Friday, November 18, 2011

Travels With My Aunt

Last week, during a particularly depressing, overcast, autumnal day, I decided to clear out the loft. I say loft, but after converting most of it into a third bedroom, all we have left are some hidden eaves which look like the sorts of places where people used to hide from the Gestapo.

Getting into the eaves requires a Houdini-like dexterity, as the space is so narrow. Getting out is even harder, reminding me of the claustrophobic tunnel scenes in The Great Escape. On several occasions, when my wife has failed to hear my hysterical shouting, I've had to phone her and ask to be rescued.

Fortunately, this time I seemed to be more pliable (perhaps six weeks away from the 9 to 5 routine has relaxed my tensed muscles?) and managed to move around easily, unpacking boxes that had remained unopened since we moved here ten years ago.

Almost everything I found was of no use or value to anyone, but there was one exception: a small square box with a Super 8 cine film inside.

This is what it contained:

The woman pushing twigs into the kettle was my mother's sister, Patricia Eunice Dorothy Prior, who worked as a midwife in a small town at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco. Officially she was a missionary, sponsored by a number of churches in Britain, but as it was against the law to promote any religion other than Islam, my aunt had to limit her activities to good works.

Pat grew up in a family of six who lived in the upstairs half of a small, terraced house. She shared a bed with her two sisters and at night she would lie awake listening to the sound of mice scuttling across the floor.

My aunt, on the left

Her parents' ambitions for her were typical for their background: at 14 she could either go into service or get a job in a shop. But Pat was bright. She passed her 11 Plus and got into Richmond Grammar School, where she sat her final exams during an air raid.

If Pat had come from another background she might have gone to university, but higher education was never an option. Fortunately, her parents didn’t object when Pat announced that she wished to train as a nurse.

My aunt during her training, on the left (above) and second row, third from left (below)

By all accounts Pat was an exceptional student and the skills she learned at West Middlesex Hospital would prove invaluable a few years later, when she decided to train to become a missionary. In Pat’s words, she had a ‘calling’ and felt compelled to pursue it. A gruelling training at Bible College followed, during which Pat had to learn to become fluent at reading and writing Arabic.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for Pat when she first arrived in Morocco, where a young, single woman was a second-class citizen. However, during the next 25 years, my aunt carved out a successful life for herself, respected by everyone in the community.

It helped that almost every person under the age of 20 had been delivered by my aunt, sometimes under difficult conditions. Many local families felt that they owed Pat a debt.

When I was 16, Pat invited me to stay with her. We couldn’t afford to travel as a family, so I flew alone to Casablanca and met my aunt at the airport. It was a 300km journey to her home and, as we drove south, my preconceived notions of an arid, desert-like country were replaced by vivid memories of lush pine forests, snow-capped mountains and orange-blossom scented air.

It was a culture shock. I had grown up in a dull London suburb, where evening meals alternated between fish fingers and beef burgers. Suddenly, I was plunged into an alien world of strange food, exotic landscapes and opulent souks.

I had been terrified of eating the local food (particularly when I learned that I would have to eat everything that was put in front of me), but I needn’t have worried. After two weeks of dates, artichokes, couscous, mint tea and carrot and orange salad, I learned that eating could be a pleasure as well as a necessity.

Morocco changed my life. It awakened me to a new, sensual world of smell, taste and colour. But, more importantly, for the first time in my life I learned to see my own society more objectively, realising that happiness was not related to GDP.

I was in a privileged position in many ways. As my aunt enjoyed some prestige in the local area, we were invited into several homes and I was struck by the contrast between the public and private worlds of the local people. Outside, I only saw impoverished-looking mud-brick walls and austere, veiled women. Inside, the veils came down and I found myself in colourful, comfortable rooms, full of laughter and conversation.

Using my aunt as an interpreter, I was able to have conversations with people and, perhaps because of my age, I could get away with asking direct questions.

I had arrived at the right time too. Television aerials were starting to appear on buildings, but the town was still largely cut off from the outside world. As a European, I could have encountered some hostility, but the days of French colonialism belonged to a past generation and religious enmities belonged to a future one. I was treated as an honoured guest.

