My Auntie June passed away over 10 years ago. A woman like no other in my childhood,she fascinated me and left a complex and lasting impression.Out of 6 sisters including my Grandmother,Auntie June was the only one who was childless.Childless in a time of silence.
My fathers mother, Alice was one of 7 children,there were 22 years between them all .Elder brother Bob was in the Navy with my Grandad. Bob died a soldier in World War 2. John the youngest, emigrated his own young family to Australia for £10 in the 1950’s. Alices 5 younger sisters were Bertha,Florrie, June ,Phylis and Molly. All born in Portobello Road,West London,not in a time when it was a fashionable place to reside.They shared 2 rented rooms… and a toilet with 2 more families.Their mother,my Great Grandmother,was also Alice, Catholic of Irish descent, she had married an English Protestant,Ted, keeping her Catholic religion a secret.The 6 sisters and their brother John formed the backbone of our large family.Bearing 30 plus children between them,who produced over 50 2nd cousins, including me!
From when I was a small child I remember the famous family parties.A tradition that had started with drinking and sing a longs, decades earlier in Portobello Road. In the 70’s, they were held in local halls, Aunties brought sandwiches, sausage rolls and black forest gateaux, while the husbands organised beer barrels and drinks.Folding chairs and pasting tables would be set up for the evening and a record player for non stop dancing.
The night would kick off at 6 o’clock for the children with balloons,cake and crisps and as much fizzy pop as we could drink, Simon says, The Okey Cokey, before the serious grown up dancing and drinking at 8 oclock. The DJ for the night would play Tie a Yellow Ribbon,Delilah,Rock around the clock. A hundred people of 3 generations and a ‘right ole knees up.’
The sisters were in their 50’s and 60′ back then, all cockney chatty women,shrieking with laughter,dancing and flirting,pulling their skirts higher. Their husbands getting drunk, joking loudly,calling everybody ‘gel, sunshine and darlin’, as though they knew us all well, even tho we didn’t really see them at any other time (I was ‘one of Teddys girls’) That was the old London way.
Then,after 9 o clock, June would finally arrive.Always the last one, she always came later at the height of the evening.I suppose on account of not having any children or grandchildren of her own.
Auntie June wasn’t like any of my other Aunties, they were lovely, but ordinary.Auntie June was the glamourous one. Meeting her was a bit like meeting Diana Dors Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Margaret rolled into one! I always hoped to catch her sweeping in as though she was somebody famous at a very posh party. Always wrapped in a great big fur,complete with patent handbag and gloves. Blowing a cloud of smoke, she seemed to stand waiting for something, poised with her black cigarette holder. Like a movie star, for me, she was show stopping.
Her eyes would light up and she’d raise her eyebrows and smile like a Hollywood leading lady as though she had graced us with her presence. The Chanel red lipstick and soft powdered look was totally out of place in the local ramshackle hall. But yet her beautifully set platinum blonde “hair do” shone like a beacon, the epitomy of 1950’s glamour.
Someone,usually Peter, (her man friend after her late husband Bob), would take her coat, revealing a black sparkling cocktail dress with big gold and diamond jewellery. One of the many of her brother -in- laws, gravitating toward her, would produce a drink for her, often she would receive two at once .”There you are June love. Gin and tonic, ice and lemon.” one of them would say triumphantly winking and smiling.They all seemed on their best gents behaviour in her company and she loved the attention.
“Thankyou Charlie,Len,Ted,darling” she dazzled. Her little laugh to the clink of the ice cubes on the glass ,rang out as she began to hold court….My Grandmas sister were used it. They were all very relieved that she had decided to come and took no notice of the show of grandeur. They never seemed in the least bit ‘put out’ that June was definitely not going to be doing any of the washing up, or wrapping up the left overs or folding up the used tin foil. June would be shown to a table where no one else was sitting for drinks and chat with the grown ups , she would never eat . Then after a while, it would be time for her to meet all the grandchildren (thats about 40 of us).
