Of all the gifts I have ever received the ones from Auntie Ita are the ones I remember best. She had a knack for choosing gifts....Or maybe she was just a good listener with a lively imagination. It was she gave me the Katie books ["What Katy Did," "What Katy Did At School" and "What Katy Did Next"] at the exact moment in my life I was ready for "chapter" books. And after I read "Little Women" she took me to see the film starring June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor. That's when I decided I didn't want to be me anymore, I wanted to be Jo. Auntie Ita brought a new outfit for my doll, Susie, whenever she came to visit. She was a marvelous knitter and the doll outfits usually consisted of a skirt and cardigan, or jumper, with a matching hat and sometimes even gloves and shoes. Her work was exquisite and I loved the buttons and fasteners and ribbons, all the important little details to which she paid so much attention. I was learning to knit in school and she encouraged me to make stuffed teddy bears, hot water bottle covers, tea cozies and such. Guess what everyone got for Christmas?
I loved to get on my bike and cycle across town to spend the afternoon with Auntie Ita. She lived in a tiny little cottage at the bottom of convent grounds. I think it used to be the convent gardener's cottage. Her fron garden was a joyous riot of flowers and rose bushes. Inside, her living room had a narrow shelf all around, full of photos of her friends from down the years. Maybe it was there that I developed my fascination with the stories old photographs tell.....Happy people, suspended in a moment in time.....What became of them? Are they still smiling and happy? What turns did their lives take after that photo? How magical an instrument a camera was to be able to capture such moments.......In between the photos there was a profusion of knickknacks and souvenirs. What my mother called clutter, but to me was an endless collection of stories.... just ask the question!
On rainy days she would let me crawl up into the tiny attic at the back of the cottage. It was like heaven for a child like me, an Aladdin's cave of yarn, scrapbooks and crafty treasures! On fine days I'd be off outside to play with the Breen boys from the big house next door, and the snooty, almost-too-good-to-play-with-me girls who went to Laurel Hill, the posh school behind Auntie Ita's cottage. It was on one such occasion that I suffered one of the greatest humiliations of my life. The time they uncharacteristically let me be the first to climb a certain tree. Flushed and flattered, up I went. Hoots and jeers and uproarious laughter broke out below as the assembled multitude craned their necks for an eyeful of the horrible, old fashioned knickers my mother made me wear! They were mawkish pink and came almost down to the knees, which had elastic, the better to seal in the warm air and keep you cozy, albeit extremely unfashionable.
But Auntie Ita knew how to soothe the humiliated. She made the best comfort food---strawberry jam and banana sandwiches on thick slices of fresh bread. My mother made ham sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches and egg salad sandwiches, all of which tasted delicious, but only Auntie Ita thought far enough outside the box to serve up sandwiches of strawberry jam and sliced bananas!
One year she gave me an autograph book for my birthday. I still have it. On the first pastel page she wrote "It is not of much use to be entreated to turn over a new leaf when you see no kind of reason for doing so." Good advice, even today.
The entries go downhill from there, with gems from school friends such as "I wish you luck, I wish you joy, I wish you first a baby boy, And when his hair begins to curl, I wish you then a baby girl." We were cooped up all day with the nuns, catching occasional glimpses of boys in the far off distance. We were understandably intrigued by this other half of our species about whom we knew so little. Well, some of us, those with boys on the brain knew a bit more. I was of the prim, goody-two-shoes camp, having no desire to come to a bad end, which is what having boys on the brain allegedly led to. So quoth the nuns who were committed to keeping us in the dark. Boys were like strange, exotic animals. Fascinating, yes. But what, exactly, were you supposed to do with them? The nuns weren't telling. But look at us now. Nature finds a way!
[to be continued]