Aunt Peggy – a memoir

Aunt Peggy wasn’t really an aunt. Indeed, I’m not sure how she and I were related. I think that she was the daughter of my father’s mother’s brother making her my father’s cousin. She was never married and carried my father’s mother’s maiden name. My father was an only child. He was modest and introverted such that, throughout my childhood, apart from his ailing widowed father, my Grand-pop, I never met any of his relatives. Until the appearance of Aunt Peggy in my life, I firmly believed that he didn’t have any; consequently, her materialization was a surprise.

It happened during my second year at University College London. I was a good student but so focused on my studies that I was incapable of making friends. This situation was further compounded by two factors; first my gradual emergence from Anorexia which had haunted me for over five years, and secondly my living arrangements. I lived in a “Student Rooming House” owned by the University. It was a lovely Georgian building scheduled for future demolition and temporarily converted into rooms for students. My room was on the first floor above ground level. I shared a tiny kitchen with the other two rooms of the floor. We used a communal bathroom located in the rear of the building on the landing between the first and second floors. This was shared between the rooms on both floors. I liked my room with its tall window and inaccessible Juliet balcony. The balcony had a beautiful Georgian wrought-iron balustrade which I photographed, and drew. Apart from the tiny kitchen, we had no communal area and didn’t interact with each other. Most weekends I would go from Friday evening to Monday morning without talking to anyone who knew my name. I was miserable.

This all took place in the late 1960s when telephones were still a luxury, indeed I don’t recall how I made or received calls; most of my communications were by letter. My father faithfully wrote every week; how I enjoyed his letters. They were always written on a folding flimsy blue air mail letters. His handwriting was small and since he only took his pen off the paper to change lines, the words blended together. Normally a fast reader, I’d have to take it slowly to decipher his meaning. I wrote back every Sunday evening. I attempted to be upbeat but my unhappiness often bled onto the pages of my text. Sometimes my mother wrote. He letters were long and literary written in her legible hand, she included wisdom about the future and exhortations on how to face my demons.

Aunt Peggy’s invitation came through the mail. She suggested a Sunday afternoon tea in her home in her home up Finchley Road. From my father’s letters, I gathered that he had asked her to make contact in an attempt to bring someone friendly into my life to break my loneliness. It was his attempt to make sure that I talked to someone who knew my name during those long weekends alone. There was no direct underground route from my rooming house on Bedford Way close to Russel Square tube station to her house in Hampstead. I took the Piccadilly Line from Russel Square to Kings Cross and changed to the Northern Line to get to Finchley Road. Upon arriving at Finchley Road tube station, I took the bus to her house. A house in London is a luxury, and Aunt Peggy’s was the best. It was a rambling red-brick place covered with Virginia creeper. It stood in its own gardens slightly set back from the main street. When I arrived, I looked in awe at this huge edifice and wondered if she lived alone.

Aunt Peggy turned out to be a matter-of-fact sort of woman of about my father’s age. She wore a tweed skirt, sweater, pearls and flat shoes. She looked comfortable in her home, which was furnished with non-descript antiques. Even though it was Sunday afternoon tea was served by a maid. We sat in her living room, with me perched anxiously on the edge of my chair as, I balanced a cup of tea and small plate laden with sandwich and cake. Conversation was strained as I was shy and awed by her home and presence. Half way through our tea joyous voices erupted in the hall, and two laughing girls came into the room. Aunt Peggy introduced them as her nieces and lodgers. Instead of showing an interest or asking questions of these girls with whom I must have been distantly related I politely shook hands and sank back into my chair to watch their happy interaction with their relative and landlady. I could tell that they had a special rapport and learned that Aunt Peggy shared her large home with a bevy of nieces.

The travel to and from Aunt Peggy’s took over an hour, so that, in conjunction with the tea, the entire excursion took in the order of four hours. Although I liked my interaction with Aunt Peggy, I didn’t exactly look forward to my visits because they took so much time. It was time I thought that I could otherwise have invested in studying. In June, at the end of my third, and last year I was awarded my degree. The Queen mother was scheduled to preside over our graduation ceremony and to hand us our official degrees. Unfortunately, this auspicious event was driven by her schedule and was set to occur the following April. The College made up for this by hosting a celebratory reception and tea for new graduates and their families. My parents couldn’t make the trip down from Durham, and so I invited Aunt Peggy to join me.

