(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – December 2021)
Looking at old photos recently, I was reminded of one memorable Christmas more than forty years ago. As a young twenty-something, I had recently become engaged to ‘our’ Richard and was thus invited to spend Christmas day with his large family in Yorkshire, where they could inspect his latest ‘”live-in job”; as his mother referred to me. I was nervous about the trip because, being American – and therefore considered to be ‘foreign’ – I had already received a thorough Northern grilling from my future mother-in-law, Irene, who viewed me with great suspicion.
I say ‘invited’ to Yorkshire for Christmas; more like summoned. Irene and her sister Auntie May took it in turns each Christmas to host the big family Christmas dinner. This year it was held at Auntie May and Uncle Bernie’s big stone house on a steep hill overlooking the town.
Richard and I were greeted on the kerb-side as we parked the car by Irene – hands on hips – pointing to her watch in dramatic fashion,
“What time do you call this? I said be here at one o’clock sharp – it’s ten past! Your Auntie won’t be best pleased.”
We were ushered straight into the back dining room where the family were tightly packed on buffets and chairs around two tables which had been shoved together to make room for fourteen: Auntie and Uncle, Richard’s mum and dad, cousins, old Auntie Annie up the corner on a piano stool and her friend Doris behind the door.
“Come on in! Hello love, give your Auntie a kiss. Squeeze in lass! Ooh, you do have child-bearing hips!”
(This last comment made me blush.)
The feast finally got underway with a great clattering of knives on plate; three types of meat (well, Richard’s dad was a Master Butcher): turkey, pork with crackling and beef; crispy roast potatoes; a great heap of buttery mash; Yorkshire puddings the size of dinner plates to soak up all that delicious, thick onion gravy; sprouts which had been in the pressure cooker since dawn; an abundance of peas and carrots; golden parsnips in honey; pickles, relishes, bread sauce, apple sauce for the pork.
I had never witnessed such glorious feasting in my life; where I came from in Virginia we had turkey with rice and black eyed peas on Christmas Day.
But that wasn’t all! Auntie May and Irene cleared the decks and later wheeled in a huge oval Pyrex dish of rice pudding; crispy round the edge with a great dollop of Golden Syrup in the middle which had melted into the rice, making it all sticky and moist. My stomach was now at full stretch! I vowed to never eat again!
After the feast, the men all retired to the Best Room at the front of the house for a cigar and whisky (purely medicinal, you know), while ‘us’ women set to clearing away.
The tables had been moved beneath the large sash window and the assorted straight-backed chairs arranged around the perimeter of the room to give the ladies a place to perch with their tea and settle down to the important business of gossip. Old Auntie Annie resumed her position in the corner by the door next to Doris. Irene was balanced elegantly on the piano stool, with her back up against the piano from where she could keep an eye on the comings and goings in the room, lest she should miss out on anything vital.
Auntie May sat next to her sister on an unfeasibly tight chair, which seemed to matter little to her as she forever bobbed up and down, in and out of the kitchen ensuring everyone had a cup of tea.
Across the room sat a widowed neighbour of Auntie May’s: one Mrs Stockett, who had just popped in on the off-chance of a cuppa and gossip under the pretext of extending a Christmas greeting. A stout woman past her prime, her crumpled, dough-like face with more than the hint of a whisker was held taught as she pursed her mouth and raised her bushy eyebrows in expectation of any gleam of tittle-tattle.
I balanced one cheek on a rock-hard chair seat, wedged between the marble fire surround and large over-mantle mirror.
Once all the ladies had taken their positions they loosened their stays. Perhaps I should explain that ladies of a certain age in Yorkshire in those days still wore corsets and girdles in a vain effort to rein it all in. They sat back as far as gravity would allow; resting their Denby tea cups and saucers on their ample bosoms, which acted as a useful shelf in the absence of incidental tables. Well, Auntie May had tried to squeeze in a nest-of-tables from the Best Room but couldn’t get them past Auntie Annie and Doris without asking them to move – and poor old Auntie Annie had only just got comfortable; “what, with me water works” she mouthed to her companion.
