Aunt Mary

Jilly Allison

© Copyright 2018 by Jilly Allison


Photo of a parlor chair with antimacassar.

Other families get a ‘femme fatale’ our family got a ‘femme formidable’ in the shape of Aunt Mary.

She was from the beginning an ‘outlaw’ and was not, to say the least, welcomed by the ‘coven’ that represented my Uncle Franks sisters.

She had MARRIED him in 1926 ( I use the phrase advisedly as it was generally thought that when this little ‘gold digger’ and her mother clapped eyes on Uncle Frank his goose was well and truly cooked) after the briefest of courtships they married with small ceremony and even smaller reception.

Her family had parsimony down to a fine art.

The first child was born a mere five months after the wedding.

Frank was considered an extremely ‘good catch.’  For a start he had a job (at that point a mere clerk but in time he rose to become Chairman of the local Co-operative Society in Middlesbrough), his family, though large, was good--but most of all he was ‘biddable’.

The happy couple moved into a rented house which was kept pristine, her step well ‘stoned’ and her muslins pure white, Frank was well looked after, meals prepared and ‘snap’ provided daily. ALL money was handled well (by Mary).  She was the model Northern wife, in common parlance she was referred to as being ‘quite able to cut a raisin in half’ to make it go farther.

In fact, her Christmas present to any female of her acquaintance were of legend; consisting of a dish cloth, a dish mop and a scrubbing brush, she obviously felt that all these sisters-in-law, family and friends needed help to ensure a clean home and by default a clean mind! Cleanliness was of course next to Godliness.

A small, decidedly plump woman with ‘boot button eyes’ she peered myopically at the world through wire rimmed spectacles; mousy hair drawn into a tight bun managed to alleviate any wrinkles she might have had. If the ‘lemon suck’ mouth ever smiled it revealed very small rodent teeth and a small tongue that flicked restlessly over thin lips.

When the good fairy gave out looks Mary had not been blessed.

The eventual children of this miss-matched union Mabel and Barry lived in mortal terror.  Mabel firmly believed that failure to obey ‘Mama’ would result in an immediate decent into Hell (she was strict Methodist and trips to ‘chapel twice on Sunday’ was the norm) Barry just kept out of the way.

So did Frank.

Frank moved relentlessly up the echelons of Middlesbrough society.  Sadly, Mary was never seen with him at any event and, as in all small communities there was ‘talk’.

The name of Councillor Mrs B. was whispered in quiet drawing rooms and ‘the two’ were known to have travelled afar (London I believe) in each others company.

If anybody really ‘knew anything’ it was kept very quiet.

Uncle Frank was a very popular man.

After the war they bought a neat, small bungalow and this was kept pristine. Upon entering you left your shoes in the ‘conservatory’ (a glass covered lean to about six feet by eight).  Should you dare to sit on an armchair a piece of paper was shoved behind your head in case any ‘dirt’ (in the case of the men Brylcreem) should land on her well laundered ‘antimacassars’.

At Christmas the inevitable ‘invitation’ meant the children were expected to behave like angels,  You would be ‘rewarded’ with very nicely prepared fare (though very little of it) and apart from the Christmas tree the spirit of Christmas would be in very short supply, even in the trifle.

She was a strict Methodist, and alcohol of any kind was forbidden.

There was lot of ‘sickness’ and ‘previous engagements’ in our family when that particular ‘invite’ was offered!

My mother’s house was a refuge for Frank and Barry.

During the fifties (we had a tele by then) Saturday afternoon would bring first one and then the other through the sitting room door clutching a mug of tea and a slab of fruit cake just in time to watch ‘Match of the Day’. Mugs were forbidden in their household as being of ‘lower class’ and therefore unacceptable.

We kids lived in mortal terror of this woman, neither Barry nor Mabel ever took friends home, they came to our house instead.

Barry quickly left home to join the Merchant Navy at 18 and Mabel married young. Poor Barry, the apple of the harridans heart, was to fall foul yet again and ‘had to get married’ in the sixties, to another ‘femme formidable’ (no surprise there then!) nearly 20 years older than himself. It took him almost five years to extricate himself from the marriage.

Aunt Mary, unfortunately, brought up the child of that union for a short time.  Luckily, he escaped to live with father at a young age, though he still leaves his shoes outside and has a decidedly ‘worried’ look about him.

Aunt Mary’s downfall came with a bang, when, at Frank’s request, she accompanied him to a local banquet. He was ‘running for Mayor’ and he obviously thought a display of family unity was required.


The poor woman was completely out of her depth. It was a drinks and ‘canapés’ reception (even Middlesbrough had caught up with the idea of ‘bites and a glass’ by then) though someone forgot to mention this fact to Mary and she spent the afternoon waiting to be called in to the ‘reception’!

She also spent the afternoon ‘sipping the sherry.’  As a true Methodist such nectar had never passed her lips (bar the communion wine) and the effect, after a couple of hours, was dramatic.

With bedecked hat askew, handbag trailing on the ground and lipstick giving her an almost ghoulish look, she was finally found slouched behind the organ in the main room of the Town Hall.

Luckily, it was a friend of Uncle Franks who found her and she was hastily popped into a car, transported home, and put to bed.  She claimed she couldn’t remember a thing.

There was inevitably, ‘talk’, a local ‘man about town’ had been seen in the area, Aunt Mary was in a dishevelled state; she feigned ‘illness and amnesia’.

Mention was never made in the family again of ‘Mary’s disgrace’.

The story went from the Tees Bridge to North Ormesby market in a couple of days.

Frank did become Mayor in the 1950’s.  His daughter and sister(my mother) were Mayoresses.  Aunt Mary ‘retired’ to the safety of home, the local Chapel, and Women’s Guild, where she reigned supreme.

Uncle Frank passed away at a relatively early age.  Aunt Mary lived on in solitary splendour with very few visitors.

Her life was one eternal round of ‘worship’ in one way or another and any new Parson who had the misfortune to be sent to her parish was scrutinised with tea and biscuits in her pristine camphor smelling ‘front parlour’.

Grandchildren were not welcomed and, to say the least, her declining years were somewhat sterile.

Until she went into a retirement home, Barry was tasked with finding such a home and did his best, bless him, inevitably something was wrong with it and his weekly visits were a combination of torture and penance.

The life of the other residents in the homes was one of Hell.  She was, in fact, moved four times in as many years, the last home being run by a lady whose strength of character matched Mary’s own.  She did have to tell her ‘her fortune’ on one famous occasion which resulted in Barry going on a’ bender’ (by this time he had felt the need of the ‘demon drink’ just to get through a visit).  Aunt Mary was in a sulk for weeks and Mabel was absolutely terrified that she might have to house the old bat if she was made ‘homeless’!

Obviously the idea of residing with either child or being homeless had some effect on Mary because she calmed down and spent more time in her room.

Either that or they spiked her food with Prozac which, to be honest, I would have done.

Aunt Mary outlived almost all her generation and finally passed away when she was 94,  There were few at the funeral (there weren’t many left).  She died a very wealthy woman, at least in monetary terms!!

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