Portrait Of My Aunt


Miriam Wilkinson nee Hickling:  21st February 1914 – 17th March 2003


There was only one thing my aunt loved more than her Devon garden, and that was the Derbyshire Peak District – the lanes round Bradwell, Ashford and Hathersage, the byways of Fox and Bennett family forebears. To a child brought up in the suburbs of Manchester, the Peak District of spring and summer holidays seemed like heaven.

For most of her married life, Miriam was a nomad – living in 42 different rented flats. Each one she tried to make home, and always with much flair and limited funds, as she followed her engineer husband from one telephone exchange to another, whenever and wherever he was dispatched to oversee the upgrade of Britain’s telecommunications. They had married at the start of World War 2, and the header photo probably dates from around this time. After a makeshift marriage whither my grandmother had arrived wearing only her shopping clothes since she looked down on the whole affair, Miriam had been left married, but stranded with her unsympathetic parents while my uncle was posted off to West Africa.

Looking back, he must have been helping to provide British navel and military intelligence with radio surveillance capability since he had no service rank as far as I know. He apparently lived in some style out in Africa. But it was all change a year later when he was posted to Coventry during the Blitz, presumably to work on restoring bombed out telephone connections. And this is where married life actually began, in a dismal rent room smelling of boiled cabbage and with Luftwaffe bombs raining down.

My uncle did not cope well with either the bombing or the war-time privations. Miriam had to keep him together on all fronts, while she went to work in a munitions factory. I cannot imagine what it was really like for her. She had lived a life of quiet and modest gentility, though always within the orbit of rich relatives. She had endured her mother’s spirit-crushing jibes while doting on a father who, in her hearing, had once described her to a family friend as ‘a dud’. Neither her mother or father had the faintest idea about parenting or how to prepare their two daughters for adult life.

My grandmother had been mostly brought up by a housemaid and a slightly dotty aunt as her own twice widowed mother drifted around in black silk dresses, taking covert sips of gin, while presiding over a Cheshire Inn. Grandfather had been abandoned by his own mother, who apparently fled merchant-class respectability and ran off to be an actress. She deposited grandfather with his dour Victorian Hickling grandparents, though returned in later life from time to time, wafting in at the family firm for a cash injection from ‘master Georgie’.

You can well see how lives of ‘quiet desperation’ get handed on from generation to generation.

Miriam had a talent for drawing and writing but even this outlet was denied. She had poor eyesight and had terrible headaches, but my grandfather would not let her have spectacles. No visible signs of imperfection would be tolerated. She told me how once, when returning from a childhood trip to Derbyshire by train, she had developed a rash on her face. Her parents being highly alarmed, took themselves off to another carriage to complete the journey to Manchester leaving Miriam alone in a state of disgrace. By the time she was fourteen she had suffered four nervous breakdowns and had to be taken out of school. Both she and my mother, who was eight years younger, were sent to small private schools. My mother was not allowed take up a place at a prestigious girls’ high school despite gaining a scholarship. My grandfather would have no ‘blue stockings’ in his family. He had some notion that providential husbands would somehow materialise: both his daughters would ‘marry well’ and thus be taken care of.

They did not and they were not. But each in their own very different ways made the best of very bad jobs, though in my mother’s case her methods of choice were destructive and damaging to others. Miriam remained stalwart, loyal to a man whose nerves were fragile, and who, in extremis, once attempted to strangle her as she slept.


My mother, Peggy, probably sixteen years old, Miriam around the time of her marriage circa 1939. Both stepping out with so much intention.


Miriam did not have a home of her own until the mid-1960s. It was on top of the hill in Pinhoe, near Exeter. There she made a garden that was filled with wildflower reminders of girlhood Derbyshire holidays – dame’s violets, bloody cranesbill, saxifrage, cowslips, primroses, the wild yellow pansies of the limestone uplands.  In their latter years, she and my uncle took to having an annual spring holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District. It was a source of great joy to both of them. Sometime later I took her ashes there.

IMG_0012 (2)

Miriam around 4 years old c 1918. The first time she met her father was when he returned from France at the end of the Great War. He had been an ambulance driver, and came home with gas-damaged lungs, which left him an invalid for the rest of his life. It left him the poorer too with years of medical bills to meet.  He said wearing a gas mask got in the way when he was trying to pick up the wounded.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Daily Prompt: constant

62 thoughts on “Portrait Of My Aunt

  1. I like Miriam’s portrait very much. At the time of the photo she must have gone through some difficult times, as your post explained so thoroughly. Her eyes filled with melancholy reveal her sad experiences. Thanks for sharing, Tish!

