I’m in the back seat of dad’s car on the way to school. Mum is in the front passenger seat, and to my left, in the back, a blue biro slowly and meticulously draws a simple flower on the plain page of a notebook. A round centre grows a series of identical ovoid petals.
It seemed odd, a grown-up doing this childish thing (I would now say childlike – a huge and significant difference). Later, discovering that Auntie Shirley did yoga, I realised that she must have been practising what we would now called mindfulness, long before the shops filled with colouring books for adults, and smartphones put meditation in our pockets. These simple flowers were mandalas, I suppose. While she was slowly drawing those flowers, Auntie Shirley wasn’t smiling. Her absorption seemed too intense for any signal of feeling directed outwards. I think, though, that these morning journeys on her way to the playgroup that mum ran with Auntie Shirley were the only times that I recall her without a smile on her face. It was a smile that seemed largely oblivious to things that make most of us smile, coming from within, rather than triggered by outside stimulus. Most of us smile when we see, or think of something that makes us happy, contented, loved. Auntie Shirley’s unwavering smile expressed her resolute facing towards happiness, contentment, love and making those things happen in the lives of those she was caring for. Whatever strong serenity she drew from her yoga and meditation, and from her Christian prayer and worship, she carried into her work and relationships. I recall a strident preacher in the days of my evangelical fervour once describe yoga as ‘a landing pad for satan.’ What nonsense. Too many people have been wounded and made to despise faith by that kind of exclusionary dogma. Auntie Shirley, like mum, saw, I believe, the best in everyone and every thing, and gently drew that best out even from places where it was determined to remain hidden. She had the kind of faith that gently, undemonstratively, embraces those who can’t embrace it for themselves.
Auntie Shirley was not my ‘real’ auntie. As was common back then, any adult friends of mum and dad were ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, and Auntie Shirley and Uncle Doug might as well have been family for the part they played in my life. Auntie Shirley was a central and much loved part of my upbringing in the little playgroup in grandad’s old terraced house in Barlick, where she was half of such a marvellous partnership with mum. She continued to be a loving and interested part of my life as I moved through school, away to university, marriage and family. Christmas cards continued to come every year, shamefully unreciprocated, until eventually one change of address too many meant they eventually no longer arrived (though it wouldn’t surprise me if they were still being sent). On increasingly rare visits home, when I saw Auntie Shirley at church events and then the funerals of mum and, much later, dad, that full-faced smile was always there. People age, of course, and die, but somehow real smiles, the ones from within, born of love, stay the same so Auntie Shirley, even though she has now gone to her rest, has always seemed somehow ageless to me. That smile, shining with love, and hope, and faith, and care will be carried by all of us who were fortunate to have been known by her, and passed on to those we care for in our turn.