This post has been inspired by the beautiful memory shared over on Mummy Mishaps.
My mum is an only child, my dad is one of three; neither of them have any older generation relatives left, and discovering your parents are now the top of the living family tree is a sobering thought. In recent years, I have become very interested in my genealogy and have managed to research over three hundred family members, across both sides of my family. My mum, not one for history, actually finds this fascinating and I suspect because she has spent such a long time as a lonesome family member; her father died in 1980, her mother in 1994, her cousins are long-lost in the realms of South Africa.
However, until 2009 she still had a very close connection to her paternal aunt in Dorset, and despite an ancient argument between my nan and her, from the age of ten or so we would regularly visit my great aunt who lived in a market town nestled on the coast of Lyme Bay. At the time, both of my great aunts were still alive and the sisters lived together in their council house which they had rented since it was built in the 1950s. Most of the rooms hadn't been redecorated since. I always adored the wallpaper in the kitchen; a trellis with sweetpeas growing up to the ceiling. The sliding glass doors on the wall cabinet held an abundance of fine bone china, vintage teacups and matching tea plates and small coloured glasses, which would now be the envy of Cath Kidston fans everywhere.
A keen gardener, Aunty N had a wonderful collection of country garden flowers creating a 'chocolate box' look to anotherwise boring property. To reach the pea plants which grew in abundance in the late afternoon sun, we'd have to circumnavigate the marrow plants sprawling over the vegetable patches, tiptoeing between the swollen gourds growing from the delicate orange flowers with the sweet smell of the prickly leaves crushing under foot. In between the peas and marrows, and alongside the thick leek sheaths, were dahlias worthy of Chelsea Flower Show; each a delicate shade of an evening sunset.
I used to spend hours in their garden on our visits, the house was oppressive with the smell of old women and the heat from the gas fire, and the vacant glazed eyes of Aunty D were something that I didn't understand as a child. It was only with the maturity of adulthood that I was able to comprehend the desperation behind the eyes of a woman who'd survived a mental breakdown (following the death of her mother) as a child, and lived for several years in an asylum until her sister was able to retrieve her and care for her until her last days. Aunty D and Aunty N were devoted to each other. Giving up her chance of marriage and children to care for her sister, Aunty N worked hard as a village school teacher all of her life until retirement as a deputy head. Both of us found it poetic that I have ended up as a teacher.
In the later years of her life and following Aunty D's death to the dreaded cancer that chases through my maternal family, Aunty N's body started to deteriorate. Let down by eyes that could no longer read, fingers that couldn't stitch and legs that couldn't walk, she was left with a mind that never failed. At the age of 97 she could sit and converse with Mr. TBaM about computers and discuss the effects of them in education with me. My husband prides himself on being quite satirical at times, and never stood a chance with Aunty N as she could see him his satire, and raise him irony and a handful of general knowledge. His grandmother died of dementia with a body that worked, my great aunt died of a broken body with a trapped active mine; we often discuss which is a worse situation to be in.
In the last few months of her life Aunty N's body just stopped working. The cancer which had seen off her parents and siblings eluded her, but everything just slowly stopped working. She died in May 2009, a month before The Boy was born and it is my greatest regret that she never got to meet him. Indeed, her funeral was held three hours after he was born and I still mourn that I was unable to attend it, but I like to think that they met in passing. She would have loved the little boy that he is, as nursery age was her speciality.
And so this brings me to the photographs that have prompted this Flashback.
Three months after The Boy was born we returned to West Bay, the nearby seaside town to Bridport where Aunty N had spent the vast majority of her life. My little family, my parents, and my sister with her family, all stayed in our usual bed and breakfast for the weekend. On the Saturday morning, my mum and dad nipped up to the town centre and returned with a small cardboard box. In the afternoon our assembled ranks walked down to West Bay beach with the sole purpose of returning Aunty N to the coastline that she loved so much. Our intention had been to stand on the quayside next to the shelter where she had sat after school marking books, but the tide was out and this put pay to scattering her ashes there. We walked down onto the beach and at the time I groaned at the ridiculousness that my family didn't know how to go about scattering the ashes, so I grabbed the box and marched down to the water's edge. In hindsight I realise they were providing me with the missed opportunity to say goodbye. The soft ashes sprinkled through my fingers onto the gentle waves and she hung around in the water for quite some time afterwards, listening to the sounds of her great, great niece and nephews playing on the beach in the late afternoon, Autumn sun.
Next week we are returning to West Bay and Bridport, as we do every year. And a quiet moment will be spent at the water's edge remembering a special lady who meant so much to so many.