Aunty Hilary

I am very sad today because yesterday my Godmother died. She was 91 years old.

Although she was not technically my Aunt, (she tried to explain the family tree to me many times and I was never able to fathom its complexities) the whole family has always referred to Hilary as “Aunty Hilary,” and she was family to us all. She and my Grandmother played together when they were girls, and when my parents were beginning their life together they lived with Hilary. Hilary watched my mother and her siblings growing up and then she saw them marry and raise their children – me, my brothers, our cousins… It has been a massive privelige to have someone in our lives for so many years; someone who has witnessed all the workings of our family and who has loved us all so well and for so long.

She will be missed.

Aunty Hilary accepted a role as my Godmother when I was christened; a role which she fulfilled in a remarkably tolerant and unconditional way, becoming a kind of spiritual advisor to me over the years in spite of my rejection of organised religion later in life. She spoke to me with great frankness about life as an unmarried woman living in postwar Britain and about the realities of ageing and dying. We wrote to each other many times, sharing everything in letters from the deep mysteries of life to the everyday bits of news like what we had for tea last week, or where we went and what the weather was like there.

I took a huge stack of such letters to the pub last night, and Mark and I read them over a dram of Laphroaig. Aunty Hilary liked whisky and would – I feel – have approved of this.

Hilary was all about celebration and appreciation. Exclamation points beam out of her letters like lollipops and her vibrant accounts are peppered with diagrams illustrating things she found funny or interesting. I was very moved by the details in her letters and the memories that reading them evoked. I enjoyed especially her rejection of the principles of Supermarket shopping; (“I don’t need to stock up large quantities of large things”) her touching description of how she couldn’t possibly ask the neighbours to pick up face-powder or lipstick for her; (“Well – you don’t ask others to buy those, do you?”) a particularly lovely letter about her childhood friend visiting; (“Getting old has its funny side – and compensations”) and her description of a vigorous gourd plant; (“it started on one of the side banks, is nearly along the ground to the apple tree, is climbing over a pot of lavender, over a hydrangea and 2 other plants, and still growing…It is great fun.”) I am also tickled by the clear evidence collectively presented by the letters that Aunty Hilary politely yet firmly refused to ever call me “Felix;” To her I was “Felicity” or “Fliss,” and even as I type “Fliss” I can hear her saying it in her wonderful RP Baritone.

Reading Hilary’s letters also evokes for me the home which she had up until 3 years ago before she moved into an assisted living retirement apartment. Hilary’s house had the comforting smell of roast dinners, (Hilary’s speciality) Yardley lavender soap, old leatherbound books, Glengetti Tea, and the unforgettable fragrance of turpentine and watercolour paints which emanated from the Art Room. Aunty Hilary was a home economics schools inspector for many years and was fastidious about the proper arrangement of kitchen cutlery and tableware. She prided herself on laying on a marvellous “spread” whenever we visited, and I remember the heavenly crumbles and yorkshire puddings she made for us all with great affection, as well as the patient way that she would move between preparing the lunch when we came, and pegging out all our watercolours to dry, amidst encouraging cries of “isn’t that marvellous?” and – I think probably one of her favourite exclamations – “Lovely!” She framed all the artwork made by the children she knew, and set it beside her own sketches and watercolours – of which there were many. I will never forget how Hilary wrote to me excitedly after a cateract operation to show me the difference in colours before and after her sight was restored; the before painting was drab and grey, and the after painting was a verdant celebration of colours. After that, Hilary never seemed to like anything grey or beige or neutral ever again, becoming instead a bold proponent of technicolour life and filling many volumes with brightly-coloured sketches.

Hilary was also very active in her local parish; her letters are full of lively accounts of Church outings and Bazaars and the activities of the Dramatic Society. For years there was a wonderful old suitcase full of costumes under the bed in Hilary’s spare room which doubled up as a props store for the DS and a dressing up stash for all the children who came to visit. I loved that trunk and its glittering, vintage contents. Hilary always generously indulged my wishes to dress myself and all her china-headed dolls in the outlandish garb that it contained; she regarded me with perfect solemnity as we sat in her garden one afternoon drinking pretend tea out of dollshouse teacups in her garden, myself dressed head to toe in an outrageous, flouncy, black-netting ballgown from the 1930s, and all the dolls arranged in a be-ribboned, be-laced row around our feet.

It was just like Hilary to encourage (and join in with) such fun.

In spite of the wonders of her old home, the assisted living apartment was an excellent idea for Hilary; she loved the mix of independence and support that it offered, and the letters that we read last night were filled with excitement about the move and little progress reports (and diagrams) detailing the building work. She moved there in 2007. I fear the things she missed most when she moved house were the bird-table and its daily roster of visitors which afforded her so much pleasure in her old place, but Hilary continued to write happily of daytrips to Whitstable and Bluewater, clothes purchased excitedly in January sales, wonderful cream teas enjoyed at this or that Church function and news of the family.

I believe that Aunty Hilary grew old gracefully and with great style. She made very wise and sensible decisions about what she would need in her late years, and the assisted living apartments gave her the mix of privacy and practical assistance that she required. She is one of the only people I have ever met who can be both funny, frank, and accepting about the realities of old age, and she somehow managed to be able to laugh out loud at herself whilst maintaining a formiddable, old-school air of dignity. It did not please her to deal with solicitors whose faces she had not physically seen when she was moving house, and one of her letters gives a fabulous description of how she took it upon herself to go and check up on the person in charge of her house sale. Luckily he passed muster; (“he is a nice friendly man, not a college chap hustling everything along quickly, so we got on fine!”)

Aunty Hilary’s wisdom was particularly helpful when I was disabled with arthritis; she helped me to find the silver linings, the tiny pleasures, the bits of fun that could be gleaned from life when my hands and feet wouldn’t work. We spent happy times sitting in her dining room watching the birds with binoculars, and shuffling into Echo Square, where Hilary seemed to know absolutely everybody and would still – in spite of my being nearly 30 and completely irreligious by that time – introduce me to everyone proudly as “my very talented God-daughter, Felicity.”

I thought of all these things on Monday when I went to the hospital where Hilary lay. The ward was noisy and full of the whirring sounds of medical apparatus. I took some knitting with me and stayed for several hours watching Aunty Hilary sleep and hoping that in that shared silence I could somehow convey all the things I had no words for.

But I do not want to remember Hilary by the wierdly noisy quiet of oxygen tanks and bleeping machines and I do not think she would want to be remembered that way either. So I have dug out the recordings I made at her 90th birthday party last year, because they are more indicative somehow of the celebratory, wise and wonderful fairy Godmother that Hilary was to me and of all the happy times we have enjoyed together over the years.

14 Responses to Aunty Hilary

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