I suppose every family has its own particular celebrations and punctuation in the calendar. Alongside Christmas or Chanukah, or whatever, alongside Valentine’s day or Halloween, or St Patrick’s Day or Mother’s Day – well, you get my message. I don’t need to go through a list of everything inspired by sincere faith or genuine affections, or the whims of the Greetings Cards industry. But I don’t mean the happy or sad ones that are random and sporadic like weddings or funerals – I’m talking about the annual events that are so much a part of a family’s tapestry that it’s always surprising to discover they’re not marked on official calendars.

    In our family’s case it was Auntie Maggie’s Birthday. Now there’s nothing unusual about family birthdays. In fact, I’d say that unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness they’re part of the life of every family in every civilisation, even if only because of wistful  or traumatic memories of birthdays past. But bit by bit, Auntie Maggie’s Birthday had turned into a ritual with almost mystical significance or at any rate, worthy of far more than a last minute birthday card and bunch of daffodils (her birthday fell in April) from the supermarket.

    The first one I really remember in any detail and realising the significance of it was when she was 65 and I was 10. I should explain she was really Great Auntie Maggie, but nobody called her that, just as nobody ever called her Margaret.

    Before that, Auntie Maggie and Uncle Robert had certainly played a part in our lives, but had been – it sounds cruel to say marginal, but there’d be a grain of truth in it. It was kicked off, I suppose, by something that was sad and sporadic, though not wholly unexpected. In November of the previous year, Uncle Robert died. As Mum said later, it was a shock and not a shock. He was the kind of man who had been ailing (though not in a whining way) for decades, and the other adults in the family whispered sadly that he would never make old bones. But they also reminded themselves about that reassuring proverb that creaking vessels last longest. This creaking vessel, alas, didn’t. His heart failed and that was that. I don’t know if they had defibrillators then, or if one would have helped.

    Though it wasn’t the first time I’d lost a relative, it was the first funeral I had attended. I could have had a far worse introduction. Auntie Maggie was sad (obviously) and sobbed softly into her handkerchief, but there were no hysterical or traumatic scenes, and I remember thinking that the music was rather nice. Mum told me it was something called Faure’s Requiem – a piece I still love. There were a couple of traditional hymns too and years later I discovered that some thought I had been singing rather too loudly. I had a good voice and was in the school choir, but that came close to showing off, and wasn’t quite the thing at a funeral. But Auntie Maggie told me she had enjoyed hearing my singing and was sure Uncle Robert would have, too.

    Of course there’s never a good time for anyone to die, but though it was rarely said in so many words, I think most folk generally agreed that Uncle Robert had been unwittingly considerate in breathing his last in November and so not spoiling Christmas for years to come, although obviously that first Christmas would be – Mum’s word of choice was “difficult”. 

    Our branch of the family was, unofficially but most definitely, appointed the “guardians of Auntie Maggie”. We didn’t live on top of her but far nearer than anyone else. Her only child, Mark, who was technically my Uncle, but I never called him that, lived in Canada, and though he came over for the funeral, of course, he quite rightly returned to his own work and life, and fiancée when it was over. Although she had been a wife, and was now a widow, there was always something (and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way) vaguely spinsterish about Auntie Maggie. Even my little brother Nick, who could be a holy terror, tended to be on his best behaviour with Auntie Maggie. But the thing is, she was by no means over strict or fussy in her ways. She wasn’t one of those Aunties who are always saying “Don’t touch this, don’t do that, get your elbows off the table, wipe your feet!” She always said please and thank you to us, and we always said it to her. 

    At first glance, looking at her, you might have thought she was very formal and old-fashioned in her dress. Well, in a way that was undeniably true. She favoured dark coloured pleated skirts, and matching or nearly matching cardigans, court shoes, trench coats that were never out of fashion because they were never in it and though she referred (if she mentioned it at all) to a “petticoat” rather than a “slip” I doubt said items had much in the way of lace or frills on them. She did sometimes allow herself a splash of colour in her blouse or scarf, and owned a couple of “print frocks” for the hottest days of summer. I don’t think I’d ever seen her in trousers though Dad swore he had once seen her wearing them doing the gardening. Her hair was already grey when Uncle Robert died, but that nice, silvery grey, and she wisely never coloured it. She wore it in a bun that had nothing in common with those “messy up-dos” that the Duchess of Cambridge made popular. But now I realise that she wore such clothes because she felt comfortable in them. She did not think any the less of anyone in tracky bottoms or the like, she’d just not have felt right in them herself.

