My giddy Aunts

From left to right: Aunty Helen, Aunty Clara, Gwenda and Aunty Lena

From left to right: Aunty Helen, Aunty Clara, Gwenda and Aunty Lena

As a 50s child growing up in a small Welsh mining valley, the expressions we used were far different from the cool cliches of today. I often said, “My giddy aunt!” My brother, Maldwyn, quick as a flash, always answered, “Which one?” We saw our three maiden aunts regularly but I suppose only two could be called giddy.

Aunty Lena and Clara were as different as chalk and coal. They both lived in Cardiff and from time to time they descended on us – not together, or World War Three could have started. Aunty Lena, or ‘Lady Bountiful’, as our mother called her, was the only spinster. Our friends likened her to the Queen Mother and certainly there was a resemblance – especially her air of great queenly condescension.

She often turned up unannounced which annoyed our mother immensely. Mam said that she did it hoping to catch her in the middle of cleaning. Lena had done her share of housework. From her teens she’d acted as housekeeper for her father and eight siblings, their mother having died giving birth to number nine.

Lena eventually worked in Cardiff as a school cook. She had no sense of humour and as she got older, became increasingly bitter reminiscing on her youth. But I remember her best in the role of ‘Lady Bountiful’, when she ruled supreme as Head Cook at Cathays High School for Boys, oozing pride as she showed me her domain – the school kitchen.

I spent much of my school holidays at Lena’s tiny flat in the middle of Cardiff Civic Centre. The big city was like another planet compared to our tiny valley. With the university, museum and mini parks close by,

I was as thrilled as any child transported to Disney World. One of my favourite haunts was Roath Park. Lena would pack an enormous lunch and we’d spend the day there. She was famous for her food and baked every concoction known to man, in enormous quantities. Years later, when she was in her eighties and practically blind, I often visited with my own family and even then she would pack us up with large quantities of pies, cakes and other goodies to take home.

Aunty Clara was a different kettle of fish.

She giggled constantly, especially when making fun of her sister, Lena. Her husband Bill was extremely quiet but they were both passionate about sport (something incomprehensible to Lena),
especially cricket.

They had three cats, all very fat, unlike Bill who resembled a stick insect. Saucers of milk or cat food were permanently left around and one chair occupied by a cat. It was a scary procedure trying to remove him (the cat not Bill) in order to sit down.

The house smelt of the fish Clara bought for her pets at Cardiff Market and my sister, Gwyneth and I loved visiting there with its conglomeration of sights and smells. The highlight of the visit was drinking a cup of tea at a very unposh cafe upstairs -somewhere Aunty Lena wouldn’t be seen dead in. As a special treat I’d sometimes eat a tub of cockles.

Eating at Clara’s was informal to say the least. Uncle Bill ate the most peculiar diet consisting of bowls of custard and rice pudding, or plates of mashed potato swimming with gravy. Bread and dripping was another favourite we were allowed to share with him at tea. Best of all, Llandaff Fields were across the road.

Clara loved children and I often wondered why she had none, until Mam told us she once gave birth to a stillborn baby one April 1st. Apparently, Clara declared she really was ‘April-fooled’, deciding there and then never to go through the ordeal again.

Mam went to stay with her for a week during the war when Dad was a patient at Cardiff Infirmary. But Mam, frightened out of her wits by the air raids, left in a hurry, vowing never to return. Air raids were non-existent in our valley, mountains being very useful for shielding bombs.

As for my other aunt. She was always just there – living up the hill and round the
corner from us. My first memory of Aunty Helen is of her swinging me round, the way you do with toddlers. Gradually, I became aware that she was different. She couldn’t talk. Apparently she’d started talking when she was about two but an attack of meningitis had left her stone deaf.

She was as bright as a button until her death at 97, apart from her sight, which was almost gone.

How cruel was that. Her husband died years before. He was also ‘deaf and dumb’, as we called it then. A little man, who, when 1 think of him now, reminds me of Rigsby in Rising Damp – the same aggressive stance. All I know is Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without Helen and Davy-Bryn the other side of the tea-table. As youngsters, we giggled and nudged each other watching Davy-Bryn, head down, eating so noisily. It didn’t occur to us that deafness affects table manners.

I remember Helen as a soft, background figure, always invited when visitors arrived but excluded from conversations and left to clear the table and wash up afterwards. “It gives her something to do,” they would say.

She had no children, but Helen always mouthed to us, “Families, lovely,” as if seeing us and – later on – our own children, made up for having none herself.
I assumed that she was used to her disability. I was wrong. When my sister Gwyneth moved to Canada, Mam had the idea of everyone speaking into our tape recorder and sending the tape to her. High-tech stuff. We gathered round, taking turns to speak. As usual, Aunty Helen hovered in the background. A day later Helen confided to our mother that she’d gone home and cried because she couldn’t send a message. I wondered how many times she’d cried without telling anyone.

Although in her 90s and older than Mam, Helen still visited twice weekly to do her shopping, and when she died, the whole valley mourned. They all knew her.

But she came into her own, for a short time. After her siblings died, we children visited regularly and did our best to spoil her. She always gave the thumbs up sign when we left, despite having practically no eyesight and living alone. For several Christmases, Helen spent the holiday with us, surrounded by family, with no washing up to do; dishwashers being invented by then.

Although these aunts are long dead, it only takes a visit to Wales for memories of these characters to come flooding back.

Gwenda Mitchell, Quedgeley, Glos