  2. What a wonderful profile and what a sad story. Miriam left alone with a rash encapsulates the sadness, and four breakdowns by 14 says it all. You write with such compassion and love of this woman and obviously delight in her garden as she did. You knew her so well – I think of my aunts and regret how little I really knew them. You inspire me to maybe write about my three aunts, and my uncle, who were a major part of my childhood.

    1. That’s lovely if I’ve inspired you aunts and uncles-wise. My two aunts have been quite an inspiration – one maternal, one paternal. They had a lot of offer, and yet I feel they were so thwarted – both denied the education they longed for, though both read voraciously to make up for it.

  3. I’m reminded of Larkin as much as Thoreau here Tish.
    Your aunt sounds like a wonderful woman, and from her portrait, very beautiful.
    There is a very strong family resemblance, which I’m sure hasn’t gone unnoticed. 🙂

    1. Larkin’s words were running through my head as I wrote this, Su. Could not have been more truly said. Yet she held no rancour or resentment, which was astonishing to me. My grandmother used my mother to spy and ‘tell on’ Miriam, yet Miriam adored my mother too, and she could be so nasty in return. As to family likeness, that is most sweet of you 🙂

      1. My admiration for Miriam increases! My mum and her sisters seem to have been “at war” with each other for most of their lives; provoked, I think, by my grandmother playing favourites. It is so sad.

      2. That’s a too familiar tale isn’t it – the divide and rule principle of child rearing. My sister and I never had that problem. As we grew up neither of us liked our mother much, which provided quite a bond between us as adults. Family politics, eh.

      3. It seems that though my mother and her sisters are in their 80s now, the divisions are still there. My parents, almost certainly without realising it, pigeon-holed my brothers and I so effectively that we didn’t compete. I was the “brainy” one, my first brother the “sporty” one, and our little brother was the “arty” one. Any achievements we made outside our sphere were ignored, and certainly not rewarded, so we learned quite quickly I think to stick to our knitting so to speak.
        As you say, family politics!

  4. Tish, This has been interesting. Don’t we all have family secrets and situations that aren’t known by looking at someone. II see y too think she was a very pretty women and yesI see her in you.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing Miriam’s story. Miriam and your mother were beautiful young women. I am reminded as I read about them how we never really know what others have gone through or experienced. I can see why Miriam immersed herself in her garden……I am sure she would love to see you in yours. Janet

    1. Yes, indeed she would so love to see our Shropshire doings. And as to the photo of the sisters – it strikes me every time I look at it – how their lives turned out, and how there was a point, perhaps just as the photo was taken, when their lives might have gone in quite other directions. They both had a great sense of humour. It was their armour somehow.

  6. What a wonderful, yet poignant tale, all the more so because it is a glimpse of a period in history I find intriguing in some ways, and also because it is fact.
    I am super impressed that you have taken the time to try to know and understand your family history, something that never happened much when I was growing up, but Celeste can recount details from her family history that leaves me shaking my head in awe, and her own personal memories are extensive.

    Such tales would make a really good book.

    Great read – and, if i may be so bold, one can see from the photo of your mum, the ability to tell a good story is not the only thing you inherited, Miss Tish. 🙂

    1. I think some families are more concerned with their history than others, so you rather grow up with it. Many of my mother’s versions of family history were complete tosh however, embroidered to foster snobbery. I really only got to know my aunt when she was in her 80s. When we were in Kenya we used stay with her whenever we were on ‘home leave’. And that is a very sweet compliment, Ark 🙂

  7. Imagine leaving your child alone in a different railway carriage because she had a rash, how very sad and shameful. Were the sisters close through their lives? Miriam lived to a good age, I like the though of her up the hill surrounded by flowers, just a couple of miles from here. Beautiful women and fascinating reading Tish.

    1. Thank you, Gilly. It was an interesting dynamic between the sisters. Miriam adored my mother through thick and thin. Mother liked to score points along the lines of she had children, Miriam did not…

  8. A very beautiful and moving portrait, Tish. What is known in one country as a hill, is called a mountain in another. Today, every deviation from the normal in human lives is given a tag, the name of a syndrome, and some method of repair. Just two or three generations ago some of us barely managed to hold on to a fragile existence without ever hearing the word trauma or expecting much help. This short glimpse of Miriam reminded me of the fragility of human life as I first recognized it in my childhood before banishing a compartment of thoughts and prayers to the back of a shelf in a closed closet in a back room… hoping to find comfort elsewhere.

