On Sunday, we headed off to Essex to visit some of my relatives. It was a trip of about 90 miles, and as the weather was good, we looked forward to our day out. Ollie was delighted to be accompanying us, and jumped excitedly into his spot at the back of the car.
The specific reason for the trip was to attend a barbecue, arranged as a surprise for my cousin’s 58th birthday. Her family managed to get her out of the house to visit a garden centre, and she was blissfully unaware of the frantic preparations that went on in her absence. I was very happy to be going to see so many of my cousins all in one place, and as their children range in age from four years old, to twenty-six, it was also going to be good to catch up with them after a three-year gap. Many years ago, my mother’s side of the family all lived very near to each other. We could walk to each others houses, and regularly congregated at my grandmother’s house, for weekly catch-ups, or large family parties. Time has moved on, and the family is scattered around the London area, the county of Essex, and now as far away as Norfolk. The chance to all be in one place is a welcome treat.
On the way to my cousin’s house, I decided to stop off a few miles away, and visit my elderly aunt. She was 92 this year, and has survived the passing of all four of her younger siblings, and her husband. She manages well-enough, with help from my cousins, and a fiercely independent spirit. I had not seen her for two years, though we had spoken on the telephone. She doesn’t like to go out much these days, and rarely socialises with the other residents in the retirement community where she has a small flat. She welcomed our visit, and was pleased to see us. She made tea, and offered cakes and biscuits, fussing over Ollie, as she had not seen him since he was a pup. I was shocked to see how frail she had become. Despite the constant care and attention of her immediate family, she hardly eats anything, and although she has no major medical problems, she was certainly depressed.
Soon after we arrived, she told us that she had had enough of life, and could see little point in carrying on. The fact that many of her close family are nearby was of little interest to her, and she declined our invitation to accompany us to the birthday party. She was also obviously confused to some degree, asking the same questions over and over, and she rapidly became tired. When her daughter turned up at the flat, she saw this as a sign that we would soon be heading off, but we stayed on for a while. I was reluctant to leave. My aunt is only a year older than my Mum would have been, and she is very much like her in appearance and mannerisms. In many ways, it was reminiscent of visiting her, minus the illnesses. When someone has reached the grand old age of 92, it is also at the back of your mind how much longer they will go on, and whether or not this might be the last time you see them.
The pleasure of the meeting was tinged with the sadness of the realisation of this fact.
Farewells said, we made the short journey to the barbecue. It was in full swing, with only a few guests yet to arrive. In glorious weather, everyone was sitting in the garden, surrounded by the smoke from the coals. My cousin was delighted to see us, and loved her gift of Dahlias, as she is a keen gardener. We saw her father, who is now in his 80s, and still very active. Her children, both a credit to her, (and themselves) had worked so hard to get everything ready, and keep it hidden too. Her brother and his small son, playing happily with the older children, and news of another on the way, due in February. When it is a family occasion as this was, even with the presence of some local friends and their children, the atmosphere is always relaxed and enjoyable. Catching up on some snippets of news, talking about jobs, hobbies, and extended family members who couldn’t make it. Far too much food cooked, and everyone having to leave too early, as the next day means work or school for most of those attending.
When it was time to go, clutching cake pressed on me for ‘later’, we said our goodbyes to everyone, thanking them for the invitation, and their hard work getting everything just right. It was also time to feel a little sad that we no longer live so close to each other, and that daily familiarity is sadly only a fond memory.
Driving home into a blindingly bright sunset, I looked at the swirling cloud formations, the Norfolk skies providing their summer bounty; the scenery above, if not on the ground. The colours of sunset, always slightly different, never the same two days running. I thought of my aunt, tired of life, and welcoming release from this world. The circle of family life, almost full-turned.