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Everybody's Auntie

Author: Angela McKenna

The mid-sixties was a time when your mammy’s pals were called your aunties, and nobody bothered. I had armfuls of them, aunties, and I had an extra granny, an elderly woman who lived across the road and who found me quite entertaining for such a wee thing. My memories of her are vague, and I don’t know if she was anybody’s real granny, but I do remember she was kind to me and that I liked her.

As for the auntie situation, it never occurred to me to question how I could have so many of them, even when I discovered that my Auntie Agnes seemed to be everybody’s auntie. I called her auntie, and so did my mother and the extended family. In fact, everybody called her auntie, except for my granny, whose auntie she actually was; she just called her Agnes, which I always thought was quite daring.

Agnes was born in 1907 to a poor family. Of the many children born to her mother, Mary, only Agnes and one sister survived to adulthood, the rest dying in infancy – apart from one girl who died of consumption as a young teenager. It was a hard life, made all the more challenging by the head of the household, auld Tam, a miner and a drunken brute whose reputation for ferocious violence was such that even the local polis kept their distance.

Although auld Tam terrorised the community, one person in the district didn’t fear him: Agnes. It was an oft-told tale that one day years later when only Agnes and auld Tam lived in their room and kitchen, she came home at lunchtime from her job as a weaver to find her father inebriated and roaring in anger as usual. When she refused to make him anything to eat because it would make her late for work, he grabbed that day’s newspaper, set it ablaze, and threw it onto the bed in the big room. Agnes just looked at him, then turned her back and told him to burn what he fancied. She then left for work as the brute fought the flames on his own. When telling this story, my granny always added that Agnes stayed in the house with auld Tam until he died. Not out of love or duty but because she had been too fussy when it came to men and had “watched the hats ’til the bunnets went by”. Perhaps that’s true; I can’t be sure. I wonder, though, whether her antipathy towards the blissful state of matrimony didn’t have its roots in what she saw around her; drunken, violent men ruling over women who worked inside and outside the home and who were nothing more than skivvies. I think Agnes might have looked at the hats and the bunnets and found no significant difference between them. And so it was that she settled into the single life surrounded by good pals.

Naturally, the single life had many plus points, not least the absence of hungry weans and a husband drinking and gambling his way through the weekly wages. So, Agnes lived comfortably, unlike most of her family and friends who struggled to make ends meet and for whom the pawnshop was a regular haunt. It was always said, though, that Agnes was good to people; she would never see anyone go hungry or any wean shoeless. I can vouch for both. Nary a Sunday passed when Agnes didn’t arrive, straight from the chapel via a detour to the Barras, laden with something for everyone. If I was lucky, she’d bring me a wee bag of puff candy or maybe a bagatelle, its cardboard backing musty and soft from sitting too long on the stall. If I was unlucky, she’d bring me a jumper!

It wasn’t until I was well into my teens that I understood how Agnes’s largesse was the difference between survival and the breadline for many in the community. Countless numbers paid their rent and avoided eviction because she saved the day, and many more were able to feed their weans after the local bookie took what little money they had. She was, indeed, a legend, although whether she’d have liked the epithet, I don’t know. To us, her closest family, she was just Auntie Agnes, extra generous and a fixture at every celebration. When she died at the age of eighty-one, she was sorely missed, or so it seemed.

Sadly, this is where the story takes a darker turn. After Agnes was buried, my family didn’t arrange for her to have a headstone, something that shocked me at the time and which has troubled my conscience for thirty-four years. I’ll never know why they left her in an unmarked grave. Money wasn’t the issue because Agnes’s estate, although small by today’s standards, was big enough to cover the cost easily. I mentioned it once at the funeral, but the response I got somehow persuaded me to let it go, and I never brought it up again. But I can’t forget it.

So, in honour of Agnes, I’m now engaged in tracking down the title deeds for the burial plot, and when I have them, I’ll arrange for the erection of a memorial stone. After all these years, some may ask why I’m driven to do this, but the answer is simple; she deserves to be remembered. When strangers pass her grave and see the stone, they’ll know she existed, and I believe that’s important. After all, she wasn’t just my auntie, she was everybody’s auntie.