    Anyway, getting back to the birthday. When her next one – that 65th – came around, enough time had passed since her bereavement for it to be entirely right and proper to celebrate her birthday, but it was still definitely better for her not to be left alone in the house. I don’t suppose anyone asked for her views on the matter. Polite as ever, when she was “asked round” she didn’t refuse, and seemed genuinely touched at the proper, not supermarket bouquet we gave her, and that Mum had remembered that she loved seed cake (I couldn’t stand it, but had been bribed to eat at least a slice with good grace on the promise of a chocolate brownie later) and that Nick and I recited a poem for her. Mind you I bridled a bit at the statement that “we” had written it when I’d done most of the work. 

    Auntie Maggie’s Birthday didn’t turn into something that seemed as if every word should be written in bold capitals overnight, or even, to invent word, “overyear”. Mum and Dad have told me since that they even hesitated about making a “thing” of the next one, but in the end they did, and if anything, it was more low-key than the first – I certainly don’t remember either being asked to write a poem or expected to endure seed cake. The subsequent ones have become a blur, and I’m not sure which time we had the special cake (mercifully, not a seed cake) made, and which time Nick (I’m proud of him now, but it galled me at the time!) who was far better at his piano lessons, played her a little piece. Possibly one of the easier Chopin ones, arranged for learners. I do know that her 69th  was postponed, because she was in hospital for a hip replacement, and as my friend Sarah, a leap year baby, always said, it’s never quite the same. But we made up for it when she turned 70. It was a bit of a tricky time for our family all ways round. Dad thought he might lose his job because they were downsizing (in the end he didn’t, and I swear Auntie Maggie found the word, with every sympathy for him, just as bad as the prospect!). Our beloved spaniel Mr Pooch had died recently (though in his basket, with his favourite toy) and there were 2 truculent teens in the household. “But you were always nice kids at heart, both of you,” Mum said, “We were lucky.” I still haven’t figured if that’s a compliment or makes us sound a bit boring.

    The 70th was the Real Deal with knobs on. It wasn’t at our house or at Auntie Maggie’s, but at the Grange – the nearest our town came to a posh restaurant/gastropub, not to mention tea rooms and a couple of en suite bedrooms thrown in. I do remember it was the first time I was allowed a glass of wine officially!

    A band had been hired, and they were pretty good, though Nick was probably a better pianist (not that I intended telling him!) than theirs, and as Sarah, who works in a care home, has said, why do they always think anyone over the age of 65 lived fifty years longer ago than they did? Apparently quite recently a school choir who came to visit treated them to “Tipperary”, not as some kind of historic tribute to those involved in World War One, but because they appeared to genuinely think they remembered it. 

    But I digress. I had to smile when Auntie Maggie told the lead vocalist “That was lovely – I remember my Dad talking about that song!” It was a sincere compliment, but she’d made her point and made it well.

    There was the Garden Centre Birthday, and the Donkey Sanctuary Birthday, and quite a few repeat visits to the Grange, but most of them were on home soil, so to speak, though we always made an effort to find a new twist to mark Auntie Maggie’s Birthday. Her 71st coincided with Easter Monday – not remotely weird; I suppose a person with an April birthday is as good as bound to have at least one Easter birthday in their life, but we acted as if it were, if not necessarily weird, momentous, and justifying Easter Bonnets and a hand-crafted Easter Egg. She smuggled much of that to Nick and me, though she confessed she felt guilty on several counts – though by then I was more than old enough to buy my own chocolate, and I suppose Nick was too. She had a sweet tooth, but didn’t like chocolate that much. But she was too polite to say so.

    Though she never used the phrase, and would have probably been courteously dismissive of it, she was something of a silver surfer, and quite prone to singing the praises of the Internet when it came to finding a rich seam of crochet patterns and information on National Trust properties. But her 75th birthday was marked by her first ever Skype conversation – with Mark, and, of course, Sabrina, now his wife, and accompanied by gurgles, that even I, who thought babies tended to be overrated, found rather sweet from her first grandchild, Miranda, otherwise known as the Little Miracle, who arrived without ever having seen the inside of a test-tube when they were resigning themselves to remaining childless or adopting. But I also knew what I’d have thought in Auntie Maggie’s position – though it was all very lovely, and very special – but it would have been more lovely and more special without a throng of people, some of whom she didn’t even know that well, huddled around the laptop as if it were a spectator sport.  Of course there’d be plenty of chances for those more intimate conversations with Mark and Sabrina and Miranda – but there’s only ever one first time.

