Last week, my Auntie Phyllis died. She wasn’t really my aunt. Permit me to explain.
One day in the late 1950’s in Reading, England, I skipped home from school to find a forlorn-looking middle-aged blind woman in a gray suit sitting in our living room. She didn’t conceal her blindness with chic little sunglasses like Jane Wyman in The Magnificent Obsession . Even to a goofy 7-year-old like petit moi , it was immediately apparent that Phyllis Robinson’s eyes were missing: In their place were two rather startling sunken pits. Her accessories? A sturdy handbag, a suitcase and a large golden Labrador wearing a worn-looking white leather harness.
“Phyllis is going to be staying with us for a couple of weeks, just until she gets back on her feet,” declaimed my mum by way of explanation, lighting a fag and shooting my sister and me a look that discouraged the asking of moronic questions.
F.Y.I., Phyllis stayed with us for over 10 years.
My mum Betty was a tough-talking, empathetic broad who professed to loathe do-gooders, but who regularly found herself unable to resist the impulse to reach out and give a fellow human being a helping hand. Phyllis was in need of help; she was, for reasons which were never disclosed, listless, depressed and, according to my mum, addicted to “purple hearts,” the preferred downer of the 1950’s.
Phyllis and Betty Doonan had become acquainted whilst in the employ of the same despots. Their taskmasters were a highly eccentric former White Russian prince and princess who, having moved to the West, satisfied their long-standing reliance on servants by hiring stenographers like Phyllis and Betty from the local temp agency and then forcing them to perform all kinds of non-secretarial tasks, like hedge-clipping, food-serving and toilet-unblocking. These deposed nobles often paraded around nude, irking Betty more than Phyllis. Adding to this macabre working environment was a pet monkey who swung from the light fixtures, pooping on the serfs all the while. Phyllis and Betty, united by this common enemy, formed a strong bond.
Our new lodger-Betty always had at least two-moved into the one remaining space in our rambling, leaky red-brick Edwardian house at No. 41 Priest Hill: a windowless garret on the top floor, whose features included a non-opening skylight and a non-functioning fireplace, and an appropriately rock-bottom rent. Despite her gulag-ish accommodations, Phyllis flourished. Under Betty’s supervision, she put on weight, kicked the dolls and learned to laugh again.
Initially, we referred to her as Auntie Phyllis, but soon realized she was more of a wacky big sister: a naughty, funny courageous chick who made a mockery of her handicap. Sightless since birth, she somehow managed to make the affliction seem like a total gas. She laughed when she walked into lampposts or stepped in Lassie’s poo. She loved to tell us about the time she once exited a train on the wrong side, falling onto the tracks in a heap, avec chien . Phylllis was proto- Jackass .
The relationship between Betty and Phyllis was far more than that of landlady and lodger. And no, they were not lesbians! ( Ever since you saw The Hours , you assume that improbable lesbotic couplings await you at every turn!) She was a member, albeit unwittingly, of what the foxy Tom Brokaw has dubbed the “greatest generation.” Self-sacrificing, proud to be British, always ready for a verbal tussle, and incapable of whining or capitulating, Phyllis was the anti-Oprah. My mum was similarly committed to her own world view, and equally nationalistic and feisty. Every night, the two would argue intensely with each other-over a bottle of cheap vino -about what the English (Phyllis) had supposedly done to the non-English (my mum hailed from Northern Ireland). These often incomprehensible and heated debates usually ended with my mum singing “Land of Hope and Glory” with heavy irony and Phyllis screaming the word “Rubbish!” with extra rolled R’s.
These girls had a point of view of which they were proud: The current peacenik mania for suffixing everything with the phrase “makes me ashamed to be English/American” would have been utterly incomprehensible to either of them.
Eventually, my mum kicked out all the lodgers, Phyllis included. She no longer needed the income, and she definitely needed a break from washing other people’s undies and cutting up Phyllis’ food into bite-sized morsels, which she did religiously every night of my childhood.
Phyllis fared well on her own. She moved to an asbestos bungalow-with no ill effects-where we and other members of her family were regular visitors. She never married. Her dogs were the loves of her life. Whenever one of them died, it sent her into a spiral of grief which I have yet to witness in any human bereavement. Fortunately, her last dog-a black Lab called Barney, named after my employer-outlived her. At the time of her death, aged 89, she was the oldest living guide-dog owner on record.
On hearing of Phyllis’ death and imminent interment, all I could think about was the time she and Lassie (who should probably have had her eyes tested) fell into an open grave at a friend’s funeral, and lived-and laughed-to tell the tale.