THE MISTLETOE BOUGH
CHRISTMAS is a time to remember old friends, old times and old haunts, and I have been thinking of my Aunt Anne. She was the eldest of five children, my mother being the youngest.
My aunt and her husband, Frank, lived in a quiet crescent beside a fir plantation at the edge of the park, and each year, as a child, I used to spend Boxing Day with them.
When my mother died three hours after my birth, followed by my father when I was seven years old, my dear paternal grandmother cared for me. My maternal grandmother had died two years before I was born.
After bringing up her own family, Grandma Alice, never hesitated about looking after me. She was lady in millions and gave me a wonderful childhood. It was she who used to take me to visit Aunt Anne in the 1920s.
I remember sitting in my aunt’s neat garden, bright with old-world flowers, eating strawberries, listening to the purr of wood pigeons from the copse and watching chimney cowls spinning round in the wind. Uncle Frank would bring a large sweet-scented bunch of pinks or sweet-peas from his allotment for me. I cannot pen the beauty that I saw in all the lovely summer flowers he grew.The vegetables he gave me, freshly-picked, were more than I could manage on my own and so he helped me carry all their kindness home.
I recall the smell of Aunt Anne’s home-made jam bubbling away. She would fill a bag with jars ofjam and pickle neatly labelled, together with coconut ice and walnut toffee for me to take home also.
I took a delight in dusting all the knick-knacks which adorned the mantleshelf, dainty china objects which the old folk loved to collect.
I remember, as a child, listening with mixed feelings of alarm and sadness to the story in the song of The Mistletoe Bough which held me spellbound. Aunt Anne used to sing this during those Yuletide evenings. It was about a wedding party in a castle owned by a baron whose daughter had just become the bride of a young man called Lovel. After dancing, the bride decided to play a game of hide and seek, asking her new husband to be sure he was the first to find her secret hiding place, which happened to be a remote place where an old oak chest which had lain unused for years was situated.Tragically the young bride became trapped in the chest, which had a spring and locked her in.Years later, children would say of the once-young groom: “The old man weeps for his fairy bride,” whose remains were found in the old oak chest which locked so many years ago.
Aunt Anne had an old wind-up gramophone, a present from her son Tom, who was several years my senior, and at Christmas time she played one of her favourite carols, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.Wed sit before a cheerful fire, logs burning in the hearth, and then she’d recite old poems, TheWreck of the Hesperus being one.
There was always the traditional Christmas tree, decorated with coloured glass balls and silver bells and draped with glittering tinsel, sparkling in the corner.
Their lavish table brimmed with Christmas fare. Her rich cakes and puddings were all home-made and good. As the years went by, we talked and joked. My anecdotes and mimicry used to set them laughing. Her shoulders would shake even more to see Uncle Frank laughing. She would double up in near hysterics then, tears rolling down her cheeks and say “Oh, stop or I’ll burst out of my stays, you rascal.
Don’t stay away so long again .You do us a power of good.” What I said or did I can’t recall, but I kept them in stitches and it was good to see them laugh.
Whatever I gave them to cause such mirth, they gave me with the interesting tales they told of yesteryear. Once when I was talking to Uncle Frank in the sitting room,
Anne, who was in the kitchen, said: “I could have sworn I heard my sister Rose talking.Your voice is just like hers.” She had told me so much about my mother, her youngest sister Rose, whose death had greatly affected her.
Another lady I recall at this time was Mrs. Cox. My lifelong friend,Joan, who lived next door to my grandparents and me, moved when I was 14 to a house on the Crown Estate and our new neighbours were now Mrs. Cox, her husband and grandson.We soon became friends. Her grandson was also brought up by his grandparents as, like me, he had lost his parents.
Mrs. Cox was a cheerful, kindly soul and I used to visit her every now and again. Like Aunt Anne she used to say, “Do come and see me more often, Rosie”. She loved well-written books, would recommend her favourites and she had a sentimental heart for bitter-sweet romance.
During the SecondWorldWar Mrs. Cox’s grandson joined the RAF. Besides my own grandson, I do not know another lad who was so good to his grandmother. He cared for her after her husband died,just as my own grandson cares for me.
I’m 80 now, older than Mrs. Cox was when the accompanying photograph of her feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square was taken. Where do all the short years go?
At heart, though, I am still 21 and during this Yuletide season I am thinking of these two ladies who had such a sense of humour and who were a delight to know, bringing much joy into my life.