Pauline Allan: Bridgetown, Western Australia, April 2021
Nana O’Rourke was a formidable wee woman.
Tiny, tenacious and terrifying.
Mother of Joe, Jean, Charlie, Sheila, my dad Vincent and Francis.
A seamstress by trade, the house was adorned with evidence of her skills on the old treadle Singer sewing machine.
The 3 piece suite in the lounge with it’s floral printed covers and covers over the covers to protect the covers, particularly the arm rests and the backs of the furniture where there were antimacassars to guard against the mens Brylcreem.
The area around the “big” light switch on the papered wall also had it’s protection, some sort of industrial heavy duty plastic to ward off sticky fingers.
There were display cabinets for the good china and glasses and ornaments adorned the open fireplace, ivory elephant bookends among them.
The convex porthole mirror with brass trim made the whole room look twice as big as it was.
I was only 6 and a half when Nana died but my grandfather Michael and family gathered for Christmas dinner every year, a tradition that was carried on into the early 1970’s by my equally formidable Aunt Jean.
Everyone has an Aunt Jean.
My Aunt Jean was a spinster who looked after Papa, bachelor Uncle Charlie and Uncle Francis, a priest, when he came to visit.
“No one ever dances in this house” she would say…..Hardly surprising.
She would pounce on my dad, leading in a waltz whenever we dropped in.
But she was an incredible cook, baker and more than ably took on the challenge of catering for the Christmas collective.
Nana’s décor in the living room had hardly changed.
The open fire may have been replaced by an even less efficient two bar electric one, complete with false coal.
There was the mirror and a sunburst clock but everything else remained the same, with that familiar aroma of freshly baked bread, jam, cakes and “infusing” tea.
With no formal dining room in the house, the living room was the venue for the sumptuous Christmas banquet.
Trestle tables, card tables and picnic tables were quickly disguised with Nana’s embroidered cloths and napkins and somehow miraculously places were set for 20.
From the small kitchen with it’s original Formica cabinet and clothes pulley came platters of turkey with stuffing, glazed ham dotted with cloves, Ruskoline crumbed potato croquettes, roast potatoes and gravy with brussel sprouts, none of which could be served without Sharwoods Green Mango Chutney.
Home made trifle and cakes to finish.
The flies’ graveyard (a currant slice) and buttercream sponge were my favourites.
Warninks Advocaat and Harveys Bristol Cream sherry for the adults and non alcoholic ginger wine for us teenagers.
This was made weeks in advance by members of the family who had dutifully bought the essence from the local Co-Op turning it into a sweet concoction with sugar and water.
Potcheen without the punch!
After our meal we retired to uncle Uncle Charlie’s bedroom waiting to do our turn.
Sounds pretty ominous I admit but it was a completely innocent get-together where everyone had to perform.
That also sounds rather risqué!
What followed was a well kent tradition, where various musical renditions were performed by family members.
Uncle Charlie’s room was chosen because that was where the piano was.
Uncle Francis ( Father Frank or uncle Father Frank when I was young then uncle Father Frank-in-law from John’s speech at our wedding reception) played Fur Elise and accompanied anyone who wanted to play Chopsticks, he was also the reel to reel tape recorder operator.
Uncle Charlie sang The Ink Spots Whispering Grass (later made famous by the dynamic Don Estelle & Windsor Davies) and uncle John, aunt Shelia’s husband recited his version of De Profundis.
“Out of the Depths – of my bronchial tubes” … and so it went on.
Mum had a beautiful singing voice which could have lent itself to any of the classics but she was never comfortable in front of the critcal family audience. Instead she chose to sing “Halfway Up A Wall”.
As I was Minstrelling one night,
Upon a castle drear
Halfway up a wall, a plaque I saw
“Duke Frederick was born here”
I’ve travelled far, I’ve travelled wide
But never can recall
That I have heard about a Duke
Born halfway up a wall
Tra la la la la la
Tra la la fiddle dee
Halfway up a wall.
And of course everyone joined in with the last Halfway up a wall.
As the Advocatt flowed, so did the confidence of others.
Cousin Barbara took centre carpet and before we had time to rush into the kitchen to help Aunt Jean with the washing up, were surrounded by a cacophony of cringeworthy crescendos.
Matchmaker, Matchmaker make me a match. Find me a fi……Too late, she was off.
We managed to gather up precious crystal glasses from the floor as Cousin Barbara spun like a tipsy Whirling Dervish, changing key with every line.
Would she sing Sunrise Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof as well?
I hope not.
To our great relief Aunt Jean announced coffee was being served back in the living room and we all made a swift exit.
Christmas is a far simpler affair these days. Most of the assembled are sadly no longer with us, cousins are spread to all corners of the globe and a “turn” is more likely to be a Netflix, YouTube or Spotify selection.
But perhaps locked down in a small flat in the outskirts of Glasgow, two cats and a budgie are being entertained with a selection of show tunes by a 70+ spinster.
Wan singer, wan song.
Don’t worry Babs, the sun will come out tomorrow.