There was one constant thing you could expect every Christmas, and that was a Christmas letter from Aunt Emily. She wrote to us from as far back as I remember; my Dad would read her letters out loud to us when we were kids. Her letters continued after he died, and even continued once I moved out and got married. She wasn’t really my Aunt, actually. Technically she was my Dad’s cousin. A little @trevorlibrarian family history maybe is needed?
Once upon a time there were two brothers, George and William. William was affectionately known as “Whistling Bill”, I’m told. I can only guess his wife was known as “Flatulating Margaret” or some such thing. In any case, these brothers (and good ol’ gassy Mags) grew up together in Northern Ireland. George and his wife took off to Canada in the 1920s, while William (and farty-pants) stayed behind.
Both brothers had three children, two boys and a girl each, actually. And like with many families (I know mine is not unique), two branches of the same family grew up simultaneously on other sides of the world.
George was my grampa, and William was Emily’s Dad. So Emily and my Dad were first cousins.
Every year, without fail, a letter would arrive a few weeks before Christmas. Emily was the writer in the family, and so her letters took on the importance and regularity of the Queen’s message on Christmas Day. Her letters were epic retellings of the family’s business in the year previous, and for me it was like a periscope into this exotic world known as Ulster. A land of strange customs and funny accents, but with a certain strange familiarity to it. There were parallel people that lived over there that we were blood-related too. In fact, there is a cousin that bears the exact same name as me. He is just a couple of years older than me, and people say we look alike (we don’t), but it seemed to be an endless source of amusement for the family when we finally met.
We’ve established that Aunt Emily was not my actual Aunt, but I called her “Aunt” anyway. Everyone I knew called her that. It was more of an honorific than anything familial. It also distinguished her from one of her actual nieces (someone who rightfully COULD call her Aunt Emily), who shared the same name. We got around this bit of potential confusion by always referring to Emily the younger as “Wee Emily”. It doesn’t really matter than “Wee Emily” is now in her late 30s and is an Aunt herself many times over. I think “Wee Emily’ is stuck for life. I guess there is even a “wee”er Emily now in Vancouver, my own niece. But I have yet to call her “Wee Wee” Emily. I should whisper that to her brother, my nephew, and see if it takes. My nephew, as it happens, is named Jack, which ALSO was the name of Aunt Emily’s husband. I know.
Well, I’m sorry to say that I heard last night that there will be no more Christmas Letters from Aunt Emily. She passed away this week. When I told my wife, she said “That’s so WEIRD. I was just looking for her address to send her OUR Christmas card and I couldn’t find it. I was just thinking about her!”
My wife has a way of killing people with her thoughts. Just last week she and a friend were talking about someone from church, someone who was kind of obscure and not really on our radars AND HE DIED THE VERY SAME NIGHT. This is also the same woman who dreamt of a plane crashing into a high-rise the night before September 11th. So it really wasn’t much of a surprise to hear that she had been thinking of Aunt Emily as she breathed her last. You know how if you care about someone and tell them “You are in my thoughts” that’s a generally a nice thing? Well, be forewarned: if my wife ever says that to you, I’d sleep with one eye open.
Back to Aunt Emily for a second, you guys. After all, this post is about her. So, when I finally got to visit this magical land of Northern Ireland when I was in my early 20s, I finally had a chance to meet Aunt Emily in person. It was such an odd but amazing feeling to meet someone for the first time and feel like you already know them. She was a large boisterous woman with a hearty laugh who made you feel at home right away. Her accent took a bit of getting used to the first time I met her, and even once I adjusted to that, there were some phrases that were decidedly foreign to me. One example was when I was over there for a family wedding. There were so many out of town guests that my brother and I were staying with Jack and Emily. One morning I came down for breakfast and Aunt Emily was still in her dressing gown. She seemed distraught.
“Oh Trevor. Have you seen my pussy?” she blurted.
My brother was sitting at the kitchen table and actually spit his tea out down the front of his shirt.
“Um, what? No? I don’t THINK so?” I stammered.
“Ach, no. I haven’t seen it since last night.”
“Well, what? What’s going on?” I thought to myself.
The situation resolved itself when her husband Jack’s high tremulous voice was heard from the other room.
“I’ve seen your pussy, alright.”
I bet he has.
“I saw it out in the garden.”
Emily seemed relieved. “Oh my pussy! It must be hungry!”
This exchange actually happened, you guys. You can ask my brother.
Even though (or maybe because of) not having any children of her own, she was a favourite among the cousins. A couple of my cousins would go over to her place on the weekend as kids and “clean her house” for some pocket money, and my cousin Nigel, who lives in the village but works on the family farm, would pass by Aunt Emily’s house every day. He would always pop in each morning to bring in her paper, check on her, and make sure she was okay. Especially in the last few years as she lived as a widow. She was able to stay in her house up until just the last couple of months, I hear. So that’s a small blessing. She took such great pride in her garden and home.
There is a road in Co. Armagh that has a number of houses stretched along it. There are maybe a half dozen that are owned by my family members. All sit on what was once family farmland, and that little section of Ireland feels like home to me. It’s like a Hobbit village, but with slightly taller inhabitants (and possibly slightly less hairy feet but who’s to say?). If that stretch of road was actually a Brooklyn block on the hottest day of the summer in 1989, Auntie Emily would definitely be Mother Sister, looking out for everyone, being the conscience and memory of the group. (Did you like my sick Spike Lee ref just there? Let’s just enjoy some opening credits Rosie Perez dancing to send Aunt Emily off, okay?)
So now there will be one less light along that stretch of road this Christmas, and the letters that always were signed “With Love, Auntie Emily” are now precious relics of a time when people actually took the time to write letters on real paper with real pens.
I love you, Auntie Emily. I’m already missing your Christmas letter. You are in my thoughts, but in a good way. Happy Christmas, everyone.