When I was a child, I spent my summers at a large and sprawling house in Plymouth, and these are some of my earliest memories. Playing hide and seek in three gardens, watching baby chicks bathe in a sink of water, sitting in the smallest ‘secret’ garden with a book all afternoon; these are some of the earliest childhood memories that I have.
Travelling all day in my Mum’s Land Rover Discovery, sitting in the back seats and pausing on a motorway to eat sandwiches and apples. Pulling up at the house to be greeted by a pair of enormous geese, Charlie and Geraldine, who would chase me around the garden shrieking in a green summer dress.
‘Aunty Helen’, as she was known to us, was a small, smiling woman, always with outstretched arms, a plate full of food and a gentle word of wisdom. She once told me to help her to prepare food in the kitchen, I must have been eight years old or so, and a few hours later, watching many people gather around the table to eat vegetables that I had chopped up (and made a terrible job of it, I might add!) the first seeds of enthusiasm for cooking and entertaining may have been sown.
Aunty Helen was a tireless giver; always there with a lap, a cuddle, a handbag she had painstakingly crotcheted or a potato sandwich. The memories I have of her from my childhood are those of a woman who always had time to listen to the children, who spoke sternly to us when we cheeked our parents, who ran a large and immaculate house, and was hospitable to a fault. She always had stories about our far flung Greek relatives, a great Uncle Hercules, and taught me to write my name in Greek. She told me that Alpha was the beginning, and Omega was the end, and to say my prayers before I went to bed.
She was humble, mild mannered and a joy to spend my time with as a young girl. As an adult, I can only hope to be a fraction of the woman who left such an impression on my young mind. I may romanticise my recollections of the big house in Plymouth, but that is what my big eyes saw and what my pandoras box of memories chooses to retain, fifteen or so years later.
I have not seen my aunty Helen for a few years now, ‘meaning to’ make the journey to Plymouth with small boy so he could meet this wonderful woman who peppers so many of my joyful childhood memories, but I didn’t make it. Now for Helen, who passed away yesterday somewhere in her nineties (she was not sure when her birthday was- which was typical of her lack of self interest) there won’t be a tomorrow, or a next week, or a ‘soon.’ There is just a regret, that I didn’t make it, and that small boy will only have stories, and photographs of geese chasing his mother around the garden in a green summer dress.
Save us a seat in heaven, Aunty Helen, and I’ll bring you a crotcheted blanket if you’ll make me one last potato sandwich.