One by one we went to the table. We would kiss her on her soft powdered cheek, so as not to smudge her lipstick and then she would draw us close to her and say something like, “Oh! Isn’t she like ….”(whoever our parents were) and look deeply into our eyes and smile. There was a kind of longing and warmth in her when she smiled, it was like she was smiling herself right into me, I remember looking right back into her eyes as she touched my hair and cupped my cheeks with her hands. I was engulfed by the heady sophisticated smell of gin, cigarettes, Estee Lauder face powder and Elnet hairspray, all cloaked in a heavy dose of French perfume. I loved it and I wanted to stay there with her, though I had no idea what to say to her at 8 years old, she seemed entirely of different world.
More often than not, after seeing a few of us I can remember her having a bit of a tearful moment, she’d become slightly distressed and flustered. She’d look in her handbag or beckon at Peter to quickly pass her a handkerchief . She would have a little wipe of her eyes, bring out her compact, check her makeup and quickly regain composure with a bright smile, while someone topped up her drink. Before starting again,making sure she saw every single child in the room.
I can only think now, all these years later, that these moments were a way to fill herself , to try to capture something that was missing in her life. She never really spoke much to us, we were the experience of children for her, as our parents had been a generation before. It was always known she was the favourite Auntie for my dada and his cousins. I don’t remember being asked to go to see any of my other Aunts at all in that way.
…We’re a working class family, but Junes late husband Bob really excelled and eventually became chauffeur to Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in the 50’s, an enormous thrill, for all the family, it still is really. Someone somewhere, still has a lamp given to June by Vivian Leigh. Anyway… June and Bob were provided with this fabulous ‘Grace and Favour’ flat, in Gloucester Terrace in the heart of Bayswater, so that Bob was on hand with the Roller in London. June absolutely loved that flat and it was able to live in it until the end of her days, over 25 years after Bob died. We popped in to see her a few times as kids, on our way back from a day out in London and I grew up thinking , that thats what real London living was. We lived in the suburbs and were working class, but seeing her gave me the feeling that anything was possible in life, wherever you came from.Its funny how these things stick with you in your subconscious.
Apparrantly though, true to her roots, June had worked at White City Dog Track in the day, taking the Bets! and in the evening, if Uncle Bob wasn’t working, he’d take her out in the Roller ,wearing his chauffeurs hat while she sat in the back …all the kids (my Dad and his cousins) all got a ride in it too. Great Stories.
In my 30’s I asked my Grandma about June. She said that her real name was Edna,but she had changed it to June at 18, as it was more fashionable. Then she met Bob, who adored her, they’d got married and thought they would have children,just like all the other sisters, but it just never happened ,they didn’t know why… ‘ Yes’, my Grandma said “it had made her sad, it had made them all sad, but she had all of their children to love”
She loved us grandchildren . She never forgot a single birthday of mine up until I was well into my teens. I always received a card with a postal order or a box of chocolates.I took those presents for granted and I feel pretty bad about that now… thats over 40 grand nieces and nephews she remembered !
Sadly, I never got to know her more as I got older and I really wish I had .Only now in my 40’s, being childless myself, do I find myself thinking more deeply about her and what must have been sadness beneath her very glamourous armour. How generous she was and how much she must have suffered her loss in her life time. It was a complete life of silence for childless women ,desperately longing and grieving for a child. She did have her little dramas and tearful times, her love of the gin ,to calm her nerves. I sensed the concern for her worried about her, allowing her the indulgences.But it was all unspoken.
I feel this blog is incomplete, I should wrap it up with some explanation.But really there is nothing more to say that I know of. She was a bit of a heroine to me as child. Now as an adult, I can see far more clearly, the constant brave battle she fought beneath. It moves me and I find her inspiring as a woman of her time.
I do hope that somewhere, Auntie June, you know that I have written about you and that I would of loved to have spoken with you more.
God Bless you Auntie June x