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I’ve Got You Now: Farewell to Auntie Kath

Cecile Stevenson, Kathleen Brown’s ‘littlest bridesmaid’, reflects on the day she returned to South Ormsby to scatter her Auntie Kath’s ashes and to remember the ties that bound them across generations.   

I woke early as old people often do, especially when they have an important day ahead of them, and this was a very important day.  My Auntie Kathleen’s ashes were to be scattered near St Leonard’s Church, South Ormsby, where she married my Uncle Bert on this date exactly 80 years ago: October 12th, 1940.

Life for many people was not so easy at that time and it was made more unpredictable and hazardous by the war, which was spreading across the world, creating mayhem, with its outcome uncertain.  The young couple who married in those perilous times would experience both tragedy and triumph in their 56 years together, with little being said about any of it.  That was the way in those days.

80 years later, on this day of commemoration, the world was dealing again with foreboding, loss and deprivation.  A new, very aggressive disease had appeared and was racing across the planet.  It had been classified as a pandemic and the virus causing it was named Covid-19.

Auntie Kathleen died shortly before her 105th birthday on the first day of the first lockdown when strict regulations were introduced in an attempt to halt the spread of the new – often very serious, even fatal – illness.  She was one of the many people for whom no funeral gathering of any size was allowed under the lockdown rules, so the celebration of her life was on hold.  So it was that her son, David, his wife Pam and I were travelling to South Ormsby for a small memorial ceremony with masks on, car windows positioned for cross-ventilation and bottles of anti-viral hand gel at the ready.

I am the only one left from those long-ago wedding celebrations and that day has always been one of my most vivid memories.  I had not been back to South Ormsby Church since then although as a child I had often got off the bus as it stopped at the nearby school when I went to see my granny who lived in Brinkhill.  I was looking forward to the visit, despite its sad purpose, but I knew that Auntie Kath’s long life, lived well, was a cause for thankfulness. She was always friendly, sociable and hospitable.  She was a good conversationalist and kept her sharp brain to the end.

I’ve Got You Now: Farewell to Auntie Kath

When Auntie Kathleen was in her eighties, a friend who was fascinated by her reminiscences suggested that she should write it all down and she did just that.  David found her stories in an exercise book when he and Pam were sorting things out prior to her move to Stones Place in Lincoln, where she was happy in her last few years.  He typed it all up, illustrated it with family photographs and it has become her memorial as well as delighting all who read it.  The memoir is called ‘My Days’ and in it she wrote about happy as well as hard-working times at South Ormsby Hall during the Massingberd-Mundy family’s long tenure at the estate.

The memoir brought Auntie Kathleen a lot of local media interest and a bit of fame, and she became connected with some of the people now living and working at the Hall; some whose forebears had also worked there and others with new links to the estate.  Three of those people who had come to know Auntie Kathleen well in her extreme old age were to meet us at the church and show us the way to the spot suggested for her ashes.

We joined forces at the gateway to the church, the one leading to the pathway which I had so much trouble climbing as a three-year-old bridesmaid.  I was delighted to see that the steep, earthen path was just as I remembered it, still peppered with what looked like the same stones and pebbles and overhung by the same hedge.  I had feared that the little pathway might have been turned into steps or in some way ‘improved’ since I had last been there, and I was glad that nobody had felt it necessary to change it.  I’d have put a preservation order on that path if I could.  It holds some strong and happy memories of that wedding day eighty years ago. I also remembered it with respect and this time I was wearing strong walking boots and carrying a stout stick:  I soon found that I needed both.  Pam declared as we reached the top that she wasn’t surprised that I’d had trouble with the steep slope as a three year-old. She found it challenging herself and she’s a seasoned walker.

We walked across the field next to the church, avoiding the molehills as we went.  I had time to think about the wedding day, now so distant, and how in her old age my role as a bridesmaid became surprisingly significant and useful to Auntie Kath.  Her abilities stayed with her until the end, but if I rang just as she was waking from a rest, she would occasionally have difficulty placing me.  She had come from an extended family, married into a large one and sometimes the generations became slightly mixed.

One day when we were having a little difficulty deciding where I fitted in, I said, “I was your littlest bridesmaid, Auntie Kath.” Straightaway she gave a deep chuckle. “I’ve got you,” she said. After that we had no more problems with identity.  My sure-fire callsign became, “it’s your littlest bridesmaid, Auntie Kath,” and immediately would come the deep chuckle and, “I’ve got you.”  I was delighted with our fool-proof identifier.  It made me feel unique and saved her having to mentally scroll through all the people she had known in her long life.

Very soon we arrived at the place chosen for her ashes to lie.  It was a sheltered nook with a small sapling growing in the grass.  The little tree’s leaves were beautiful in their autumn colours, the reds and golds lighting up the spot even though the day was dull.  I was reminded of Auntie Kath as a bride on her special day, in her beautiful gold dress.

Written Note

David scattered the ashes as we watched, silently.  Whimsical things often happen on solemn occasions, and I was delighted to see that as he paid a beautiful tribute to his mother a very soft and gentle breeze, the merest breath of air, lifted some of the newly scattered ashes and the small cloud floated gently off towards South Ormsby Hall.  I smiled to think that she was going to visit that place where she had been happy as a girl, contributing to the care of a beautiful house and its contents.  Well, I said it was whimsy but who really knows?  She certainly had some good times while she lived at the Hall, knowing that her sweetheart, Bert, was gardening over the hill at the Rectory and acting as a chauffeur when required.

It was almost time to leave Auntie Kath but I wanted a few quiet words with her myself.  “It’s your littlest bridesmaid, Auntie Kath,” I said. Sure enough, I heard that deep chuckle, “I’ve got you.” Yes, I know, the voice was in my head, but what a good recording of her my brain has made. I hope she never leaves.  I had loved being her littlest bridesmaid and enjoyed being recognised as such even in my own old age.

I said my goodbyes, left her in her perfect place and caught up with the others on our way to the beautifully warm and welcoming Old Rectory for tea and cake courtesy of Jacqui and Caron who work at the Hall.  They, together with Mr Thornes, the current custodian of the estate, had been with us at our little ceremony and joined us for our tea.  Auntie Kathleen would have been so pleased that they were there and delighted with the hospitality we were shown.  She would not have been intimidated and would have been pleased and proud that the latest guardian of the estate was there too.  In my imagination, ever ready to run riot, I fancied that the Massingberd-Mundy family whom she had served so well, and with whom she had kept close links, would have been delighted that their little housemaid had been acknowledged by the current staff and custodian of the estate.

I took the wedding photograph out of my handbag.  Postcard-sized, black and white and as clear as the day it was taken, it was passed around.  I looked at it again myself, and remembered those dear people, all gone now except for this littlest bridesmaid.  I see people whose lives were hard but who always had time for me and constantly encouraged me as I worked to take advantage of the opportunities they never had.

As we once again find ourselves in challenging and world-changing times, I can guess what the bride in the photograph would say to us all on this, her anniversary.

‘I’ve had my days. These are your days. Do the best you can with them.  Keep going.  Everything passes.  There will be better days.’

One last word from this Farewell Day.  If the people living and working at South Ormsby Hall ever feel the flick of a duster or smell polish where nobody has been polishing, don’t be afraid.  It will be the 100%-friendly spirit of my Auntie Kath, come to give you a hand.

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