I volunteered to speak because I wanted to pay tribute to Auntie Aileen. I quickly realised that I don’t have time to even scratch the surface of who she was. When we were here last week, Alexander, my nephew, said ‘Auntie Aileen inspired me’. He told me that it was her character; the stories she told him about her travels that then inspired him to travel; how she has influenced many of Alexander’s characters in his screen plays; and her obvious passion for so many diverse things.
When Auntie Aileen was born, expectations for women were so very different. She had initially hoped to go to university to study English Literature, but preference was given to demobbed servicemen, and she would have had to wait too long. She then wanted to study at Atholl Crescent but our grandparents couldn’t afford the fees. So she studied nursery teaching at Moray House, and she became an excellent teacher rising through the ranks, and sitting on national boards. Sadly she had to retire a couple of years early when our grandmother’s Alzheimer’s necessitated that Auntie Aileen become her carer.
She once told me that had she been born later she would have liked to have been a conservator of fabrics in a museum, but even so, as a woman born in what to me was another time, she managed to lead an incredibly modern life. She was financially independent, had the satisfaction of her career, and she loved travelling.
Boy did she love travelling! As a result, Sue and I were often frustrated at not being able to contact Auntie Aileen easily, and so we bought her an answering machine for her 70th birthday. Of course, this only helped us if she was actually in the flat and checked her messages, or indeed had time to call us back. Eventually we agreed that she would let us know her plans in advance and believe me her trips took up a large chunk of my calendar. It seems unbelievable that only four years ago she sailed around South America.
The decision to stop travelling abroad wasn’t taken easily, but Auntie Aileen realised in 2012 that failing eyesight combined with unsteadiness on her feet made her a liability. Her final trip across the border was for Big Andrew’s 60th birthday party in August 2013 when she held court in a corner of the hall, entertained by friends and family, and laughing at our dancing. After that visit, she decided she couldn’t visit Sue or me any more. That same unsteadiness also made long train journeys difficult for her. She still read travel brochures though and dreamed of where she would have liked to visit or indeed revisit.
Photography was another passion, documenting her trips and taking family photos. I am the youngest of three, and I honestly thought that Mum and Dad had got bored by the time I was born because there seemed to be very few photos of me as a baby or child. Thank heavens for Auntie Aileen. As Sue and I cleared her flat last year, I finally found some photos and slides of me.
In fact, Auntie Aileen taught me to use a camera. She took me to Edinburgh Zoo, another of her passions, and showed me how to point and shoot. My first photo was, of course, of a bear. It had to be really, didn’t it? The entire bear is in the frame, so she taught me well. We all know of Auntie Aileen’s love of bears – teddy bears, pottery bears, carved bears, all kinds of bears, all sizes. I think there were almost 800 in the flat when we cleared it, and Auntie Aileen had named every single one, and remembered all their names.
Auntie Aileen had many hobbies, again all addressed with passion. She was a fine needlewoman, and also knitted beautiful lace. She was a long-time member of the Scottish Mineral and Lapidary Club, and I am thrilled to own jewellery that she made. She loved classical music concerts and fortunately, thanks to the sensitivity of the staff at Southpark Retirement Home, she was able to attend Scottish Chamber Orchestra concerts even after the stroke and almost to the end. This meant so much to her since this was the one passion that didn’t require sight or balance.
This wouldn’t be a true memory of Auntie Aileen if I didn’t mention that we didn’t always get along. Sometimes I found her embarrassing and I know she often felt the same about me. But time passed and I now realise that in many ways we were similar. Passionate, outspoken, loud, opinionated, fiercely independent, interested in everything – so in many ways we were competing with each other, except that I had the opportunities Auntie Aileen would have loved to have had.
We became much better friends after she visited us in Hong Kong in 1987. I realised then how open she was to new experiences and she was definitely one of the easiest guests we ever had. During that stay, however, I had to tell her that Nana, her mother, had been given a place in a home. Auntie Aileen would be returning to the flat where she’d lived since the age of 7 to live on her own for the first time. I had never seen Auntie Aileen cry before. I realised then that she was a real person.
After that sadly the tears were more frequent, especially after the stroke. Auntie Aileen really, really didn’t want to leave her flat. She had hoped to die there, but strokes are cruel. She knew she couldn’t be a prisoner there, and so she moved to Southpark. She grieved her loss of independence and privacy, and the staff did everything to make the transition easier for her. Recently however Sue and I sensed that she was slipping away. Her once tremendous memory was failing, the breathing problems increased, and she couldn’t see us when we visited, only recognising our voices.
The phrase that has been used by so many people is that this is the end of an era, and it truly is. Who else wore huge red silk Christmas baubles as earrings? Who else matched the colour of her Sobrani cigarette to her outfit? Who else made Danish Lace Biscuits? Who even knows what Danish Lace Biscuits are? Who ensured that I had a stellar collection of dolls in national dress? Who else will send us books and presents about Scotland in case we forget our heritage? Who else will call Sue and me ‘the girls’?
Bye bye, Auntie Aileen, rest in peace. We know you were proud of us. We know you loved us. We loved you too.