When I returned home, I felt very depressed for a while. I looked out of my bedroom window at the different shades of grey, from the slate roofs of houses to the low-lying clouds, and yearned for blue skies, prickly pears and orange blossom. I could see why my aunt didn’t want to come home.

Nine years later, my aunt was reluctantly contemplating retirement in Britain. She would have to swap social status and a large house for the genteel poverty of a state pension and a pokey flat. I think she dreaded it.

Pat came home for a short visit to sort out her affairs and work out where she was going to live. On the last day, I said goodbye to my aunt and wanted to hug her, but Pat wasn’t a physically demonstrative person and I was afraid that I might unnerve her, as if we were saying goodbye for the last time.

The next day Pat arrived at Tangiers Airport and was planning to get a lift home from a friend, but a Moroccan lawyer was waiting for her and insisted that she travelled with him instead. He was interested in buying her house and wanted to get her signature on some of the legal documents. They argued for a few minutes until Pat finally agreed.

During the journey from the airport, a lorry crashed into the side of the lawyer’s car. My aunt died a few hours later. The lawyer escaped with a few scratches.

Most of my aunt’s friends were Christians and their attempts to find some meaning in her death only increased my sense of the utter futility of it. I couldn’t accept the argument that some crude form of divine intervention had spared my aunt the horrors of retired life in England. I know that she would have made a successful new life for herself and been a doting great-aunt to my sons.

My aunt’s death was tragic and pointless, however her life certainly wasn’t, because I know that in a small town 2000 miles away, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives that wouldn’t have been lived without her.


Suze said...

Steerforth, I've just read this and feel a bit run over by a truck. I'd been off Blogger all week and dipped back in, today, to see what 'everyone was up to.'

I didn't expect this. I'm constantly blindsided by evil; like all of us, dogged by injustice and at an utter loss as to how to make heads or tails of it.

You have rendered this telling masterfully, packed so much emotion without a single whistle or bell. I'm grieved, deeply, by what you've written. I have been spending a lot of time recently thinking about families, small clusterings of people that extend into larger groups and, if allowed, mold and shape our narrow existences into a roomier experience of this absurd business of being human.

I'm rambling terribly but I just wanted to honor your aunt Pat with my words. That is all.

You are an accomplished wordsmith.

Gardener in the Distance said...

A wonderful memory for you Steerforth, a gift. It's rare to find personal stories so well told in a blog.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Your aunt sounds like a most remarkable person, as are you Steerforth. I am sure she would be very proud of you and your family. Thank you for sharing these lovely memories with those of us in blogland who will probably never travel to Morocco. At least not now, in the current political climate.

God bless, Carol

lucy joy said...

What a remarkable lady. Makes the typical gap-year charity jaunt seem like work experience at a creche.
I think you're right, she would have made the most of her retirement. There is no explanation for such tragedy, but I can almost hear a voice telling her "your work here is done".
Did she inspire many of your decisions as an adult?

Paff Rine said...

What a fascinating, interesting story. I heard something slightly similar on radio 4 recently and both have brought home the different types of lives women faced in those days. I am really sorry your aunt didn't have the chance to settle into a life back here. I am sure she would have sorted it out, but at least she had a very interesting, satisfying life.

Kid said...

Wonderful post. So sad and touching. However, may I ask how you learned the details of the lawyer meeting your aunt at the airport as she died not long after?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for another fascinating look at a different facet of life.


Mystica said...

She sounds wonderful and someone anyone would be proud to call Aunt.

Sarah said...

That's a lovely account of your aunt's life and how it impacted on yours. What a fascinating woman she must have been.

Steerforth said...

Thank you so much for the wonderful comments. I posted this entry a couple of hours ago, wondering if anyone would really want to read such a long piece about my aunt. Then I went out for a curry (it's Friday evening here).

Two hours later, it's really gratifying to see that it struck a chord. Her life (and death) had a big impact on me and finding the cine film the other day bought it all back.

Kid - The friend my aunt was supposed to travel home with was also at the airport and witnessed the conversation between my aunt and the lawyer - I should have made that clear, but I was trying to keep it brief.

