This is another tea towel that doesn’t belong to me but one that I ‘commissioned’ for Uncle Chris’s 70th birthday. He specifically asked for no presents but I don’t consider this a present, more of a memory (or series of memories). Chris is my uncle. He hates me referring to him as ‘uncle’ because we are so near in age. As a 6 year old, being called ‘uncle’ was bad enough but as a 70 year old, having a niece as old as me, is embarassing. But hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Can you have a ‘half-uncle’? Because Chris was my mother’s half-brother; they had the same father but different mothers. I think we all thought we came from a ‘strange’ family, with big age gaps within a generation, full of arguments and estrangements; however, how many people can claim they come from a ‘normal’ family? Very few I imagine. There are skeletons in every family closet. My mother had three half-brothers and two half-sisters. At different stages of her life they were either very close or had fallen out, big time. Her relationship with her siblings, therefore, affected my relationship with my aunts and uncles. Sometimes, I had lots of aunts and uncles that I saw regularly and sometimes there appeared to be none with whom I had any contact. My mother’s relationship with Chris was probably the most consistent, not affected by family feuds. I don’t know if that was to do with my mother or the fact that Chris didn’t want to get embroiled in family disputes, so took great care never to be involved. I’d like to think it was a bit of both. For several years after their father (my grandfather) died, Chris lived with us. He was training to be an architect, studying at night school; it was a long course and he had nowhere to live. For me, this was great; as an only child I acquired a ‘brother’ for a few years in my teens, something I’d never had. Someone to annoy, ask questions of; someone who was there for me during my O/Levels, someone who appreciated my music, someone with whom I could escape the tensions of the household at the time. I loved it. I am sure he didn’t! I have many, many memories of that time. There was the time when he told his girlfriend that he had won ballroom dancing medals; she was impressed, we were gobsmacked that anyone would believe such a tale, especially with his dancing. There was the time when he was teaching himself to appreciate and understand classical music, telling everyone about his love for Dvorjak and Wagner and insisting we listen to it. Then, of course, there was English Language O/Level, but that’s another story.
When I was deciding on making a tea towel for Chris’s 70th birthday, I knew exactly which photo it would be. Although I have lots of photos of Chris there was only one choice. It did take sometime to plough through my photo albums to find it. This photo was taken in 1965 at the Connaught Hotel in London. Chris looks confident in his evening suit and I look uncomfortable in a long dress, with satin gloves and a ghastly handbag. Fortunately you can’t see the silver shoes (the first and last time I wore them). The event was the Ladies Night for the Freemason’s Lodge that my grandfather and father belonged to. I had no idea what a Ladies Night was, let alone what the Freemasons were; if I had I would not have gone. Actually, why did I go? I have no idea. I wasn’t someone who liked dressing up and I certainly couldn’t dance, maybe it was for the food! I obviously didn’t have a partner and my poor uncle was lumbered with being my escort. I remember the dress very clearly; it was deep purple, cotton lace shift dress over a matching lining (very fashionable at the time). I think the colour on the photo has faded with time. Other than the outfit, the photo, the fact that we were taken by chauffeur driven car, I can remember nothing of the evening. I can’t imagine I danced. I assume the food was good, I can’t remember who else went. Did other family members go? Maybe Chris remembers.
This photo brings to the fore a myriad of memories. Memories about the role Uncle Chris played in my life before we both ‘grew up’ and lived our own lives, very different lives. But I will always be grateful for the sanity he brought to my teens and for the fact that he maintained contact with my mother throughout her life because that was really important to her. Looking at the tea towel, I remember that Chris took me to see Top of the Pops, near to Christmas. On a recording of the show, you can see the two of us dancing; I do remember the dress I was wearing: it was a burgundy coloured, sleeveless, wool shift dress, it was very itchy as I recall. It was a great show and I was the envy of all my friends. I can’t remember the DJ but I do hope it wasn’t Jimmy Saville. The Who were on but I can’t remember the other acts (perhaps a memory test for Chris!!).
I remember that Chris was there during two awful weeks when my father refused to speak to me (or anyone else, come to that) because I had bought a full length, to the ground, coat, double breasted in RAF colours. It was beautiful, I loved it, my father went ballistic, I wouldn’t give in, he wouldn’t give in. Peace fell after about two weeks but I had to hide the coat and not let him know that I was still wearing it. I never did understand why he was so angry but at least Chris was around to talk to.
The tea towel brings back memories of a much earlier time when Chris, Catherine (my aunt who was two and a half years older than me) and I used to go on holiday to a bungalow at Pevensey Bay. I have loads of pictures of us all playing on the beach or standing outside the bungalow. I remember Chris and Catherine being extrememly skilled at making ‘apple pie beds’ for me. I never really understood how you made an ‘apple pie bed’ but I do remember that they were extremely difficult to get into and also to rectify. Pevensey was always one of those places that the sun never seemed to shine, or maybe it was just that all the photos are black and white.
Chris was living with us when he decided he wanted to finish his architecture training by going to Aston University as a mature student. I was sad to see him go; life wasn’t quite the same again. However, I remember my mother ‘kitted him out’ with everything he needed. I remember him coming home one weekend to say that he had met a great woman in the laundrette who was fascinated by the colour of his sheets (my mother was big into bright orange and dark brown sheets at the time). He married the woman from the laundrette who has never been a fan of being called Aunty by someone only three years younger than her. Chris made a great choice for his wife because she was a mathematician and was able to teach me the basics of statistics, which enabled me to pass my first year at university. I was a bridesmaid at their wedding; still lacking elegance even in the most beautiful emerald green dress.
The more that I look at the tea towel, the more memories come flooding back, some painful, some happy, some bizarre but what it does remind me of is the fact that for a few short years I had a ‘nearly brother’ who kept me going through my teens and beyond, who taught me a valuable lesson that I have carried through my life: no good comes from harbouring grievances and grudges, that life is too short to maintain feuds and estrangements. The strap line, on the tea towel, ‘Always By My Side’ sums that up. Thank you for that. Happy Birthday Uncle Chris, and many more of them. Barbara
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