Grannie Chapman could neither read nor write, Pa tells me, so she signed her name with an X. But around Industry Terrace and Beehive Place in Brixton, it was, often as not, Grannie Chapman who saw people into the world, if you didn’t want to bother the midwife or incur the expense of a doctor.
Her own daughter Martha’s first confinement, though, was not a straightforward one. Aunt Martha was tiny and the baby was not. The midwife had been sent for, the doctor had been sent for and when the baby – a girl – was finally delivered, there were no signs of life. The baby was set aside on the hearth – or in the dramatic family retellings, in the fireplace – while doctor and midwife concentrated on trying to save the mum.
So it was Grannie Chapman who picked up the baby and coaxed her into life. Into ninety six very robust and a vibrant years of life, in fact, which ended peacefully this morning.
Now, when I’ve told you about my aunt before, I used the pseudonym ‘Aunty Bess’ but actually her given name was Patricia. So, naturally, everyone called her Bette. Don’t ask; no idea.
She was a force of nature, my Aunty Bette, the Queen of our family. She could organise a twenty-first birthday party, whip up a wedding dress and summat for the bridesmaids, and do an imitation of Vesta Tilley singing ‘Burlington Bertie’ without once looking less than a picture of dignity, fuelled entirely on gin. She taught me how to do the Twist and was still Hi-Ho-ing that Silver Lining right through to the last dance.
It’s a blessing, of course, that she didn’t spend ages in pain or distress; that up to her mid-nineties she was really active and as sharp as one of her pins; and that she leaves wonderful memories. But, heavens, we are going to miss her.
While we were at John Lewis’s choosing the fabric for my wedding dress, I asked Aunty Bette how I could repay her for her efforts. “Just pass it on,” she said. Then, seeing me look confused, she explained that she didn’t literally mean pass on the wedding dress but pass on the favour. Luckily, she wasn’t specifically meaning by using my sewing skills – as you’ll know if you’ve seen my curtains.
So, if I’ve ever helped you out by – oh, I don’t know – kicking your computer or sorting out your website or feeding your cat, you’ve basically got Aunty Bette to thank. Now, pass it on.