We heard the sad, but not unexpected news this morning that my aunt, Elizabeth (Aunty Betty as she is known within the family) passed away at the not insignificant age of 86. She was my dad’s sister and the last survivor of four siblings. It was only in recent years that she let on that she didn’t like the name Betty, preferring her name in full, so I shall respect that.
Elizabeth was born in 1925 in Bellingham, London, the third child and only daughter of Frederick and Louisa Chivers.
She spent the war in London, surviving the Blitz and, when asked about this time and her experiences, recounted in perfect calmness how she regularly witnessed policemen picking up body parts. The house opposite her home suffered a direct bomb hit and its owner, a Mr Flood, was killed outright.
Following the war, she started nursing at Farnborough. During the first few years of her career, she worked in midwifery in Aberdeen, then moved to Warneford Hospital, Oxford, where she was a sister for three years. In 1954, she moved back to Catford with her parents, before buying a maisonette in Sidcup in 1961 for the princely sum of £4000. She remained at Queen Mary’s hospital in Sidcup for the remainder of her career.
Aunty never married. I only discovered in recent weeks that this may well have been largely down to her choice in career. When she started working, nurses in her position simply didn’t get married. It was not considered proper in her line of work. It’s interesting to think of Aunty as a feminist in those post-war times, determined to put her independence and career above any consideration of settling down with her own family.
It didn’t matter though, because she always had a surrogate family in the form of my immediate family.
As my brothers and I grew up, Aunty was a key figure in our life. As our own parents had had children relatively late, we didn’t have grandparents. My older brother Paul knew our maternal grandmother for the early part of his life, but that was the extent of our grandparents’ influence on any of our lives. Aunty became a key part instead. It was always a joy when she came to visit us and always a joy to go to see her in Sidcup.
She was always great with children – a natural, who relished watching children play, and organising activities for them. Our own children recognised that a trip to visit Aunty would mean that a range of drawing materials, jigsaws, puzzles, games, and other amusements would be presented to them as soon as they walked in the door. Aunty appeared to relish the children’s enjoyment as much if not more than they enjoyed the activities. That’s how we remember her as children too.
In 1987, when my dad retired, Aunty sold her house in Orpington and moved up to Bradford in an arrangement which saw us sharing a house with her as a family. She became part of our everyday life. Unfortunately, following the death of my mother, the relationship between Aunty and Dad deteriorated – in part, a case of two strong-willed characters and siblings, but also because Dad himself was becoming ill and his moods were affected.
In 1991, Dad, my younger brother Peter and I moved a couple of miles away to a new-build house. Aunty sold the house and moved to New Waltham, Grimsby, to be near her brother Bob and family. In the meantime, Dad’s condition worsened, while Peter and I were full-time students away from home. Dad went into a care home not too far from our older brother Paul and his wife, Teresa.
During the remainder of my days as a student, Aunty kindly let us use her house as our ‘base’ home. On return from my third year abroad as part of my four-year Modern Languages degree, I spent the remainder of my summer with Aunty. It was during this time that she prompted me to go out one evening to the pub. I think she felt that I’d spent enough time indoors and was keen for me to meet some other locals. Initially, I didn’t really feel like going out, but eventually decided to do so. It was during the course of that evening that I met Emma, who has been my wife for the last 15 years. On one of my last visits to see her in hospital, I reminded Aunty of the fact that she was responsible for Emma and me meeting, and therefore ultimately for the existence of our wonderful children. I don’t believe in fate or anything remotely superstitious, but that is one of those things in life which does make one think “What if…?”
While Peter and I settled down with our own families in Germany and Warwickshire respectively, Aunty remained in her house until 2005, when, concerned that she couldn’t continue to maintain her garden, she moved to her final home – a flat nearer the centre of Grimsby. Initially, we were concerned about her moving there, but it soon became apparent that she was surrounded by neighbours with whom she struck up very good friendships.
I couldn’t put my recollections of Aunty down without recalling other aspects of her character, which in part endeared her to and part frustrated others. Aunty was one of those people for whom you made allowances, because it was Aunty. You would let her talk to you in a way you might not put up with from others. This was in part down to her willingness to speak her mind. She could be objective to the point of coldness.
When Emma and I announced our engagement, admittedly after a relatively short three months, her response was not the traditional “congratulations”, but a rather cold, “That’s a bit quick, isn’t it?” She very quickly came around to the idea though and was very supportive.
Anyone who ever experienced a phone call would be familiar with her phone manner, whereby she seemed to be in a hurry to end the call at the earliest opportunity, and you could easily find yourself talking to the dialling tone. She didn’t mean anything by it – it was just how she was on the phone.
We also have a memory of Aunty’s driving experiences, one of which resulted in us insisting that the police patrol car really was in fact indicating to her that she should pull over (she was doing 30 mph on a dual carriage way at the time), and the other in which she ended up receiving a slap on the face by an irate Welsh farmer.
We used to take holidays with Aunty all the time. She always came along on our family holidays and often organised where we were going to stay. She recently recalled the story of one place which was in such a state that Mum could not control her own laughter. And the more Aunty became frustrated in such circumstances, somehow the more comical it became to others.
She more than made up for these strangely endearing characteristics (and we all have our ideosyncracies) though with her warmth, generosity, and love.
Aunty never stopped pushing herself mentally, and it’s probably down to this willingness to learn new skills and keep her mind active that she remained sharp until the end. Right up until the time she was hospitalised, she used a PC – a skill she developed in her seventies after she had joined the U3A. She continued to write poetry – an activity she came to enjoy increasingly as she grew older, and her Bridge games were very important to her.
Her character made her a key part of organising games and entertainment for our family get-togethers, particularly when we met as an extended family at New Year.
She was utterly indifferent to her own mortality, perhaps as a result of her life as a nurse. When diagnosed with cancer last year, her first reaction was to tell the doctors not to waste time and money on her. She had to be persuaded to have the treatment by the medical staff, who could see that she was otherwise sound in mind and relatively mobile.
Similarly, she was quite philosophical about the death of others who were clearly dear to her. To some, this may seem cold. I think it was just born out of witnessing death as part of her work.
For my part, I particularly enjoyed talking politics with her. Even during our last conversations, we were talking about the situation in the Eurozone. She was one of the few people I know who enjoyed discussing such things and I think that she enjoyed the opportunity to talk about them too.
For all her seeming abruptness, she was one of the most selfless people I’ve ever known and could turn from chastising to warmth in the blink of an eye.
All these aspects of her character, along with all the fun and frankly comical memories, of which there are many, will endure.
She will certainly be missed.