When I think of her, waifs and strays both human and animal come to mind.
Auntie Em was my mother’s sister, and as a very small child I used to spend my summer holidays with her at home outside Liskeard.
She was a formidable woman; when she stood, hands on hips, looking through those wire-framed spectacles of hers, nobody argued – they just did what they were told.
I can’t remember seeing her in anything but a blue and white striped, wrap around apron, or ever seeing a strand of her white, wavy hair out of place.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness was one of her favourite sayings.
Each night, she would clean my ears – the rest of me was washed thoroughly too, but the ears came in for special treatment. She had a very firm index finger, and this was pushed into a well soaped flannel, and the creases and crevices of each ear were thoroughly explored and cleaned. After this, my ears not only shone, they glowed and throbbed.
Auntie Em and my uncle started married life as farmers; but after Uncle Will had gone to Canada and learnt something of the timber business, on his return to Cornwall they started a timber yard near Liskeard. Auntie Em also kept chickens and pigs to help out.
Animals were always referred to as “dumb animals” and woe betide anyone who ill-treated them. Hens would actually rub up against her with affection. I have never seen this with anyone else.
Yet there was not sentimentality about her. Whether hen or pig, when the time came for them to go, they were dispatched quickly and humanely. A rack suspended from the ceiling in the living room was loaded with cuts of pork, home-cured bacon and ham. A few weeks before, Auntie Em would have been feeding Sally, the sow, and scratching her ear with affection but when the family needed meat, it was “Goodbye Sally”.
The outside door would always be open when she was working in the kitchen and birds of many kinds would hop in and out, on to her shoulders and even her head. There were robins, finches, thrushes, blackbirds and warblers as well as the inevitable sparrow. Each would be given a share of titbits as she crooned soothingly, “Alright my beauty, come on my lovely.” Watching from a distance, I envied her this rapport with wildlife.
Her understanding of animals was phenomenal, and they seemed to understand her. I remember one occasion when she took me across a field where cattle were grazing with a bull in close attendance.
“Don’t worry my buck,” she said sensing my fear, “he won’t hurt you; he knows you’re just a chiel, and you’re with me. They aren’t stupid”.
I was reassured, but I still kept a tight grip of her hand and a sharp eye on the bull.
One day a frightened steer escaped from Liskeard and went berserk through the town. it ended up in my uncle’s timber yard, and her sons had to stop Auntie Em from going out to it. She was quite convinced that it would do her no harm, and I am sure she was right.
Her knowledge of herbs was extensive, and she was able to provide a treatment for nearly anything. The yarrow leaf was for toothache and angelica for gnat bites. Bunches of weeds hung from the kitchen ceiling to be steeped later in hot water to make a medicinal brew. If only I had paid more attention to her when she casually named the various plants on our country walks together, but as a young boy, I was more interested in playing than gleaning knowledge – now I realise how much she had to teach.
Several years later when about twelve years old, I had an accident on my bicycle. The skin of both my hands was almost completely ripped off. The wounds turned septic and my hands looked a mess. Auntie Em took some leaves from a plant and applied the underside of them to my palms.
“That will clean them up,” she said. “When your flesh gets pink and healthy, we’ll get more leaves and put the shiny side to your hands, to make them heal”.
It worked. If only I knew what leaves they were.
She had a delicious sense of humour and would laugh uncontrollably in the most unlikely situation.
Tom Bartlett, an old man living nearby, would often stand by the kitchen door chatting as she worked. He used to wear a straw hat and an aura of cleanliness surrounded him. His pink face would shine and though the clothes he wore were simple, they were spotless. He would hobble around slowly on two sticks.
One Monday morning, he was watching my auntie doing her washing in the outhouse adjoining the kitchen. There was an old built-in boiler and a fringle, as the fires were called. Suddenly there was an explosion and the chimney and part of the roof was blown off. Mr Bartlett took to his heels and ran as he hadn’t run for years, shouting as he went………. “Look out Missus! Look out Missus! He’s coming again!” despite the possibility of further explosions, the sight of Mr Bartlett running up the garden path made Auntie Em collapse to the ground laughing.
She told the story many times and relived every moment. She had put on the fire some chopped up pieces of an old settee that had been bought several years before. They had originally been owned by a man who used to work in the granite quarries near the Cheesewring. His wife, they said, “wuddn zackley” so for safety sake, the man drilled holes in the legs of furniture to hide dynamite caps needed for his job in the quarry.
The result for Auntie Em could have been far less amusing, but she never even considered that possibility.
Tramps used to call in regularly and they were received courteously, given a cup of tea and offered food. If we were about to sit down to a meal, they were invited to join us. I remember one toothless character called Bill Cundy. When he tried to bite through a whole tomato with his gums, juice squirted all over me.
It was not just birds and tramps that were entertained by Auntie. The very cream of Cornish society was invited to lunch one day: The Lord St Levan, no less. We always had dinner, but because he was coming, it was called lunch. It was not a social occasion though, I believe The Lord St Levan was coming to arrange the management of some of his woodlands, and the appointment had been made for mid-day.
A rabbit pie was cooking in the old Cornish range, or slab as it was sometimes called. When the guest arrived, my uncle, trying to help, went to the range to get out the pie. This he did, forgetting the advantage of using an oven cloth. For a very brief moment, he held on valiantly; then, when his fingers were almost sizzling, he threw the hot dish across the room where it landed upside down under the table, splattering its contents everywhere. My auntie, ignoring an astonished member of the aristocracy, thoroughly boxed my uncle’s ears. “You blithering great idiot!” she yelled.
She had to take down a ham from the rack to use instead.
No one worked harder than Auntie Em, but she never considered herself a drudge. Her home was her castle and she was proud of it. Inside that house she ruled supreme. With her we felt safe, secure and yes- loved. I think every child should have an Auntie Em.
Do they still make them like her I wonder?