Great Auntie Barbie (the lady in the centre of the photo) was my Grandma Dot's sister. From as early as I can remember, Auntie Barbie had a very bad rep in my family. Noone seemed to want to see her much. In a family of OCD clean freaks, Barbie was cross, messy and a dreadful cook (though she only poisoned us once). We used to joke that if you didn't keep moving in the kitchen, you would stick to the floor and why on earth did she keep a pile of used teabags on her windowsill? To us children, her enormous bosoms were a subject of dread and fascination in equal measure. And her driving!? She was a lethal weapon of some reknown and, although she was never actually banned, she was reputed to have been the driver when one of her friends had been killed. I don't know whether this was true, but she never did up her seatbelt until after the car was moving. The act pulling the belt around the huge circumference of her chest would cause the car to swerve all over the road. Driving with Barbie required a certain act of faith.
As the family legend went, Barbie was "difficult" from her teenage years and was sent away to school because of it. She never married and ended up living with her father until he died. As a working woman, she drove ambulances in the war and became a teacher, ending up becoming the headmistress at my mother's primary school in Coventry. My mum used to describe a cross and rather vindictive figure (think Miss Trunchbull) who used to make her eat horrid school dinners (my mum would tip it into her pockets). .
As children, we were caught between Barbie's bad PR and our fascination for her differentness. She never married and retired early to travel the world in the days when this was a rare thing. She would arrange expeditions to far away places, with or without her slim retinue of loyal friends. In between she rambled the Midlands and Welsh countryside, looking for wild flowers and collecting fleece from fences. She would spin the fleece into yarn and knit rustic jumpers. I treasured one of those jumpers, until I shrank it in the wash (I was heartbroken). Barbie collected stones and driftwood and made sculptures. Even though visiting her flat was risky business in a culinary sense, it was stuffed full of things from abroad and from her walks and workshop. I think we all respected her resourcefulness and independence, and she was always breathtakingly direct ("oooh, haven't you put on weight!"). Once the younger women in my family were on holiday partaking of some nude sunbathing on a private roof terrace. I guess Barbie (then in her 70s) got fed up being left downstairs on her own because she took all her clothes off and came and joined us. You had to admire her spirit. In the end, our indominitable Great Aunt only broke when the care home she was in didn't give her enough to drink, but that's another story.
My proper relationship with her started when I was at University in Birmingham. She would drive over to see us on Sundays and take us for pub lunches as an escape from halls food. The thing is, I had stopped doing any art at all at this stage and so had she, and so this part of our lives never really co-incided. At the end of her life, as it looked like she was getting her health back, I remembered her love of sculpture and brought her some clay and she made an amazing head study. When I went to visit her, her sheer contentment at having made something again was palpable. This was only matched by her contempt when another inmate of the same care home took it and painted it gold. I don't think anyone there really understood artistic integrity, but my 92 year old Great Aunt still had it.
Now she is gone, I feel sad that Barbie was kept on the outside of the family (its probably why I keep her ashes). I know she could be insufferable at times, but in a perfect world,we should embrace our eccentric black sheep. The world needs different kinds of people, including Auntie Barbies. It would help show our children that its ok to be yourself.
I have also come to realise that I am quite a lot like my Great Aunt. For all her bad points, she is part of me. Although I am not as cross, I have less to be cross about. I can cook but my fridge is not as clean as my mum would approve of. I also like nature and walking and making things. Most of all I wanted to introduce you to Auntie Barbie because, as it happens, one of her great loves was making pottery and I know how much she would understand what I am doing. I wish she was here to share it with me.