I have one photo of Auntie Chrissie, my mother’s elder sister. It is Blu-tacked to the display case in my living-room, coincidentally (and ironically, as you will see) next to a bottle of Laphroaig whisky. I put it there because I like looking at it – a memory of my youth in Reading and a memory of her. Seeing that photo yesterday, I decided to write down my memories of Auntie Chrissie.
Growing up in Reading, U.K., with my Irish parents, I was cut off from their families, who lived in Ireland and never ventured abroad. I never knew my grandparents, who all died young, but my father had two siblings, Tommy and Bessie, and my mother two more, Willie and Chrissie.
The only time as an adult that I ever met Tommy and Bessie and Willie was in 1970, during a trip to Ireland with my father. Seeing Tommy for the first time at his front door, I was flabbergasted by his strong facial resemblance to my dad. Like Tommy, Uncle Willie spent his whole life in Limerick, where he was married and had children. My abiding memory of him is sitting in a spit-and-sawdust Limerick pub watching
him spit on the floor between his legs. All the men were doing it. I had never before seen such a thing in a pub and haven’t since.
Auntie Chrissie, however, was a frequent visitor to our house in Reading during the 1960s and 70s after her retirement. Unlike Willie and my mother, Auntie Chrissie never married, which enabled her to visit Reading whenever she wanted.
At an early age, she moved from Limerick to Dublin to work in the Irish Civil Service. She must have been bright at school to pass the exams needed to qualify for such a well-paid job.
Her whole life outside of work was dedicated to the Roman Catholic Church. She was a fundamentalist in religious matters, believing in the literal truth of the Bible, in the power of prayer, holy water, holy medals and priests. According to my mother, she gave large sums of money to the Church. Her lifestyle was frugal and simple. She lived in a small one-storey terraced house in Valentia Parade, central Dublin.
I got to know Auntie Chrissie quite well when she stayed with us in Reading. I say “quite well
” because she was not
a great talker and was on a different wavelength from the rest of us. Her reason for coming to Reading was loneliness. My mother, her sister, was her best friend. Living in Dublin, she had acquaintances from the church, but she missed her sister.
My mother was a devout Roman Catholic - attending mass on Sundays, going to confession, visiting Lourdes, sprinkling holy water, pinning holy medals under my lapel when I went on long journeys – but Auntie Chrissie was in a different league. Having no husband or children, her every waking moment revolved around the Church. She fervently believed that adherence to Roman Catholic ritual would guarantee her a place in heaven. Her conversation was limited to religious topics, such as Saint Matt Talbot and Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius
, and she belonged to the Legion of Mary, an organization for super-pious Roman Catholics. All this grated somewhat with my father.
Dad was a communist and an atheist. He had rejected Roman Catholicism at an early age but, in order to please my pious mother, allowed myself and my sister to be raised as Roman Catholics. He could tolerate Mum’s lukewarm piety but had a
hard time stomaching Auntie Chrissie’s religious fanaticism. Occasionally he would openly mock her, which caused bad feeling. By and large, though, he left her alone.
My sister and I tolerated Auntie Chrissie for Mum’s sake, but she was an oddball and we sometimes spoke out of turn, contradicting her to show our intellectual superiority. We should have been kinder.
As an intensely bookish young man, I travelled to Dublin by myself and stayed with Auntie Chrissie. I still have her house address in an old diary: 19 Valentia Parade, North Circular Road, Dublin 7
. During the day I would see the sights and browse the bookstores. Returning to Chrissie’s house, I would immerse myself in literature. I remember buying John McGahern’s The Dark
on this trip and loving it. I had little to do with Chrissie, who cooked me meals and left me alone to read in my bedroom. It could be said I was using her, sponging off her, but I think she rather enjoyed having someone else in the house. I now regret not talking to her more, because she was obviously lonely.
My mother predeceased Chrissie, and I never saw Chrissie again. I heard
that, at the end of her life, she stopped speaking. Whether this was a conscious decision or a physical impediment I do not know. I am unsure of the circumstances of her death, but she died and was buried in Dublin. No doubt her house and money were all bequeathed to the Catholic Church. I was deeply touched that, in her will, she left me her Seiko wristwatch.
That watch stopped functioning years ago. The only two mementos of Chrissie that I have now are her photograph (taken in our Reading living-room at Xmas sometime in the 1970s) and the copy of W. B. Yeats’s Selected Poems
that she sent me through the post from Dublin. I was too mean to buy it in my local bookstore, so I asked her to send me a copy. It cost her six old shillings plus postage. I had taken advantage of her.
My abiding impression of Chrissie is of a life wasted. Perhaps her religious fanaticism was an emotional prop, a substitute for marriage and children, but she was quite miserable most of the time and obviously lonely - such a contrast with my outgoing mother, who combined religious faith with a busy family life and many friends. It could be said that Chrissie was a desperately poor advertisement for the Roman Catholic faith; it could equally be said that she lived a blameless and selfless life. If there is a heaven, she will surely be there.
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