Tuesday, February 5, 2019



            No matter how many billetees and evacuees we took in, the Rectory always seemed to have room for more. There seemed to be a constant stream of family visiting—uncles and aunts and cousins of all kinds. How my mother housed and fed them all, I can’t imagine. But she did.
            (You can skip this part, if you wish. I see no reason for anyone else to be interested in my relatives, but they’re very much a part of my own Aspley Guise story…)
            So, relatives. In England, we called them “relations”—a word that has a number of different connotations in America today! There were…
            My mother’s sister Nina, her husband Dick, and their three children. The odd thing about this family, for us, was that they all switched names. Uncle Dick was at one time Cecil. Susan, the oldest daughter, was Priscilla; David was Jim, and Nick was… I’ve actually forgotten who Nick was but he definitely had a second name. As did Auntie Nina, whose second name also escapes me. Perhaps they will pop back into my mind before I’m done with this.
The main thing I recall about Auntie Nina and Uncle Dick was how much they relished their “gin and it.” in the evening—it. being short for Italian (Vermouth that is), so therefore what today we’d call a martini. Uncle Dick was the designated martini maker. He made them meticulously every evening, patiently measuring out appropriate amounts of each liquid into a cocktail shaker and shaking it with the fastidious attention of a watchmaker. By profession he was an anesthesiologist, so that kind of perfectionism seems fitting. Auntie Nina was the gay one of the family—gay in the old sense of another word whose meaning has much changed. A couple of decades earlier she would have surely been a flapper. And perhaps was. Their children were always neatly dressed and taught to be unfailingly polite.
The oldest of my mother’s siblings, the Williams family, was Uncle Stephen. Like Uncle Dick, he was a medical man, tall and, to us children, seemingly aloof in the uniform he wore as an officer in the Royal Air Force. Uncle Stephen was married to my Auntie Cliff who, word had it, was a former performer on the London stage, and was theatrical enough in her demeanor to live up to that reputation. I remember her, whether accurately or not, as being cheerfully chubby, a merry presence who enlivened every Rectory party. Their son Hugh was the oldest of the grandchildren, our cousins, and was most often away at boarding school. Year later, married and the father of four children and, I believe, an air force officer himself, he was to die tragically in a car accident in the Far East where he had been posted. His brother, Sam, was probably ten years younger, and would therefore have been born some time after the war, and after we had moved on from Aspley Guise. Curiously, he too ended up in California and we remain in touch.
            Aside from my Auntie Gay, the Bletchley girl, the only other relatives on my mother’s side were Uncle Vincent and Auntie Jo. They lived in distant Wales so we did not know them well, either during the war or after. Like my father, Uncle Vincent was an Anglican minister (Church of Wales, I suspect, rather than Church of England, but the same umbrella) and, like my mother, my Auntie Jo was a Vicar’s wife. If I’m not mistaken, they came to visit once or twice in Aspley Guise, with their two sons, but the whole family moved to Australia not long after the war—a shame, because Flora and I were fond of our cousins on that side. The older boy was John, who later joined the Australian Air Force and was nicknamed “Power Dive Howell” after a daring exploit as a pilot. He later flew for Qantas. I’m sad to say that I have forgotten his sweet brother’s name, though I do know that he also went into the ministry.
            My father had two brothers and one sister. His older brother, my Uncle Donald—a man who terrified us with his stern look and his bristly ginger mustache—was an army officer among those thousands stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. He was, happily, also among those rescued. We saw little of him in the war years, but his wife, Auntie Annie, stayed with us often with her two sons, Richard and Nigel. She, too, struck us as a rather severe lady. What I recall of her, aside from a clearly remembered face, was her voice, calling constantly after her two sons: “Deetch! Nigey! Deetch! Nigey!” It was as though they had always done something wrong.
            I don’t think I ever met my Uncle Neil or his wife, Barbara, until I was somewhat older. Neil was the black sheep of the family. My father described him always as the most handsome—and the most attractive to the ladies—with his blond head of hair and the permanent tan acquired from years of living in Rhodesia. It was mentioned only under the breath in our family that he was divorced; Barbara was his second wife, but they came only rarely back to his native England, and that only after the war, when travel was less dangerous.
            And finally there was my father’s sister, my Auntie Nancy. Again, I see her face quite clearly in my mind’s eye, along with the faces of her husband, Alan, and their flock of children. These were the relatives we knew best, because they lived in Cambridge, only a drive away from Bedford. Uncle Alan Goodman—aptly named, was an ordained minister like my father, but—again if I remember correctly—he was not also a parish priest. Instead, he was a don at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where my father and he had met in their undergraduate days; and where I myself was to graduate many years later. Alan was a professor of the ancient Biblical languages of Syriac and Aramaic, so I find it hard to believe that he had burdensome teaching responsibilities. He was, though, the sweetest and gentlest of men, who was afflicted at the end of his life by Alzheimer’s.
            Auntie Nancy was an artist. Perhaps I should say she had been an artist, and a very talented one, before marrying and becoming mother to a huge family of unruly children. Let’s see, there was Hazel, the oldest, then Donald, Susan, Joan and John. In another family tragedy Tony, the oldest after Hazel, was killed by a bus outside their home on Trumpington Street in Cambridge. I can hardly imagine the suffering that my good Auntie Nancy had to endure.
            Of all the children, we knew Hazel and Donald the best, since they were of an age with us. Hazel, as sweet and gentle as her parents, inherited her mother’s talent as an artist. As for Donald, inspired perhaps in part by his father’s biblical affiliations, he married a Jewish girl, converted, and went off to the Holy Land to become an Israeli citizen. He played a key part in my life because it was from Donald, strangely, that I learned for the first time to take an interest in my penis…

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