Remembering May

1st June 2021

Yesterday I mentioned a lady who was afraid of birds. She was a close friend of my mother. They endured WW2 together in London, though I hardly heard either of them speak of it.

Her name was May Petrie. My brother and I called her Aunty May. She always looked very smart, wearing nice, fashionable clothes, with her hair and face immaculate. She had been secretary to someone important at the American Embassy.

May had been a lady of some means, but in the war she lost almost everything, so she became a ladies companion. She lived with older women in order to care for them.

Aunty May was very fond of my mother and she visited frequently. The year before we “went abroad”, Aunty May had what in those days was a very serious operation for a hiatus hernia. The surgery was tough and she needed a long convalescence but she had nowhere to go.

My father had already departed for SE Asia, so she came to stay with us for several weeks. This was when I learned that she had a real phobia about birds, because we had a budgie.

“Pippy” was a blue budgie that was free to fly where it chose. In deference to our visitor, it was being kept downstairs for the duration. Aunty May apparently didn’t realize the bird was out and she one day entered the dining room nearly having a stroke as it flew past. I don’t know what had caused her to be so frightened of birds because there wasn’t much else she was afraid of.

In fact it was Aunty May, as much as anyone, who taught me to love Nature. She took me out one snowy winter day to a park and told me about animal prints, demonstrating by making little indentations in the snow with her leather mittens.

Such an obscure memory, a brief moment in time, but I still see the delight in her face as she made the impressions . Her smile and the twinkle in her eye.

As far as I can recall, my mother never took me to that kind of park. We would go up to Kensington and look at tiddlers in the Round Pond, but that was about it. She was a busy lady.

When I was very young, Aunty May seemed a little too particular, maybe a bit fussy, but I really don’t think she was. She was just different and we had to be on best behaviour when she was visiting.

But Aunty May was invariably kind to us. She had little money but she found small things for us and she was always interested in everything we did.

She seemed to find my brother and I enchanting which I very much doubt we were. Later on I understood why this was so. As well as losing everything else, she had lost twins.

My mother was persuaded by Aunty May to send me to ballet classes. I thought this was a splendid idea until I discovered that you have to learn to dance.

Learning the basics was so boring. I wanted to dance on my points, the way they did at the Royal Ballet.

After a number of weeks we had to be part of a local variety show. I was to be a yellow butterfly and my mother sewed me a satin costume with sequins and sheer wings I had to flap.

As we waited our turn, I heard the most appalling sound coming from the stage. That was when I found out about bagpipes.

May Petrie came from Scotland and after my mother left England, she had no reason to not go back so she did, still caring for older women, though she was not young herself by then.

Ballet classes were too expensive for a child that was unwilling and I was allowed to abandon them on the basis that I had developed serious asthma.

Later, of course, I wished I had persevered because I love the expression of dance. But my body was not built for ballet in any case. I am just sorry to have disappointed Aunty May.

Often, I think Aunty May was more interested in the welfare of us children than my parents were. She was distressed that my brother was being left in an English boarding school while I was carried halfway around the world to a strange country.

Years later, when we were “home” briefly, living temporarily in a rented flat in Richmond, my mother told me that Aunty May had scolded her, asking “when are you going to stop gadding about and settle down?”

Mother was affronted. Father snorted. Gadding about continued and I ended up in America.

Aunty May wrote me often, long letters that I had trouble reading because her handwriting was indecipherable. She sent me beautiful cards of scenery and famous paintings and animals because she knew I loved them.

She was the person I confided in when I had my first encounter with a boy. I hadn’t a clue about boys or much of anything, for that matter. There were other things I might have written about but there would have been nothing she could do. She would have fretted and been upset.

So I couldn’t write those things.

But she would have believed me.

After I graduated college, I had big loans to pay back, so in a panic I searched for a job and an airline would make it possible for me to travel and maybe catch up with my family.

It had been seven years.

One of the first people I went to visit was Aunty May, now living in a single rented room. I got a cheap hotel room nearby and we spent two days, walking in Edinburgh and talking. May always loved to walk.

She never bemoaned her fate. Her face still beamed. I’ve never forgotten it.

It was the last time I saw her, but it had a funny story.

We were taking tea in her tiny room and as I sat facing her, I saw mouse on the floor behind her. Remembering her terror over the bird, I was reluctant to ignore it in case she spotted it suddenly by herself, so I calmly said something like: “now don’t worry, we’ll take care of it, but there’s a mouse.”

Aunty May rose, and went to her door with me behind her. There was a man in the corridor, I seem to recall, who was prevailed upon to “deal with it!”

So many things I could have learned from Aunty May. Maybe not about the War, but I would love to know about her childhood, her life as a young woman. How she maintained her dignity after losing everything and everyone.

There are no photographs of her, except in my head, where I still see that lovely smile.

5 thoughts on “Remembering May

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