One memorable Christmas for me was the time my Aunties from Dunedin came to join in our family celebration when I was aged about 9. To get the four Benson sisters together in one place was a rare event and my parents pulled out all the stops by preparing a meal with an unusual amount of exotic treats - the like I had never seen before. The table was lit up with candles and set with highly polished silver, glittering crystal and English china on my mother’s best lace edged tablecloth.
My three eccentric Aunties could have jumped out of a Charles Dickens novel. Aunty Gladys arrived stooping under her fox fur coat and she reminded me of a tortoise with her large hooked nose, moist eyes and wrinkly face. She told me that several of her fingers were missing because she put them too close to the fire and they just melted away. “So let that be a lesson to you!” she said as she waved the stumps at me. Scary stuff for a young child, but I was told later she actually lost her fingers in a factory machine accident - alas there was no ACC in those days.
Aunty Enid was bulging at the seams with good humour and eating more of her delicious sponges and puddings than was prudent. Her face was coated with powder, her mouth smeared with bright red lipstick and she was fond of talking loudly with a hand rolled cigarette bobbing up and down on her bottom lip. She had twinkly blue eyes that never missed a thing and they bulged so much at times I thought they might fall out when she coughed. She would shake like a jelly and the ash from her cigarette would fall onto her ample bust and accumulate there like snow on a Christmas tree.
The eldest of my mother’s sisters was Aunty Vi; but you would not have guessed so if all you had to go on was her appearance. She had finely cut features and amazingly white skin. It was as translucent as the porcelain figurines that my mother kept out of reach, high up the mantelpiece. Another feature I remember well, was Aunty Vi’s dark hair that was pulled back to a bun at the back of her head and seemed to push her face out with a kind of obsessive energy. She had, as my mother put it, “A bit of a nervous disposition Dear. Not surprising really, since she looked after Grandma all those years and never married.”
The Christmas meal with my Aunties was the best meal ever! My father presided over the occasion with theatrical dignity and cracked jokes that I did not get, but nevertheless, had most of us rolling laughter. Aunty Vi, her face now a rosey pink, said something like “Oh George you are so wicked,” and popped another piece of crystalized ginger into her mouth. I remember looking at her and wondering how long her hair really was, when she suddenly sat bolt upright and left the table. I could see her looking at herself in the hallway mirror and then she started screaming.
What happened next is a bit hazy because it happened so fast. However, I do recall her yelling as she was taken to another room, “I’ve been poisoned… poisoned! You’ll never get the house do you hear! Never!”
Aunty Vi returned later that night and nothing was said about her antics – or about her being allergic to ginger. Before she returned to Dunedin she gave me a pound note and said, “You won’t tell people about your poor old aunty will you.” I am sure she would forgive me for breaking my silence after all these years and be very pleased when I recommend you might like to go easy on the ginger this Christmas.
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