Suze - Yes, I found it hard to make sense of things. I'd inhabited a comfortable but childish world of causality and it took time to accept the stark reality of the situation. But on the plus side, knowing that people might die tomorrow has made me place more value on the relationships I have with them today.

Lucy - I think my aunt had a very big influence on me. Every few years, she came to live with us for six months and we talked about all sorts of things. I'm sure that without her example, I would have made different decisions.

Brett said...

That clip is a treasure. What an adventure to have at 16.

She reminds me of my cousin, who decided to spend his life in Japan as a translator.

More to the point, I think of Charles de Foucauld, who was called to live a life of witness and service among the Tuaregs of Algeria.

Martin said...

Without a doubt, one of the best written posts I've read, in more than two years of blogging. I can easily understand how your Aunt Pat was an inspiration to you.

The word verification is corker, by-the-way.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the Wikipedia link Brett - a really interesting article.

Thank you Martin! I really wasn't sure if anyone would be interested in my aunt, so I'm very pleased that this post has struck a chord.

Ryan MCFC said...

I wish this could be your job. Writing stuff just like this. Direct, full of emotion and depth. All of which are too lacking in the blog world. Thanks for sharing this.

Rog said...

Yes, jolly good stuff Mr S.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to your aunt. Even by today's standards, when women have so many more options in our society (for the most part), she would be extraordinary. Thank you for this beautiful post and for the film clip of your trip.

I hope things are going well for you at Steerforth Books.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Ryan, Rog and Christine. I can't stress how much I appreciate comments like yours, particularly as I can only see the faults in my writing.

sue said...

Such an interesting story. I enjoyed reading it very much.

Doofus said...

Thanks for sharing that. A great tribute to your Aunt and the Super 8 was a great find, mesmerizing.

I'd love to get hold of an old video camera. The images are the like painted impressions of reality, as opposed to the clear, bare and almost clinical images which you see on modern videos.

Little Nell said...

I was hooked right from the film clip and as the story unfolded I had a feeling it was not going to end happily. But in a way it has, because although any life cut short like that is tragic, it was a life which obviously affected many people, not least yourself in a positive way. You are now able to reflect on the debt you owe to your aunt, and hopefully remember the good times. Beautifully written.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Genius. I'm glad that my family weren't neophiles who jumped on the video bandwagon at the first opportunity. Cine film is so much nicer than the sordid, grainy picture quality of a typical 1980s home video.

Nell - My aunt's story shows how our lives hang on a thread. If only she'd refused to travel with the lawyer. I can't say I've ever come to terms with her death, but as you say, the important thing is to remember a person's life rather than how they died.

Camilla said...

What an extraordinary story of a remarkable woman. Thank you so much for sharing this. I love these windows into another time and place, and you told it so well. My condolences for your loss, too.


Steerforth said...

Thank you Camilla.

zmkc said...

Have you read The Towers of Trebizond? Set in Turkey but involving an aunt plus a shock ending.

Steerforth said...

No I haven't, but in only ten words you've made me want to read it.

Anonymous said...

OH Bloody lovely post about your Aunt. Almost made me cry.

As I sit here in reading this post in lush green Zambia, not that far from an orange scented Morrocco, I completely understand why a life lived where she wanted to be is better than the rest of a life filled with grey.

Divine intervention - yes I do think so. Thanks for sharing your Aunt's story with us.

Georgie said...

Isn't this the power of the net, that we can be moved to tears by the death (and life) of the aunt of someone we have never met? Thank you, Steerforth.

The Towers of Trebizond is pretty good. This is the (much quoted) first line - "Take my camel, dear", said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

It's one of the three most thoughtful books on religion I know - the others are Knowledge of Angels (Jill Paton Walsh) and Small Gods (Terry Pratchett). Hope you manage to find time to read it and let us know what you think.

Camilla said...

Steerforth, if someone hasn't already thrust it eagerly into your hands, you need to read "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children", by Ransom Riggs.

That is all.


Suze said...

