Over the weekend, we lost my great-aunt Jill – she was in her 80s, and thankfully suffered only a brief illness.
Death is always a time for reflection – and this time is no different. But I'd like to really take a moment to reflect back on her life, as she and her husband Bill influenced me in ways that only death gives us clarity on.
My uncle Bill was related to me on my mother's side. He was my grandfathers younger brother, born into a mining community in Stoke-on-Trent in the 20s. My grandfather is one of the smartest (and most stubborn) men I know, but Bill was academically brilliant, and was offered the opportunity to study at Oxford – almost unheard of for someone from the lower classes at that time. This study he achieved with some financial support from my grandfather.
There Bill met Jill, and they fell in love. But Jill was a spirited woman, and when he asked her to marry him, she turned him down, as she desperately wanted to do voluntary work overseas, and wasn't ready to settle down. She travelled to Africa, which she fell in love with, and did all sorts of educational work with the local tribe, becoming an “honorary chieftan” I'm told.
Bill meanwhile turned to teaching – and taught my father across town. When Jill returned from Africa, they ended up picking up from where they left off, becoming married. Their house was a fascinating place filled with relics from Africa such as tribal masks and a wooden case she'd used in her travels which she gifted to my parents.
They were regulars for our Christmases, which we'd spend at my grandparents. With them both being teachers, they'd arrive punctually at 11am on Christmas Day, and they were so entertaining. We never got toys, only books – typical teachers! I remember Bill being able to be quite funny and yet coerce us into doing things – asking one Christmas if we could find the “stealth function” our Starbird electronic (and noisy) spaceship toy. Such a comment could have irritated, but I remember finding it was funny, and played along. It's no wonder he became a headmaster.
Sadly though he died in his 50s when I was a young teen. It was a tragic death, that shocked us all. When I look back, I feel slightly robbed, as I cannot help think how much I would have loved to talk to him when I was older, when I was going through University, and when I went through teacher-training. I'd have liked that a lot.
Inevitably we saw less of Jill without Bill, but we did still see her. And my grandfather being the person he is kept tabs on his brother's wife, as often as possible. She was always family to him.
They left me with a legacy – I was inspired to give teaching a try because of them (although I didn't end up sticking with it), Jills tales of overseas made me want to try living abroad – which inspired me to take the opportunity to study in Jena, Germany and gave me enough of a taste for adventure to consider travelling from England to New Zealand.
But most of all they left me with a book. When I heard about her death, I immediately thought about a book I'd been given by them on Astronomy. As a child I was fascinated like so many with space and the stars. So they bought me a book on it – it was full of stories of the planets (although Voyager 2 hadn't gone to Jupiter yet), about Skylab and the Apollo program, about how stars worked. It was one of the last books Bill and Jill would give me.
I would read through it time and again, and it would inspire me, and fire my imagination. It fuelled a passion for science, and made me want to study Astronomy, which I eventually did at the University of Sheffield. But even though it became dated - there were later missions which gave more information and better pictures - I kept hold of it. I threw other books away but never this one.
At University I would read some pieces to refresh my mind on the basics, before opening my University books, and putting the mathematical framework around what I'd just read. As a teacher I would look to it to work out how to simplify the detailed concepts I knew so younger minds could digest.
But this weekend I realised that the reason I could never throw it away was the book had inspired me, and reminded me of two people who I loved in my own way.
It seems an odd and maybe failed epitaph for a couple to be summed up as “people who bought me a book”. But not if it's a book that changed your life, not if it's a book that inspired you.
Christmas is coming – do something amazing for someone, and buy them a book!