Auntie Celia is in hospital. She has dementia and she broke her hip in a fall last week. They replaced her hip but she doesn’t even realise, and she’s not giving the nurses too easy a time of it. I don’t expect I shall ever see her again – this is one of the prices we pay for a new life in a new world. We leave our loved ones behind in both time and space and every leaving is a last goodbye.
Auntie Celia is my beloved father’s only sister. She IS, but he WAS. She was the most beautiful young woman! Tucked away somewhere in a suitcase in her house are photos she once showed me, taken by Uncle Ray when she was only a teenager. This was in the 1940s; he had her posing as a glamour model and she really looked the part. They say I look like her, and in a sense I do, because many of our features are the same, but they were thrown together somewhat more slapdash on me; I didn’t get her beauty, just her look.
Auntie Celia was a beacon of love for me when I was a little girl. A visit to her house was a trip to a magical place, full of portholes and coloured glass, cunning doorways and cabinets. She didn’t really care to cook, I found out later, but she always made the most wonderful puddings (English puddings, you understand), Spotted Dick, Syrup Sponge, Steamed Marmalade pudding, cakes, and marvelous chewy gooey flapjacks. Her dining room was rich wood and warm, glowing copper, I could have stayed there forever with its charms and mysteries. She spoiled me so much and I knew, because she told me, that I was the little girl she never had. We were very special to each other. When my father died and she arrived at his funeral, it was me she ran to. All of us in shock and grief at our sudden, tragic loss – she knew that I knew, was the only one who knew, her pain.
From when I was about seven or eight, and we would visit for a weekend or a day, she would always take me on one side and show me that the key was where it should be. This was the Running Away Key – she left it for me in an outbuilding, so that should I need to run away and upon my arrival she was out shopping or something, I could let myself in and make myself a cup of tea to drink until she came home. The key was always there right up until they moved – they lived in that house for over 50 years and that key was there through most of my life, for me, always there for when I should need it. When I last saw Auntie Celia, when her memory was already leaving her, she remembered this. But she thought, and I agreed, that I was probably going to be OK now.
That last time I her, I was driving around the UK with a huge amount of booze in the boot of the car. It’s a long story, but we had moved to the US a couple of years before, and of course we had not taken the contents of our rather enormous drinks cabinet with us. So it had gone to someone’s garage, but when we visited I thought it would be a great idea to take it around with us on our travels so that we could drink it with our friends and relatives (we were there for 6 weeks, so there was a fine chance of getting rid of most of it, as indeed we did). Auntie Celia dearly loved her sticky drinks, and when I mentioned my travelling cocktail cabinet she came right back from where her roaming mind had taken her. We talked about the key, and how I wouldn’t be needing it any more, and it seemed like it was a relief to her to be able to let me go – perhaps it was a weight off her mind to know that at the end of any outing there was no longer the chance of finding me there when she got back home. And then I gave her the bottle of Cointreau from the boot of the car. Her face! As happy a face as I have ever seen.
We leave our loved ones behind in both time and space and every leaving is a last goodbye.