Like the animals in my previous post, this family of china elephants is another treasured “ordiment” from an “auntie,” Auntie Peggy, another Margaret who was not a real auntie but a close family friend. In my mind this charming quintet is always associated with the Jungle Book film, so perhaps she gave it to me shortly after we saw it at the cinema. Being animal mad I loved the film, and these elephants walking in a line reminded me of Colonel Hathi and his herd. I also thought they reflected my own family: Dad, Mum, and us 3 kids, with the little one (that’s me) bringing up the rear. This photo with a £2 coin gives an idea of the size:
The second smallest has lost half his trunk, probably due to a run-in with Frisky; but for that, it seems this little porcelain family, made by Wade in the 1950s, might have been worth a fair few pounds. I doubt I could part with them though, as this “ordiment” is the only object I have that connects me with Auntie Peggy.
Like my Mum’s best friend Auntie Margaret, Dorothy “Peggy” Miles was a pioneering social worker, and I believe my parents became friends with her when she worked with Margaret as a house mother at a children’s home. She lived not far from us in Sheen, though her own home life was not reflected in this nuclear elephant family. Peggy was a single parent, raising her daughter Maggie alone after escaping from an abusive marriage.
[A side note here: It was only after my mother’s death, following a chance remark by a friend at her funeral, that I realised something about my mum. The friend was paying tribute to my mother’s kindness, explaining that when her husband left her – a shocking and shameful thing back in the 1960s – Mum had been the first person to call round and offer help, because, coming from a “broken home” herself, she understood what the friend was going through. A penny dropped for me then, as I suddenly realised that, for that time, there were an unusually high number of single parent families in our social circle – all women whose husbands had left them, as my grandfather had left my Grannie when my Mum was young. This was no coincidence; my mum reached out to these women, whose children would often come to our house while they were out at work, and because no-one made a fuss or suggested there was anything wrong, it all seemed perfectly normal to us. It’s only with hindsight that I can see how unusual it was.]
Auntie Peggy was a lovely woman. Her softly spoken Yorkshire vowels carried a mischievous wit and limitless kindness. She had retired from work by the time I knew her, partly due to disability: she suffered from severe arthritis but never complained and was always active. She had a little blue “invalid carriage” that she drove everywhere and was much in demand as a babysitter, for us and for the Mitchell kids next door; I think she looked after us every time my parents were out at Party meetings, and the occasional party. She would make us laugh, playing games with her walking stick. Eventually, sometime in the 1970s, she had a hip replacement (a new procedure then) and we were so amazed to see the miracle of our “crippled” Auntie Peggy able to run and even jump that we got her to run up and down the stairs over and over again just to prove it.
Peggy was known for her sense of humour and every birthday, without fail, she would find the perfect, jokey card for each of us. I still have a few in the archives:
When I was 6 years old my family went to Hungary on holiday for the second time. Our Hungarian friends had invited us out so that Brother 2 could spend the summer in a sanatorium at the top of Kekes mountain to treat his asthma.We had a wonderful holiday but I came home a week early with Dad, because I had a very important job to do: I was to be bridesmaid at the wedding of Peggy’s daughter Maggie. Maggie had been part of our family since she was a child herself, although I only knew her as a grown up, a super cool swinging 60s girl about town with a caramel coloured Mini and a deep resonant singing voice like Joan Baez. When she married Jim at the same Barnes church that my parents had been married in, I was thrilled to be part of the occasion, in my little turquoise dress, white satin shoes and gloves. Here I am, in Auntie Margaret’s photo album (the same one featured in my previous post):
Sadly the marriage didn’t last, but Maggie later found permanent happiness in her second marriage to Ken and a new life in Canada.
In 1980, aged 18, I left home, much to my parents’ distress, not to get married or attend university but to work in W.H. Smith, live in a squalid Brixton flat and go out to see as many bands and drink as much Guinness as I could manage. After 4 years of shop work I decided that university, free as it was in those happy days, wasn’t such a bad option and took myself off to Stirling for 4 magical years. In order to take up this opportunity, however, I had to come crawling back to my parents and ask them to take me back home. They did so with open arms – we had never fallen out and I still saw them most weekends – so in August 1984 I moved back into the family home. My homecoming coincided with Auntie Peggy coming to live with us, but for the saddest of reasons.
Peggy had been bravely fighting cancer for some time; a tumour had already taken one of her eyes and now the cancer had spread to her liver and become terminal. She was dying, and my Mum, who had already lost her best friend Margaret to cancer, would not let her die in a hospital. So Auntie Peggy moved into a divan bed in our sitting room, with its French windows opening onto the garden, for the final weeks of her life, tended by my mother and a Macmillan nurse. Our house filled up as Maggie and Ken came from Canada and Peggy’s brother Tom from Australia, to say their final goodbyes. Mine included: I can still remember those last chats I had with Auntie Peggy, how gentle and loving she was, as always. I confided in her my worries about moving back in with my parents and she simply said: “East west, home is best.” I kissed her forehead goodnight for the last time and 2 days later, having said goodbye to all of her loved ones, she drifted away peacefully.
My diary of that time records those final days:
“Sunday 12th August: Got home just before dinner, so while the others were eating I kept Peggy company; found it much easier to talk to her. She can hardly speak but her mind is all there, still Peggy; she smiles and laughs despite her bedridden frailty. She is incredibly calm and has accepted her fate – I can’t…
Tuesday 14th August: It’s all over: Peggy’s gone. It should be a relief and a release but all I feel now is numb with shock and grief and drained of everything. The house is very sad. We all know we should be glad for her, happy that at last she’s free and at peace, but you can’t help grieving. Peggy was always there – life won’t be the same – it’s worst for Maggie, and for Mum. “
Maggie’s funeral flowers carried a card that said: “To Mum: my mentor and my best friend.” They were exceptionally close. It was a lovely thing that Mum did for her friend, and for Maggie as well, enabling an intimacy and peacefulness in Peggy’s final days that no hospital could have provided. Our house was home to many people over the 5 decades my parents lived in it, and though this was a sad time for everyone, it was also very special. I know how hurt my parents were that Maggie returned to Canada and never contacted them again. She had been like a daughter to them, but I guess after her mother’s death she couldn’t face her old life and just put it all behind her, us included. I suppose we’ll never know for sure, but it was a shame for my mum and dad; they missed her.
Peggy Miles was a remarkable woman, brave and funny and gentle and kind. A lovely Auntie to this child. I only wish that, like my Auntie Margaret, we could have had the pleasure of her company for longer.