I see her now in the light grey coat with the astrakhan collar, a rather masculine-style hat at an angle over her bun. I am so proud of her ‘my aunt Helen’ in that coat, that lovely collar.
We are in a church, sitting down for the sermon. Uncle Jim has taken us with him to preach here. We are near the front so I can see the pulpit. I am very still, almost comatose, because Aunt Helen has my hand and is circling her thumb round the base of my thumb in a continuous motion. I am in a sort of trance. How does she know this calming trick? She knows so much; she is a rock of certainty and authority in a changing world.
She is not my aunt; Uncle Jim is not my uncle. They were unknown to me and to my parents when I came to live with them. Now my life is with them ‘for the duration.’ Every night before sleep Aunt Helen is with me whilst we say my prayers – ‘ Please God, bless Mummy and Daddy and Granny and Bill and Sam and, later, Peter and Julian. She never allows me to forget that my parents are there in England, as is my granny, our dog and cat and, later, two little brothers. She never allows herself to think that I may forget them, stay with them for ever. I know she loves me but she will not hold me, will constantly remind me that my parents are there and, but for the war, would take me home.
When I am poorly, off school for a few days in the deep snow of winter, she lets me stay in their bed or sits me by the fire in the living room. When I’m in their room I explore: on her dressing table there is a pair of curling tongs and two jars. One jar says ‘cold cream, the other ‘vanishing cream’. Wow! Can it really mean that? Ponds. Oh, the lovely lovely smell. That smell will bring her back to me more than 70 years later – I keep a jar in a drawer to sniff sometimes in 2016!
WhenI got home from school in the deep snow time she would make me cinnamon toast and we would sit together by the fire, not formally at the table where we usually ate and where a strict code of manners was observed.
That code included leaving a clean plate, especially on Sundays when we had the dreaded roast. Oh that coagulated fat, the strings of gristle, the gravy stuck to the plate after its long wait, the cold greens, so good for me. How I hated Sunday dinner, never managed that shiny plate.
Fed up with waiting for me to finish, the family left me to it, promising yummy pudding, my favourite, when I had eaten everything up. Desperate, I lifted the little tapestry cushion with its charming little pony drawing a sleigh, quick under it, sit on it. Squash!
‘Oh good girl! How well you’ve done. Here’s your favourite chocolate pudding’.
Of course discovery followed. I had to scrub that little mat. It was hung on the wall .I can see it now, a Quebeqois scene, pony, sleigh, fir trees dark against the snow. Oh, memories of guilt !
That code of manners relaxed in the long summer months when, at last, just before nightfall, we bumped along the track, potholed by the winter ice, to the head of the lake where Mr Swift, the farmer, was waiting with his boat to row us across to Deepwood. Dragonflies swooped over the water, in the distance a loon’s haunting cry called in the dusk. Softly Mr Swift’s oars broke the surface of the water. No hurry. The silence of the lake, the joy of it all – it was magic for me.
And then the short climb up the rocky path to the cabin, oh the lovely cabin where in the firelight Uncle Jim lit the lamps as I lay drowsy, watching. Tonight I would sleep in the big cabin but tomorrow we would get my very own cabin, Robin’s Nest, ready. I would unpack my dolls, open up the sandpit, maybe go with Uncle Jim to get milk from the farm or row down the lake to the ice barn to fill up our icebox. Sometimes it was so full of ice we couldn’t get the milk in until it melted a bit.
Robin’s Nest was actually only about 6 feet from the kitchen door, near enough for Aunt Helen or Uncle Jim to hear me if I woke, but for me it was a separate place, my very own little house. There was a bed and a little chest of drawers. That was it.
I loved my little house in the daytime but sometimes at night when I heard the old porcupine gnawing at wood I thought he might chew my house away. I lay still and frightened. One night Uncle Jim tried to shoot it but I think his heart was not in it. He missed. I expect he was only trying to scare it anyway.
Uncle Jim was a softie but, looking back, I think he was behind everything and maybe more powerful than I thought. I always knew he would do anything for me except when asked to countermand Aunt Helen’s decision. when I went to him and, all innocence, asked him for something Aunt Helen had refused, he would at first say ‘yes’ but, when I was found out, he swiftly took it back. Despite all my childish wiles I never managed to play one off against the other. They were my safety.
Only once in five years do I remember Uncle Jim sounding cross with me. Aunt Helen must have been annoyed often but she never shouted or made a fuss, just made it clear that I was out of line. That was enough. No one would answer back to her!
Now that I cannot thank them, I understand a little of what they did for me: They held me as their child for 5 years, loved me and cared for me, took me to the place of my dreams each summer, gave me the love of the outdoors, read to me, introduced me to a whole life I would never have known. Brought me up, gave me up.
More than anything they did, greater than any other gift, they let me go. No hint of possession, no expectation of gratitude, they set me free. That kind of love is rare.
Note: Judith was evacuated to Canada for the duration of the second world war. She did not see her parents or new siblings for 5 years.