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Almost 100

Updated: Apr 17

"There is no old age. There is, as there always was, just you." Carol Grace

(Apologies - I pressed Publish by mistake when I had written nothing!)

This is my aunt Norah - way, way back in time - maybe around 1930. She was born on April 30th 1924 and she died just a few days ago - on the 14th April 1924 - just 16 days before her 100th birthday. She would have been the first in her family to reach that august age, although one of her older sisters - Freda - almost made it too - well she was 91.

Norah was the baby of her family. My mother was the oldest and in between there were two sisters and a brother - well there had been another brother who died tragically just before his first birthday of bronchitis and diorrhoea. Just before a significant birthday - like Nora.

Being the baby she was probably spoilt - I do know that my uncle at least called her 'our doll' or Dolly but I do not know whether the rest of the family did. Anyway, there she is smiling with her brother and Kathleen - the sister nearest in age and mother of my Yorkshire cousins, in the New Forest which is not too far from their home in Portsmouth, with their father who died in 1932 when Nora was just 8 - not long after this photograph I'm guessing.

My mother was 11 I think when Norah was born and by the age of 14, being the oldest, was sent out to work to help the family finances. I suspect that she and Nora - the oldest and the youngest were the cleverest of the children, but Norah was the only one who went to university because by the time she went to Reading further education was probably subsidised. Prior to that it just would not have been a possibility for the girls anyway and their brother became a draughtsman in the Portsmouth dockyards. Anyway here she is in 1945 in her university gear. I'm guessing it might have been her first year, as I know that she was still at school during the war as the entire school was evacuated into the countryside.

I think it was whilst at university that she would have met her future husband John, as I think he was the brother of her university friend, whose name I have now forgotten, but whom I did meet a few times. But yes, she married - but later in 1952 when I was 9 (and not invited). More photos - Norah in 1947 and the wedding - my grandmother - her mother on the right and my aunt Freda behind my grandmother. The lady on the left - a somewhat daunting lady who lived with Norah and John for some years in her later life. I assume the other man is the best man.

I do vaguely remember Norah at the time - in some ways she was always my favourite aunt. But then I do think that term 'favourite' is actually very loose. One's favourite anyone tends to be the one you are with at the time. Unless they are awful. And none of my aunts and uncles on either side of the family fell into that category.

From this time on, however, I do have more actual memory of Norah and her husband John, who was a 'character' if you like. An extrovert and adventurous and also a gourmand. He had a car, a Rover, I think which had what they called a dicky seat in the boot, so we girls - my sister and I would sit there. So very, very exciting.

Norah taught French at a posh girls school in Bexhill I think. Occasionally she had a French girl staying with her, and eventually, when they retired John and Norah moved to Paris to live, partly I'm sure because of a love of all things French (which is another connection that I felt with Norah) and partly because their two sons lived there.

Their sons Tony and Peter, were born quite a few years apart and were many years younger than I - Peter was a mere toddler when we came to Australia in 1969, and so I have not had a lot of connection with them. Here is Norah with Tony and her mother, my grandmother looking very uncharacteristically grim. Grandma, you see was always smiling - in my memory anyway. And you can see that her house is not grand to say the least. Norah and her siblings came from very modest beginnings.

But she came from a generation of women who were beginning to be able to do things, to be more of themselves, to have choices. They were pioneers and now my last link with that generation is gone, which makes her death doubly poignant for me. She was a wonderful woman - so full of life and fun, with a dry sense of humour and a boundlessly intelligent and curious mind. Her tragic loss of sight due to macular degeneration late in life, must have been devastating for her as she read so widely and delighted in the world around her.

Curiously two of my most vivid memories associated with Norah are related to food. From my childhood and a visit to her Bexhill home, she fed us some spinach with our roasted meat, and told us it was cabbage because she knew we, at least theoretically, did not like spinach. But we ate it and although I was not enamoured, the most I could say was that it was different. She told us afterwards, just to show us that we should try things.

The other is perhaps more John's story. On a trip to France we finished in Paris, staying with them in their flat near Versailles. We had brought with us a magnum of Bordeaux wine, purchased on our memorable visit to Chateau Quercy there. I guess we rather hoped it would be drunk with our meal. But no it was whisked away with profuse thanks from John to his cellar. However, the momentary disappointment was replaced by the magnificent salmon - a whole one - that he had cooked for us - and the equally wonderful bottle of wine he produced from that cellar downstairs in the basement of the apartment building.

Perhaps it says something about them as a couple that we thought to invite them to join us and some of our English friends, for one of our French holiday weeks - in the Luberon. The week was a little fraught with disasters, such as them losing the key to their car - a long but now amusing story I won't go into now - but yes, they provided entertainment galore. It's not often you invite your aging aunt and uncle to join you on a holiday. They even came to visit us in Australia.

John died several years ago now, and Norah has, I think, been living with Peter and with Tony - at the end with Tony, but now in the beautiful Jura in a small town called Sellières.

I gather the end was peaceful and the result of a lung infection. Maybe she did not really want to be that old. To me she was ever young, and ever such very good company.

I feel bereft even though it is many years since I have seen her or even communicated with her which is entirely my sin. I should have established some kind of contact - FaceTime or some such. We live in a digital age that makes such things possible. However remote, it is my last link with an entire generation and an entire age. Almost, but not quite of course, as heartbreaking as the death of one's parents.

I have no recent photographs of her and I. It is many, many years since I have seen her - as you can tell from my relatively youthful appearance in the photo above. But here she is in a lovely photograph with my sister on the occasion of the 90th birthday of my aunt Freda , when the entire extended family - minus me - gathered together.

I wonder if she was that fussed about turning 100 and therefore disappointed. I suspect not. She did not pay much attention to such things. Life was so interesting to her however, and I'm sure she would have missed that.

Condolences to Tony and Peter. And two quotes that I found that might apply to her:

“What is it that remains essentially you?” Lynda Grattan

"How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" Satchel Paige



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