one moment in her life that has prevailed and controlled the way she sees her mother.
But her mother also has her own memories that, in her mind, forced her onto the path in life that she took and formed the relationship she has with those around her.
"Over the course of 24 hours their moving and tragic story is revealed – a story of love and duty, betrayal and loss – as Irene rediscovers the past and finds hope for the future." https://amzn.to/3bHKFOE