Mrs Stockett parted her knees to get a purchase on her buffet; threw decorum to one side and cut to the chase in a deep rasp, rough-hewn from a lifetime of smoking untipped cigarettes. One of Auntie Annie’s thick stockings collapsed around her ankle as she braced herself.
“Ooh Irene, you ‘ave lost weight lass! ‘Ow ‘ave you done it luv?”
Irene had always been a large woman (“heavy bones in our family”) but had slimmed down to a very trim nine stone, which accentuated her beautiful cheek bones. Taking this as a compliment Irene sat up straight while sucking in her mouth to consider her reply; rolling her tongue around the inside of her mouth and crossing her arms.
“Well, of a mornin’ we ‘ave toast… but no butter.”
There was a moment of disbelief that hung over the hostess trolley.
“What…no butter?” chorused the ladies.
Auntie Annie’s other stocking rolled to her knee as she edged forward to hear better.
“No! No butter!”
“Ooh! ‘Ow d’ya manage? Fancy – no butter!”
Doris twiddled the row of paste pearls at her throat as she stared into middle space; grappling with the concept of life without butter. She patted Auntie Annie’s arm for comfort.
“What else d’y’ave luv?” asked Mrs Stockett; adjusting a stray bone in her stay that was digging into a rib, nearly causing her teacup to slide off her shelf.
“Don’t ya ‘ave nothin’ else?”
“No butter on yer toast?”
“And for us dinner”… (the suspense was palpable)… “we just ‘ave an apple and an orange,” continued Irene who was enjoying being centre stage.
“What? No butter?” cried Auntie Annie suddenly from the corner.
“No – she don’t ‘ave butter!” shouted Doris, despite sitting next to her friend.
“Ooh Irene! ’Ow d’ya go on luv?” asked a confused Auntie Annie.
“Well…for us tea… (now standing up and working the crowd) …we ‘ave a grilled chop with a grilled tomato.”
Irene left the grilled tomato hanging in the air as she drew in her bottom lip.
“What – you ‘ave a grilled orange?”
“NO! She ‘as a grilled CHOP!”
“No butter on your chop?”
“She don’t ‘ave butter on her chop!”
“Why don’t she ‘ave butter on ‘er toast?”
“Do ya really ‘ave grilled apples?”
“What – no butter?”
As all of this information was being processed, Auntie May bustled in with a large tray teaming with doilies; stacked high with slices of fruit cake, cream horns, custard slices, Belgium buns, rock buns and colourful French Fancies.
“All this dieting alright; it’s all them cakes in-between what do me!” laughed Auntie May as she handed out fresh plates and invited the assembled ladies to help themselves.
Raucous laughter reverberated around the Back Room.
“Ooh May, you are a caution,” laughed Mrs Stockett. She leaned forward with a conspiratorial whisper,as she threw a challenge into the room:
“Eh – tha’ knows that blonde lass what lives at end o’road…”
The remark began to compute with the ladies as they searched their collective memory of all the people who had ever lived on the street.
“Well – they say she’s got a fancy man.”
“Her mother were just t’same,” chipped in Doris, whose pearls were well and truly mangled.
Lowering her voice even further, Mrs. Stockett continued:
“Aye – and ‘er sister’s in family-way with that curly haired lad from yon end o’street.” She drew deeply on her fag, blowing smoke rings above the pyramid of cakes.
“Runs in t’family,” agreed Irene, as she nibbled on the edge of a Viennese Whirl.
The swapping of information and cross-referencing of each name and misdemeanour of every neighbour through several generations kept the ladies happily engaged for a good hour until Uncle Bernie dared to stick his bald head around the door,
“Any chance of a bite to eat?”
“Come on lad – get stuck in!”
Auntie May passed round a tray of mushroom vol-au-vents hot from the oven. I hesitated only momentarily; well, there was no point trying to deny my child-bearing hips, now was there?
(Copyright: Andrea Burn – 10th December, 2021)