In one of those re-assess-your-life columns that is the staple of women’s lifestyle magazines you buy in your 20s, I once read that you should write your obituary as if you died tomorrow to force you to confront what you’d actually done with your life so far and whether you needed to change your direction.
I never really got round to it. Who does in their twenties? But then a couple of decades on, the onset of Winter has started to feel marked by funerals coming round for real — increasingly of parents, older relatives and sometimes friends.
My aunt Archana wasn’t really an aunt. In the tradition of the great Asian aunty she was a friend of my parents. And I got to know her third hand — when her daughter Rita started coming home to ours after school every day while Archana was still at work, and became from primary school to this day, my sister’s best friend. She didn’t define herself by a career, though talking to her friends at the funeral I appreciated all the more my parents’ remarkable generation of young pioneers who came from India in the 1960s, set up home in a strange and sometimes hostile land, and took on whatever work they had to, to make ends meet.
Archana Aunty worked in quality control at the nearby Decca TV & record player plant. It changed hands but she stayed there for 20 years. until redundancy forced her to find another job to keep things going. Rita says she was tired out by the long hours and conditions. But her prime love was making a welcoming home. Archana Aunty would have me and my sister round to her cosy semi off the A3, just off the Kingston by-pass, to play. She had fascinating Kays mail order clothing catalogues to leaf through and, most delightfully, served up traditional Bengali specialities followed by branded Western freezer desserts that my mother specifically considered too decadent or fancy to buy for our own home — Arctic Roll and most memorably Viennetta which, as a result, I still consider the height of sophistication.
I didn’t see Archana Aunty as much as I got older. But I remember turning to her as my ever reliable back up mum, when my own mother and sister were both away (now this is a confession). She was the person I rang for emergency help in tying the pleats on my sari the right way ahead of going to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. I went round with the tin of irreplacable giant nappy pins my mother had saved since the 1970s specially to secure the folded pleats to avoid a diplomatic incident if one should accidentally tread on the fabric. (So much for the garment that famously has no holes and no fastenings). And after several goes and the odd near miss with the point of the pin, I left for the Palace secure in every sense of the word. Talking to my sister while writing this I found out she used to do the sari-securing for Rita and every one of Rita’s friends at their weddings.
30 years on these memories still have incredible power. To a modern child I probably sound like a Monty Python Victorian remembering an exaggerated pre-electric simplicity. But in an age when we are constantly curating our own recent pasts — describing our achievements in updating Linked In and Facebook professional profiles and “About” pages on personal blogs, — trying to mix professional achievements with quirky “likes” and “dislikes'” — I wonder whether we can still truly value the intangible achievements of those who shaped us without leaving any of the visible modern markers of “professional” success?
Perhaps this is the kind of obit one should think about. Were you the person all your daughter’s friends turned to to secure their saris with nappy pins? What could the modern equivalent be? An article I once read (and also ignored) by a professional successful woman about combining career and motherhood, recommended dumping activities that weren’t cost-effective “quality” parent-child bonding time. By that logic sitting in a darkened room not talking probably would be a fail. But I hope my children and their friends might remember the woman who loved taking them to black and white 50s science fiction films in the cinema about incredible shrinking men and giant radioactive ants. “And you know?” I hope they might say. “We were surprised to find we got genuinely scared. And she loved that.”
This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.