It strikes me now how little I knew my Auntie Vi.
My father’s older sister lived with us for the first thirteen years of my life and was an ever-present in my childhood. But I never really knew her, despite her kindness to me, which I took for granted.
She and my dad had moved in to a new council house from their lifelong family home in the fifties and when my parents got married, spinster Violet stayed. She had the front bedroom, my parents the back bedroom and I was in the boxroom.
It must have been a difficult arrangement for the two women to get used to but I was never aware of any friction, although I’m sure there must have been some. The two women appeared close and when I came along they shared in their fuss and doting of me, a circumstance I was not massively keen on and have been resistant to ever since. They went to the English Congregational Church together on Sundays, Vi driving my mother nuts with her enthusiastic and often mispronounced renditions of the hymns. Vi helped with the Sunday dinner afterwards, but I don’t remember her cooking otherwise.
An elegant lady, fond of amateur opera, the cinema, and bingo, Vi was well known in the village. There wasn’t a bus driver who wouldn’t stop for her if she stuck her arm out, regardless of whether she was at a stop or not. And she travelled everywhere by bus, to work every day, to Swansea occasionally, and frequently to Ammanford to meet friends at the Central Café.
She had a wide circle of friends, sisters Eunice and Annie being the closest, with Eunice being an old school friend. Older sister Annie was sparrowlike and always wore a hat which looked as if it might have been screwed on to her wizened head. They lived down the road and were frequent, jolly visitors, who never failed to press a hot little coin into my grubby hand whenever I saw them.
As a young girl Vi had contracted tuberculosis and been sent to North Wales to recover. She was left with a weakness that caused her to limp at times but it never stopped her from taking me on walks of an evening, sometimes to get chips, or wonderful greasy fritters (thick slices of potato fried in batter) from Morlais’ chip shop. Other times to visit her spinster friend Margaret Greenwood where they’d gossip in the grapevine-filled, dusty-geranium scented conservatory.
Then there was Margaret Rose, as pretty and flowery as her name suggests. I think she and Vi were in the local Operatic Society together. My Auntie was a keen singer with a tremulous vibrato Joan Baez would have envied. Preparations took place months in advance for the amateur troupe to get into shape before unveiling their production of “Oklahoma” or “West Side Story” and she could be heard warbling every morning before work and would go to practice every evening after her factory shift at Aladdin or Tick Tock.
My parents would always take me to the first night of the production at Brynamman Public Hall. I was invariably impressed by the colour and vivacity of the cast and production, feeling sure it was one of the finest things one could witness. I was stage struck and mightily proud of my chorus line, glamorous Auntie who came home triumphantly buoyed with the adrenaline of the performance and still showing traces of the hastily removed stage make up.
Vi also loved to sing Sinatra staples like Strangers in the Night and I’ve got you under my skin (which, as a boy, I thought sounded decidedly weird) and I was left in no doubt of the romantic side of her nature. Maybe it’s hindsight, but I also feel there was a undefinable sadness to her that seemed to predict her fate.
In the late seventies, when she was in her early fifties, Vi finally met the man of her dreams. Tall, dark and handsome (her Rock Hudson, she would have said), he was a widower with a grown up son from the big city, Swansea. I don’t know how they met but, as befitting their ages, it was a short courtship before they were married and Vi left our household. She never came back.
We visited her several times in the dreary semi detached council house she had moved into on the moribund periphery of the city, but it was never a happy experience. My father tentatively tried to get to know his new brother-in-law but was alarmed at the company he kept and the dark city dives he drank in.
He was worried sick that his beloved sister was waning under the dubious care of her new husband. It seems he was right, as in far too short a time Vi was admitted to hospital and passed away of a long standing asthma condition that had quickly gotten worse since her wedding and the move to industrial Swansea.
I still have within me a tang of the wintergreen melancholy that was apparent in my Auntie Vi’s life. I have always felt that such a gentle, generous soul deserved much, much better.