    1. You are absolutely right about the deviations/tags/syndromes/remedies. Now and in the past the biggest challenge for many is simply to survive at all. Psychiatrist and writer R D Laing suggested that much, if not most mental illness begins in the confines of a closed family circle, and this is not something we like to discuss. From my own experience it seems the nuclear family can be complete minefield for children if they have no one outside the circle who can provide them with some sort of perspective or support. Since writing this post I’ve remembered that my aunt had a saving grace in the form of a maiden aunt, who brought with her common sense and kindness, and the ability to smooth down her erratic sister.

    2. I have heard people talk about keeping things in compartments but I have never found out how to do it.It is all puzzling as in repression.Some observer in the mind must know it is there in order to disguise it.But we have no conscious knowledge of that.I suppose like a wound with a bandage on we try to ignore it.But it takes energy.

  9. A remarkable story Tish and what a fine portrait – Philip Larkin got “mum and dad” pretty much right for certain parents of his generation. I often think my mum and dad did reasonably well (by no means perfect ;-)) given they were both only children to some fairly odd parents.

    1. Hello Robin. I think the Great War must have been a terrible shake up even for those who were physically unscathed. But also the end of the nineteenth century and into the start of the twentieth seemed to a slippery slope for many families – things falling apart – the country moving to town – old values no longer serving. Too much social and economic dislocation as people struggled to ‘better’ themselves. Seemed to lead to all sorts of batty family existences.

  10. Beautiful photos and a story which is particular to your family but which will probably resonate with many of our family histories. What for me is a central element in the story is “in their own very different ways made the best of very bad jobs.” That so many generations did try to make the best is inspiring to me. Your post fits well with my current reading “A Notable Woman” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/05/notable-woman-jean-lucey-pratt-review In her own way, your aunt seems to have been another Notable Woman.

    1. Just followed the link, Ann, and yes I agree, Miriam would count as a notable woman. There’s one story from her life that I wish I knew more of. After the war, my uncle was sent to Singapore – part of a big Brit. company presence. They lived in a guest house, and Miriam loved the local people, but lived in horror of the expat club she was expected to be a part of, ever mortified by the malice of poisonous hierarchical company wives, but that is all I know. My mother kept all her letters and then after years of keeping them destroyed them because she said Miriam was unhappy there. I’m thinking she probably had quite an important story to tell.

  11. A beautifully written, poignant portrait of your aunt Miriam. I can see the family likeness in the photo. I know so very little of my family background, we never really spoke about the past.

  12. You brought a vivid portrait of your Aunt Miriam to life Tish. I was seeing her as I read this fascinating account of her life. Life back then was so different in many ways. I think it wold be hard for todays generation to realise the hardships endured without support. Another book waiting to be written!

    1. You’ve have put your finger on it, Pauline. There is a huge gulf between the emotional climate of today and recent past generations. My aunt’s generation seem confirmed in the expectation that they had to make the best of things without blaming others for their lot in life.

  13. Thank you writing this,Tish.How lucky some of us have been to be able to lead a different life than even aunts and uncles not to mention the ancestors who laboured in the fields for a pittance as in” Akenfield”
    With the photos it is an outstanding post

  14. What a lovely post. You know how much I treasure old photographs, and the stories they tell have to be written before they fade away. And may those stories be heard. Stories of people who simply did their best. (I liked your comment of not blaming others) Wishing you a warm sunday. Though I hear France will be subjected to a cold wave. -10C in some parts.
    Kwaheri sassa Memsahib.

    1. I was thinking of your lovely family heritage photos when I looked out the Miriam portrait. So thank you for appreciative comments, Brian. We have both sun and frost here. A day for sawing up some logs! Cheers and happy Sunday.

      1. Thank you Tish. 🙂 The Miriam portrait is perfect. So is the photo of your mother. She was from 1923 then? 3 years older than my mother. Those happy photos a bare few months before the war are very emotional. People tried to live their own – as happy as could be – lives, while some lunatics planned otherwise… A happy week. Despite the cold wave on the continent, Spring will come. Cheers

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