    We knew exactly how old Auntie Maggie was – how could we not? – but she still had something, if not exactly ageless, then age-static about her. It would be an exaggeration and plain untrue to say she looked just the same when she was nearing 80 as she had before she was 60, but she seemed to stall more than most. I think in appearance, at least, she probably was old before her time, and not just because of her early greying hair, but after the passage of years, people would not have been paying a facile compliment if they’d said she could easily pass for under 70. 

    Such conversations didn’t anger her, but I’m pretty sure she found them tedious. 

    In some ways, I suppose, I took after her in that respect. I was easily the tallest in my class when I was 12, but among the shorter in my first year group at uni. I knew when I was a child I was spoken of, usually affectionately, as “12 going on 40” and the like, but quite well aware that as an adult I had by no means put aside childish things.

    Auntie Maggie and I had become genuinely close. We had shared interests, like our love of classical music and taste for Chinese food (I often wondered why there hadn’t, so far, been a Chinese meal as part of Auntie Maggie’s Birthday), were both inclined to be pedantic and thought cartoons were very funny, but clowns were not. We would have shuddered in unison at the thought of being the subjects of an article on the lines of My Auntie/Niece is my best friend but it was generally accepted in the clan that we knew how to “deal” with each other. She was the one who gently broached the subject of my boyfriend Ryan not being a rebel (which I think she would have approved of) but a pain in the neck, and I was the one who raised the matter of the risks of her changing light-bulbs when perched on a kitchen chair. So it came as no surprise when Mum said, “Donna, could you put out a few feelers about how Auntie Maggie wants her 80th to be celebrated? I was thinking about a reunion with some old friends, or – having one of those “story of your life” books printed, and these things take time.”

    I agreed, and was equally unsurprised that she “twigged on” quickly. But, coming back into the lounge with a tray bearing tea for her and coffee for me, and a little plate of biscuits that she said, “Are miles better than what I could make, so why go to the bother?” I could tell she was troubled. “What is it, Auntie Maggie?” I asked. “We’ll go along with anything we can – after all, it’s your special day, and the 80th ….” I trailed off.

    She smiled and put a hand on my arm. “I know what you meant, Donna, and what you all mean, and it’s fair enough. Him Up There,” (she was a religious woman in her way, but with a wryness to it) “has seen fit, bless Him, to let me get to this age in pretty good health, even my hip’s holding out well, and with my wits about me. But this is the stage when things can start to get a bit iffy and can start going down hill. And birthdays with a nought in them – I believe the Germans even call them “round birthdays” have that special significance. You want it to be a good one, and I thank you all for it, which makes it specially hard to say what I’m going to say now. I won’t be here for my 80th birthday – oh, not that, you silly girl,” as she saw the horrified look I tried to mask with only limited success. “Him Up There willing, I hope I’m here for my 90th.  But – I’m going on a cruise. I was going to tell you all in the next couple of days – Guide’s Honour!” Another thing we had in common was that we had both been Girl Guide patrol leaders, and we still, half-jokingly, exchanged the three-finger salute to emphasise our sincerity. “I’ve thought long and hard about this, sweetheart, but I’ve always loved to travel, and have got out of the habit. Trust me, it’s not being perverse that it includes my birthday – there are tickets for a music festival in Sweden included in it, and it’s a darned good deal. We can break it too them together.”

    Well, of course, everyone said they hoped she would have a wonderful time, and it would have been a shame to miss the chance, and all that. But I do know that Mum, particularly, felt rather betrayed and hurt, though she tried not to let it show.

    Still, that’s all behind us now, and we’re looking forward to her 81st birthday, which most definitely will be one of Our Occasions.

    But someone else, somebody very important, is involved in the planning of it.

    They first met at the performance of Mozart’s wonderful clarinet concerto, their seats were side by side, and Sven was glowing with pride that his son was the soloist.

    Sven – Auntie Maggie’s second husband.

October 04, 2019 06:45

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