Almost exactly two years ago, I set off in my trusty car to interview my ninety one year old aunt in Cornwall. Interviewing people about the loss of virginity is one thing, asking your elderly aunt to tell you about the first time she had penetrative sex is another. This didn’t phase me. I was on a mission. I wanted this story.
When I had my road to Damascus moment on a beach in California a few years ago, it was the historical angle of this project that first got me going. We live in a unique country. Could I reflect that by knitting together the stories of the people that live in it?
I could hardly wait to find out. Months went by and I got a few stories under my belt but I couldn’t push past the age of sixty five. The truth was that I didn’t know that many people who were really old. Now, back in the day it was a different story.
I spent some of my twenties working with Alzheimer’s patients. This is not an exclusively ‘elderly’ disease, but in my case, these were all octogenarians. I rushed my daily duties to get to the floor and sit with the old folk. They had stories like you wouldn’t believe, admittedly ones they would repeat on a regular basis but I didn’t care. They were stories worth telling once, twice, or even three times at a sitting.
That was then, this was now. Contacts were long gone and grandparents had all departed. Except for Aunty Betty. No matter that we were not related by blood – she married my grandmother’s brother in 1940. She was, by a long shot, one of the most popular members of my family. Loved and respected in equal measures by my grandmother and her four daughters – one of whom is my mother.
A couple of phone calls was all it took and several weeks later, on a sunny morning, me and my mother leapt, Starsky and Hutch style into my Renault five to drive south. That’s not quite true. In a strange reversal of roles, I started the car and asked my mother the following question. ‘Where’s your coat?’
‘Oh’, she giggled with a daft look on her face, ‘I forgot it!’ Well you better un-forget it because it’s not gonna be warm where we’re going.
It wasn’t, but it was wild and it was beautiful and it felt great to escape the city despite nagging doubts at what we were about to do. But Aunty Betty had agreed to this and it wasn’t a surprise. She was universally known as a good sport, a game bird, the person who would always say what everyone else was thinking. She didn’t pull her punches. She was also as sharp as a pin.
‘I’ve got one foot on a banana skin and the other in the grave’. That had been her answer that morning when her hairdresser enquired after her health. She seemed pleased with that response as she swayed precariously, like a giant with stiff legs, across a sea of carpet, taking hold of trinket-laden tables and sideboards as she went.
She sunk into a grateful chair and we sat drinking cups of tea and eating cakes. What else to do with a surrogate granny? How I miss those days. I don’t look back much, but if I could go anywhere, it would be back to my grandmother’s house and her undivided attention over a game of Halma. No siblings, no parents, just me, my granny and a board game. Tea on a tray followed and the comfort of a tucked up bed. What’s not to love?
We can’t rekindle the past but we can make the most of the present. As I pushed the button on the tape player and Aunty Betty began to speak, I realised that this was more than a story. This was the documentation of the past that made all our presents possible. My grandmother had had seven brothers. All of them now dead. Aunty Betty was the last person who would ever be able to tell us about these people – and the act that produced a cousin for my mother.
‘On the first night I might tell you, I thought this is much ado about nothing. But then I got to like it.’
She only ever had one child but she probably had quite a lot of sex. She may have come from the dark ages but that never stopped this lady from living her life to the max. Uncle Teddie had been in the air force. Long after we got past the sex talk and the tape had stopped rolling, my great aunt dropped the real clanger.
‘What were you and Uncle Teddie doing in Germany after the war?’ My mother asked her.
‘Oh, we were spying dear’.
Of course you were. Silly us. There followed facts that I won’t publish here. Years might have passed but I know that the publication of such details would give my mother the complete and utter willies. Let’s just say that the ‘activity’ involved a camera, a lot of ‘picnics’ and a proud young couple taking pictures of their first born outside a selection of prominent German buildings.
My mother might be spooked but my aunt wouldn’t have given two hoots. Mainly because within six weeks of this interview taking place, she passed away. I believe that she knew she was going to die. If I was conscious of this chance to document detail, she was more so. That’s partly why she agreed to take part but it was something else too. I think it gave her a last chance to review a fabulously happy marriage.
‘The whole point about marriage is that you grow into a deep friendship. You grow older together and you become deeper friends. Teddie and I were very deep. We were very good friends.’
He was the bomber pilot, brave but sensitive. A man who suffered with stomach problems for the whole of his life, because despite the pride he took in his wartime role, he never got over the thought of the lives he crushed during night time raids over German soil. Women, children, people just like you and I. He was the dashing uncle that my aunts all loved and she, the charismatic young woman that he chose for his wife. Friendship, she opined, was the key to their success.
I had no idea of how many roads, physical and otherwise, I would travel with this project. I have seen life – mainly other people’s, at its best and its worst, and all through the telling of stories. This is the real deal. This is what makes me me and you you.
But I am just a piece of the jigsaw, a patch in the quilt of this life. And so are you. Go out there and ask your people to tell you stories. Do it before its too late. Because no matter how many sophisticated forms of communication we devise, when the old die, the past goes with them. Document it today.