My Mum had two sisters, her only siblings, who played a big part in my childhood and growing up, and who were always there for me even after my marriage and my becoming a mother. Every trip home was not complete without either a visit from or to them. The summer of 2008 was no different, and my Aunty Peggy came to visit me for a family dinner and get-together hosted, as always, in my brother’s home by my long suffering sister-in-law, their home being the very one in which I had grown up. My Aunty Peggy had brought a dessert she had made, a berry crumble served with fresh cream, with berries she had picked from her own garden…no mean feat for a woman in her 80s who was in constant pain with the osteoporosis that deprived her of 7 inches from her spine. After dinner almost everyone went off to walk the dogs, or rather to be walked by the dogs, and my Mum and Aunty Peggy along with my sister-in-law sat on the comfy sofas drinking cups of tea and coffee, and I asked my Aunt to tell us, once again, the story of how she met Uncle Gus and ended up living in Kenya.
It was the spring of 1950 and while my parents were away in England on honeymoon her two sisters, Nancy and Peggy (Anastasia and Margaret to be precise and formal, although my Mum always called them Nance, and Peg), travelled up from their native Limerick to Cork to prepare the caravan, which was to be my parents’ home for the first 10 years of their married life while they built their home, for their return. Irish families, being like Algerian families who seem to go on forever, my maternal grand uncle was married to a Cork girl whose mother insisted that any time any of the family came up from Limerick they should come to her home for a meal. Somehow, without any help of the internet, telephone, mobile phone or any technology whatsoever she got wind of the fact that my aunts were in Cork and quickly dispatched her son to invite them for a meal. While there her son asked if they would like to come with him to visit his brother who was convalescing from TB in hospital, and so that is how Aunty Peggy came to first meet Uncle Gus. As she used to laughingly tell her children in later years ‘the first time I met your Dad he was in bed!’ He had been a teacher for the Jesuits but once he contracted TB they no longer would employ him so he was working as a rates collector.
As time went on and she would visit my Mum in Cork she would see him in his mother’s house whenever she went to visit. He finally got a teaching job, and a year later saw in the newspaper an advertisement for a job in the Aga Khan High School in Kenya for which he applied and was accepted. So he packed up and went, but not without first getting permission to write to Peggy. At this point in the story my Mum interjected ‘you know….he kissed me before he ever kissed you!’ I cannot describe the look of total disbelief and yes, jealousy, on my Aunt’s face, or the smugness on my Mum’s, until she relented and said, with a laugh, ‘As he was leaving he kissed me on the cheek and said “Pass that on to Peg for me”!’
He corresponded regularly and was a wonderful letter writer but unfortunately Peggy wasn’t, and used to have my Grandmother constantly nagging her to reply. Gus eventually proposed to Peggy via letter and she accepted. Granny often said afterwards that she couldn’t believe she had ever let her go so far away and alone. I think that, at that time, my aunt was in her early 30s, and this was the 1950s and perhaps my Grandmother thought this was her last opportunity to get married. My aunt herself on the other hand would never get married unless it was the right person. Uncle Gus then organised her whole trip
In February/March 1955 Peggy set off from Limerick to travel the breadth of Ireland to Dublin where she got the ferry to London. There she stayed for 1 night in a lodging house arranged by Gus, until his cousin came and brought her back to her home where she stayed until it was time to take the boat.
She sailed from London stopping off for a few hours in Gibraltar where the lady with whom she was sharing her cabin disembarked, so she had the cabin to herself for the rest of the voyage. They then stopped at Marseille and she was able to go ashore for a while and subsequently they stopped at Genoa, Ayman and travelled through the Suez Canal to Kenya. En route they went out in glass bottomed boats and saw the marine life beneath them. And in every port there was a letter from Gus.
She finally arrived in Kenya in early March and she and Gus travelled around and explored. Needless to say everything was very proper and she did not stay in Gus’ home. They were married in Mombasa on 27 April, 1955 and I was always amused when I saw their wedding photos and it was raining! To go all the way from Ireland to Kenya and still have it raining on your wedding day!!! Not that it bothered Aunty Peggy one little bit… she was far too happy. They went for their honeymoon to Nairobi, where there had been floods – so the honeymoon consisted of days out to different convents and monasteries! They traveled up the mountains and fried eggs on the bare rocks, and she always claimed they were the nicest eggs she ever ate.
After their first son was born they returned to Ireland via England in 1956/57, but due to the Suez Crisis in 1956 they were unable to return taking the route Peggy had taken, but instead had to travel the much longer route South and around the Cape of Good Hope. In Cape town Gus had flu and Michael had an ear infection but there was a doctor on board to see to them and another of Gus’s cousins visited them there.
They were married for almost 14 years and had 4 children and a very happy life in Kenya where Uncle Gus became the headmaster of the Aga Khan High School in Mombasa. But in 1968 Uncle Gus was diagnosed with liver cancer and flown home to Ireland where he was brought straight from the airplane to the hospital. He had a whole line of seats to himself on the plane as he also had a nurse and medical equipment who traveled with him, and of course his family, who now included a little bird, an African Seed eater, who had fallen out of a nest and whom my aunt, who could never ignore a stray anything, be it bird, animal or human, kept wrapped in a towel on the journey and whose first few days in cold Ireland were spent in the airing cupboard.
I remember so clearly being woken up in the middle of the night to push over to let my cousin into the bed. My memories of that time as a six year old were ones of deep disappointment….I had told all my friends in our local primary school that my cousin (the youngest was a week younger than me and was the only one who counted as far as I was concerned) was coming from Africa, and we all assumed….. as one does of course, being born in Africa…that she would be black! But…instead she was fairer than me, being blonde and blue-eyed! Oh the disappointment of it! Her only redeeming feature was that she had her ears pierced…..so, at least, that was something exotic! Aunty Peggy spent every day of the next 6 weeks going in and out to the hospital until Uncle Gus finally passed away. The African Seed eater was named Twiggy and he lived for many, many years bringing much joy to my Aunt and her family.
My aunty Peggy loved Uncle Gus to the day she died and often, when his name was mentioned, she would have a tear in her eye. She, herself, passed away a few months after telling us her story, and, as my brother wrote in a text to me, ’Family gatherings will never be the same again.’