The on-campus event was the only time that I ever saw Aunt Peggy outside her home. She most graciously accompanied me to the reception which must have been very boring for her – it certainly was for me. Afterward, they served tea accompanied by cream puffs and other whipped cream filled cakes. Because the food was ‘free’, and I felt an obligation to eat as much as possible, this supported my emergence from Anorexia, which had swung me into a binge-eater. I loaded my plate and ate ravenously. I recall Aunt Peggy calmly remarking,

“If you eat like that you won’t remain slim.”

After that event, I never saw Aunt Peggy again. Life went on for me. I did a year out in Edinburgh. My mother died. I finished my studies at Newcastle University close to my widowed father, moved back to London for my first architectural position, became licensed, met my future husband and emigrated to America to be with him. I always believed that Aunt Peggy’s kindness was due to a sense of obligation coupled with a love of young people rather than any rapport that she may have felt for me. I sent her Christmas cards with my news scribbled inside next to the standard pre-printed Hallmark greetings. She never responded and so in time I took her off my Christmas card list.

Thirty years later, I received a strange letter from a London Solicitor inquiring whether I was myself. The Internet wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today and I wondered how they had found me. I confirmed my identity and several months later received a check for approximately $5,000. Apparently, Aunt Peggy had remembered me, and left me 0.1% of her estate. I accepted the gift as I had accepted all Aunt Peggy’s graciousness and generosity. However, this time I felt saddened that I hadn’t given back more to this very special lady.

The Hidden Treasure

When his father died of a sudden heart attack, twenty-one-year-old Kent joined his mother in a search for what they regarded as his father’s hidden treasure. The mystery began during the last six months of his father’s life when the old man developed a paranoia founded on his belief that the entire US financial system was about to collapse. Both Kent and his mother had watched him systematically liquidate his assets. He talked incessantly about his mission. However, just as he shared his fears for the future and his active response, he never told them what he did with his accumulated cache of money. They both knew that he neither gambled nor used drugs and were sure that he had hidden the money somewhere.

After a short period of mourning Kent and his mother sat and discussed the missing funds which they estimated to be in the order of a hundred thousand dollars. Together they went through his papers but found nothing. They searched for hidden cash, under, and in, his mattress. They turned the house upside down; they made inquiries about a possible deposit box at his favorite bank; and they talked to his lawyer and his handful of friends. They found nothing.

Each year afterwards Kent and his mother dreamed about the missing hoard and speculated what they would do if they ever found it. As time passed they both recalculated and dreamed letting their estimate of the value of the hoard grow. It held a spell over them tighter than the spell of the lottery. Kent’s mother stayed in her small house while Kent moved into a one-bedroom apartment, both dreaming of a time when they would suddenly become affluent.  By the time, a few years later, that Kent’s mother died of diabetic complications they both believed that finding the lost treasure would make them millionaires.

Now that his mother had passed away Kent resumed his search in conjunction with his duty, as sole heir, of disposing of her possessions. He was assisted by his mother’s cat Mack who came with the rest of her tiny estate. Each day he spent his spare time in her small house cleaning out her cupboards and shelves. Mack always joined him and would settle down in a comfortable location close to where Kent was sorting and watch him with glass-like yellow-green eyes.

When he began on the bedroom Kent realized that his mother had never disposed of her husband’s clothing.  He felt a moment of excitement. Although they had both been through his things Kent speculated that the clue to his father’s missing fortune could be concealed amongst his old garments. He abandoned his mother’s side of the closet and began to systematically go through his father’s side. He patted every seam and went through every pocket prior to neatly folding each garment. He stowed the searched items into bags to take to charity. On the second day of his work he became so immersed in his task that he lost track of time, suddenly he glanced at his watch.

“Oh no, it is two-thirty already!” he exclaimed, “I’ve only got another thirty minutes before I need to be at work, and still nothing.”

He glanced at Mack, angry at himself for talking to a cat, who, on this occasion, sat on the bed and watching him with unblinking eyes. Mack returned Kent’s stare and continued to purr gently, apparently oblivious to both Kent’s comment and his change in ownership. Kent accepted Mack’s feline disinterest and continued,

“Go on, you ugly ball of fur, tell me what he did with it.”

