My great aunt Lizza died last Friday. She was 94. An age that speaks to character as much as to genetics.
She was my favourite. She was tiny (her passports, little books of history, said 5ft 1, but even as a small child I was aware that Lizza was made in miniature. I’m sure it’s where my peculiar fondness for mini things comes from.
tiny person, big life
Until very recently she lived in a dolls’ house near Bradford. A homely-sounding address, 5 Allen Croft. Just the fact of saying it forces you to flatten into Yorkshire vowels. And when I say dolls’ house, I don’t just mean that it was small, although it was. One room downstairs and one (plus a bathroom) upstairs. Nicely proportioned with high ceilings, but essentially thumbelina sized. And there was no central heating or even a kitchen. It felt like one of the dolls houses I would make as a kid out of shoe boxes upturned on one end. An upstairs and downstairs created by cereal cardboard partitions. Hand-drawn wallpaper glued on the walls. A pretend house, for putting nice little things in.
As I child I was enchanted by her house. It was full of beautiful objects. Decorative plates, painted paper leaves and brickwork on the walls. Candelabra, tapestries and mirrors. The embodiment of the mantra of more is more. When I helped her move into sheltered accommodation last year, I had the chance to really look at these things I’d found so intriguing. And boy, were they beautiful. Beautifully bonkers. A wall devoted to pictures of cockerels? A finnish voodoo doll for hatpins? You betcha. A veritable old curiosity shoppe.
Lizza was a wonderful seamstress and gave me loads of incredible fabrics over the years, which, predictably, I’ve done nothing with, but I get great pleasure from taking them out of the loft from time to time and stroking them. I’ve also inherited her beautiful clothes. Bizarrely, given our height difference (she barely came up to my shoulder), her stuff fits me perfectly. Well, now that I’ve decided that gangly arms and 3/4 length sleeves are the height of elegance.
she was fondly known as “The Duchess”
She was a headmistress, so did imperious like no-one else. She would start most conversations with “Now darling…”, so that it was impossible to refuse her. She had a way of tilting her head as she looked at you, so you knew she had you sussed. She liked who she liked and had little time for people she found dull or narrow-minded. She once described one of her sisters as “man-mad, incredibly stupid and bovine”. Wickedly funny.
Lizza was an original thinker, a timeless personality and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. She had great knowledge, the sort that comes from a classical education, a sharp wit and a fearless spirit. She was well-travelled, genuinely cultured and a real aesthete, without any of the stuffiness of pretension. Put it this way, you’d be looking at one of her allegedly “priceless” paintings and realise that she’d coloured in parts of it herself, where she thought it too feint. Priceless is right.
She took a stab (in both senses) at most major religions. Faith was both a comfort and troubling to her. I put it down to her intelligence. She didn’t have the easy belief that comes from ignorance. She was too knowing. So she sought answers and had to make do with rhetoric. Last time I saw her, she borrowed a fiver from The Mack to give to the priest. It went totally against my lapsed-Catholic dogma, but in the end I was just glad I’d talked her down from £20.
She was exceptionally generous and in the best possible way. There were no conditions attached to her gifts. She’d send you a cheque, just because she wanted to. And she didn’t care how you spent it. She encouraged frivolity and was thrilled to hear that I’d quit my job in favour of adventures.
When I was studying in Manchester, I’d get a bus to Leeds and we’d visit galleries, Harvey Nicks (which we both agreed was a poor provincial cousin to the London store) and drink so much red wine that I’d have to sit on the bus back with my face pressed to the cold window, so as not to throw up.
She was an inspiration to me. A smart, beautiful, stylish, inquisitive, funny, independent (read: mulishly stubborn) woman who knew her own mind and wasn’t afraid to impose it. I will miss her, but I’m not sad. Hers was a life very well lived indeed. Her funeral wishes summed it up for me – she left strict instructions for us to hold a “happy reception for any mourners”. We shall do exactly that. And there will be plenty of red wine.