Grand old auntie at 90

Auntie Lilian, my father Frank’s younger sister turned 90 and I threw an afternoon tea for relatives to celebrate . The old lady, who lives in  a self-contained hostel unit, is the matriarch of our large extended famil. My 93-year-old dad and my other two surviving aunties, Yvonne and Betty, her widowed sisters-in-law were other elderly guests.

As they sit on the settee sipping from pretty porcelain cups, I mull over their lives and how tragedies in Lilian’s and Yvonne’s lives taught me profound lessons about  grief.

Yvonne’s only son was 15 when he had an road accident in Crafers and was killed instantly. I will never forget that evening when my mother sent me, the oldest of her five children, to comfort her the same evening as the tragedy.

I didn’t know it then but I experienced a hard lesson of life in the cruel nature of grief, how it renders people emotionally numb. My auntie was so grief-stricken that I could hardly stand to look upon her pain. Recently, Yvonne also lost an adult daughter, my younger cousin to cancer, which has left her with only one daughter, Trudy, because her husband, Uncle Alan died about a decade ago.

Lilian, too, has had a walloping of grief in her early married life. She has only one son, who did not attend her birthday party, but she also gave birth to a little girl, named Heather in Renmark Hosdpital on Christmas Day. She was the second child and nobody noticed in the skeleton staff that Heather was a rhesis baby, which meant her blood was different from her mother. Despite an ambulance dash to Adelaide, tiny Heather died. I can still recall that little white coffin propped up on the arms of a chair in grandma’s humble State Bank bungalow alongside the railway line at Islington.  I was five or six years old. I can picture Lilian that day, sitting, prostrate with grief, unable to say anything to anyone.  I can still remember watching the sad troupe of family and church friends walking behind the hearse over the railway line  to the Islington Cemetery opposite grandma’s house.

Ten years ago, when I interviewed Auntie Lilian on her 80th birthday, I asked her the saddest moment of her life and the gentle old lady wept for the daughter she had lost 50-something years ago. Yet, today, the sun shines outside and myt Auntie is all smiles as sister Anne leads her to blow out the candles on her cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday’.

My grandmother, Emily was pregnant with Auntie Lilian on the sea voyage out from England in 1921 when she and grandpa, Harry, migrated with their two little boys, my dad, who was 2 and Uncle Les, who was one year old. When we travelled back to meet the English family in  1978, we learnt that grandma had been sick every day of the four-month voyage she described as a “never-ending nightmare’’.

Dad’s family has not been close-knit, but Auntie Lilian and I have shared our lives sporadically and I have taken the aunties out to lunch for Lilian’s birthday for the last few years.

I had not seen Trudy for 35 years, but we connected again instantly although I am almost a decade older.

The elderly aunties arrived with scones and shortbread to add to the cup cakes, apple tarts, , spinach turnovers, quiches and sausage rolls that I made this morning. My mother, Florrie, always cooked up a wonderful afternoon tea, and my sister Anne upheld family tradition by bringing rum balls, It looked a magnificent spread around the birthday cake.

The  Aunties are ageing well, but it is dad, who is visually impaired and deaf, who holds court, leading conversation. But first he weeps, touching his sister and saying “Is it really you, Lil?’’

He lives in low residential care at Renmark and had telephoned me to ask to see her for her birthday. Dad makes rare requests and so my son, Tyson went to Renmark to pick him up and he is staying with us at our home. Once he is settled in his chair, next to his sister, he reminisces how Lilian had played a pivotal role in meeting our mother, who was working as a Land Army girl on picking fruit block on the adjoining block.

“I saw your mother on the bus, this stunning looking brunette in shorts and I said to Ted (Lilian’s husband) “how do I meet that girl”?,’’ dad recalls.

“He answered ‘Well, Jim borrowed my ladder and you can go and get it back if you like’,’’ he says.

He laughs and adds “And look at all the people here today from our meeting.’’

There are 15 people here today, by no means all the family, and not my two daughters particularly, who live interstate, but we are bonded by blood and marriage and. amazingly, we are aged from 17 to 93. My only regret is that mum isn’t here to enjoy the party.

As the old aunties, full of thanks and praise, climb into Trudy’s car, it occurs to me that I feel uplifted by giving pleasure to others – and in retirement I have the time to enjoy.


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