Mack remained silent.

“You know don’t you, you mean creature. How could a man of sixty-two, cash in all his assets and then die leaving no clue where they went?”

Mack blinked at Kent and slowly got up and approached him with a look which said that Kent’s insults didn’t affect him. He arched his back and rubbed himself against Kent’s left arm. He purred, letting his coat brush against Kent’s watch to send stray hair strands into the air. Kent sneezed.

“All right, out!” Kent pointed to the door.

Mack stalked out his tail waving gently to register his annoyance at his dismissal. Kent glanced at his watch again and continued with his task.

The next day Kent was back again sorting clothes. Out of the entire closet of clothes and shoes all he found was a key lodged deep in a Christmas waistcoat pocket. He set the key on the bed-side table. Mack left his spot on the bed to amble over and sniff it. He opened his mouth to use his vomeronasal, (Jacobson’s), organ. Kent watched.

“Leave that alone.” Kent moved quickly to the table and snatched up the cat. He held him up high and looked him in the eyes, “Go on, you, insufferable creature, tell me what he did with it!” Mack began to lick Kent’s watch. Kent dropped him resulting in a snarl. Mack left the room.

Kent took the key to the locksmith in Home Depot. The man examined it and announced that it was not a key to a bank vault box or a door into a storage facility; rather it was a cheap key to a small home lock-box, the type sold in Walmart. The next day a crew from the Salvation Army arrived to take away furniture which Kent was donating to charity. A small lock box fell off the top of the TV wardrobe. Kent pounced on it with a cat-like leap. He could scarcely contain his excitement but managed to wait until the movers left. Then he set the box on the kitchen counter and tried the key. It opened. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, were a pair of gold cuff links and tie pin and a scrap of paper on which was written;

Sam’s Estate and Jewelry, 615 South Lamar

Kent went to 615 South Lamar but there was no Sam’s Estate and Jewelry instead a store with a huge neon sign announced “Pete’s Pawn Shop” and “We pay top dollars for gold.” Kent went inside. He asked the man behind the counter whether he knew what had happened to Sam’s Estate and Jewelry. He was told that Sam had died and his children had closed the store. Disappointed, Kent was about to leave when he remembered the gold cuff links and pin which he carried in his pocket. He drew them out and placed them on the counter and asked the man what he could give for them. The man took the articles and examined them with his jeweler’s monocle.

“Gold.” He announced, “I need to weigh them in the back then I’ll give you an offer.” He returned a few minutes later.

“They are quite nice, cost about $150 new, I can give you $75 for them.”

Kent gasped, “I was hoping for more.”

The man shook his head,

“I’m sorry that’s the best I can do.

Kent sighed and against his better judgement said, “OK, it’s disappointing, but I need the cash so I’ll take the $75!”

As the man counted out $75 he went on talking, “If you need cash, what about that watch which you are wearing. I can see that it is a nice one. I could probably give you a couple of hundred for it.”

Kent clutched his wrist, stared at his watch and then looked at the man. He felt a surge of pride for his watch and thrust his arm across the counter for the man to have a better look. He explained,

“It was my Dad’s. It is all I have to remember him by. He bought it shortly before he died. He really loved this watch.” Kent paused and gently rubbed the face of the watch with his right hand. He looked up at the man, “Ma wanted to bury him in it but when I saw it on his wrist in the coffin I broke down. I knew that it would be the best reminder of him that I could ever possess. I’m sure that he would have wanted me to wear it. It gets lots of complements, every time I look at it I think of him!”

The man nodded, “Suit yourself,” he said, “But if you ever want to sell I’ll give you top dollar for it, on second thoughts I’ll up my offer to $500.”

The offer intrigued Kent but the man seemed too willing to buy, and so he left, determined to research the true value of his watch. He went to a reputable jeweler in town and they inspected it, called in experts and eventually confirmed it to be a rare antique Omega 1980’s (reference 345.0802) Speedmaster Professional in 18 carat gold as worn by James Cooney.  They declared it to be in in pristine condition, and told Kent that they could give him $100,000 for it.

Kent wasn’t sure whether he was pleased with this information or not. He hurried home determined to give Mack more respect and to ponder his options