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.