Why we should treasure our aunts like gold
We don't make enough of aunts. There's no Aunt's Day coming round every year with cards, flowers and obligations. We just get used to aunts being there. Familial furniture. Until one day they're not there any more.
I've just lost a wonderful aunt. June was not perfect, but she was all the better company for her complexities of character – headstrong, argumentative and stubborn, yet also fiecely protective, loyal and kindness itself.
The end, when it came, was typically paradoxical, both sudden and drawn out. A dramatic deterioration on her 83rd birthday – how vexing to see my mother heartbroken, her arms full of presents for her last surviving sister – followed by a slow goodbye over nine days.
In reality June had been – as we say in these parts – going down the hill for several years. But you get used to that. You think someone's just going to go a bit further down. You forget that people do run out of road eventually.
I'd sit by her bedside late at night, the room lit by lamplight, a window ajar. The sound of birdsong and horses neighing. John Tavener's Song For Athene on the radio. She could no longer speak, but when I spoke she'd squeeze my hand, once, then again, like Morse code being tapped out.
I thought of all the times she'd held my hand. As a child, when I'd stumbled on the trip step at Carrickfergus Castle on one of the big summer days out she'd organise for my brother and me.
She'd round those adventures off with dinner in an expensive restaurant, passing the menus and telling us to order what we wanted. She'd no children of her own, so perhaps that's why she treated us as adults. She just assumed we knew what to do; her confidence in us was infectious.
She held my hand outside A&E when my father was critically ill. Weeks later, at his funeral, that silent touch again: you are not alone.
Oh, there were rows, too. A blistering one when I was 15 and discovered the full-length mink coat she'd bought my granny. Now, I still hate the idea of a fur coat, but back then I was crass.
I wish I hadn't ranted, just said my piece and let it be. Had some understanding of post-war glamour, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, the thrill of buying your mother a piece of Hollywood.
For life is rarely clear-cut and this was the same aunt who'd wrap up tins of pet food in festive paper for our cats and dog each Christmas. Who welcomed our tabby Sasha onto her lap, saying her friendship was the best present ever, not caring about the white hair cascading over her navy Jaeger skirt.
June and I shared a love of literature. In P5 I'd written a poem that she was so taken with she insisted her church magazine print it, incongruous though it was beside the parish news.
As a teenager she'd won a national short story competition and knew what made a good tale. She told me stories about my family, all the more intoxicating because they were true.
How my granny had slipped the key of the house into the pocket of her father at Banbridge station as he boarded a train for the Somme. The calamity when they'd returned home to find they were locked out. My brave great-grandfather's fingers, chancing upon the key deep in his pocket in France. A lucky talisman that delivered him home safely? June and I were certain of it.
Once, as a child, egged on by my brother, I'd crept up behind my uncle, her husband, and emptied a watering can into his Wellington boot. He was furious. I bolted out of the outhouse into the kitchen and her apron folds.
My uncle arrived, wringing his sock out. He raged. I wept. She upbraided him for his lack of fun, then handed me an early birthday present to calm me.
In her last months she loved me to retell that story, laughing at its slapstick, enjoying the feelgood of the bond we'd struck.
I'd also read poetry; her favourite was Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. Or, as she'd whisper her request, "The Woods".
I read it to her again last week, those lines never more potent, or poignant. "But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep". The last stretch of road was especially tough, but even then June taught me things.
Maybe it's because lately there have been so many elderly people waving gamely at me from hospital beds, but there were times I'd to steel myself to visit. Yet I did visit and learned something of what grace is – being given the wherewithal just to get through a door.
And now, journey's end. Another part of my childhood falls into the sea and is swept under. Sleep, at last. But, honestly, we don't make enough of aunts.
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