'I'd inhabited a comfortable but childish world of causality and it took time to accept the stark reality of the situation.'

This is a tough statement, and a comment box very likely does not accommodate adequate dialogue, but the word 'causality' has emerged in my readings an alarming amount of times since reading your response to my comment. No doubt, it has just become salient in my awareness, and I am therefore detecting what has always been there.

In any event, I've come across conflicting paradigms. On the one hand, some, like Brian Cox, insist on preserving causality and leverage 'science' to do so, and on the other, some like Jean Gebser, in his extraordinary treatise, 'The Ever-Present Origin' state reality is fundamentally acausal.

Again, a comment box may be an inappropriate venue for such a discussion, but how is it that the remembrance of your aunt's tragic passing inspired you to link 'causality' to your worldview as an adolescent?

Posed in (hopefully) a more digestible way,*do you now disbelieve in cause and effect?*

Steerforth said...

Universal Acknowledgement - Your quote has convinced me that I want to read the book. I'll also give Jill Paton Walsh's book a go, but I have a mental block against Terry Pratchett (in spite of A.S. Byatt's passionate advocacy).

Camilla - I've ordered a sample for my Kindle (I'm whispering the word 'Kindle'). It's had very mixed reviews on Amazon, which makes the book more interesting.

Suze - My adolescent worldview was a very crude conglomeration of Sunday School lessons, bad television dramas like the Six Million Dollar Man, traditional fairy tales and children's mystery novels. Things always happened for a reason. I also had a sense of people's lives as a conventional narrative, so the idea that my aunt's life could end so suddenly and pointlessly, rather than a ripe old age or a noble battle against adversity, really jarred.

Today I don't disown cause and effect, but I'm also accutely conscious of the role 'chance' plays in sabotaging our plans (sometimes for the better).

Camilla said...

Steerforth, I have no idea what your tastes are in reading, so I hope it's a book you enjoy! It was more the premise that attracted my attention because it reminded me of your blog (particularly the bit at the back of the book).


ps my word verification today is 'abrat'. I find that a little harsh...

Biscuit said...

A really lovely post. Your aunt sounds extraordinary.

I hope all's well as it's been a while since you've posted.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Dear Steerforth,

Just wanted to send you quick wish for a very happy Christmas and New Year.

I also wanted to thank you for all the lovely, thought-provoking essays you've posted this year. From reading your postings, I know that this has been a very stressful year for you, what with moving your mother into sheltered accommodations, and your son's illness, coupled with the inevitable stresses of job change. I do hope that all goes well with your new venture and that the new on-line bookshop will be a great success.

On a side note, were you ever able to resell the dining room chairs you brought home from Devon? That was such a great piece, and such a great title!

Take care and God bless you and yours,
Canadian Chickadee

Anonymous said...

have not heard from you lately ... we are all wondering about Steerforth Books ... do hope you are having a peaceful holiday time.

Anne in Cambridge

Steerforth said...

Thank you Canadian Chickadee for your kind thoughts - I really appreciate your message. I've had a couple of emails during the last few days from people wondering why things have been so quiet, so I've responded with a short blog post.

In a nutshell, I've spent the last month setting up accounts, testing the software and, thanks to the donation of some stock, selling books. I haven't made much money, but I've reached a point where I now know that I have a viable business if I can get the stock. That's going to be the challenge!

I haven't had time to sell the chairs yet. They look at me, reproachfully, every time I enter my unit.

Once things have settled down, I hope that I'll have more material for blog posts.

Very best wishes to you for the New Year.

Thanks also to you Anne for thinking of me. I hope that 2012 brings you everything you could wish for. Very best wishes.

Anonymous said...

I'm planing a trip to Morocco this October-a trip which should have been taken many years ago when Pat was still alive. This evening for some reason I Googled Amizmiz and Pat Prior and found your blog. Pat was my Godmother- Aunty Pat. I too became a midwife and I'm sure the stories Pat used to tell of her life and work contributed to my choice of career. I still posses my first Midwifery textbook,which Aunty Pat brought for me. Steerforth,I'd love to hear back from you. Also are you by any chance Pat's godson?

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