British Medical Journal 09 December 2000     Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1479

Auntie Mary had situational dementia. A large lady, she came to live with us after her cajillionth stroke, and as my parents were inconsiderately dead she immediately assumed responsibility for my spiritual welfare.

All week she would sit cackling maniacally by the fire, immovable in black skirts just insufficiently voluminous to prevent erythema ab igne, but come Sunday morning a miracle would occur. She would arise like a massive billowing dark Lazarus, filled with a fanatical zeal to ensure that I attended church. Her Christianity was of that peculiarly Northern Ireland brand: whenever two or three are gathered together in my name some other poor bastard is going to get a good kicking. Salmon Rushdie and I, we understand fatwas.

So from 8 am Auntie Mary would be tugging at my bedclothes with surprising strength and tenacity for someone who midweek couldn’t lift a teacup. By the time of the last service, if I was still in situ, she’d be spinning around in a frenzy.

I tolerated this ritual as a kind of tough love, because Auntie Mary had reason to be fond of me. Another auntie, Auntie Beattie (not a blood relation), was given to boasting about her big babies; all eight were over 10 pounds at birth. This was perceived as a jibe at the lack of fecundity of my blood aunts, none of whom had children, only a few of whom were married, and all of whom were virgins; it’s impossible to have sex while kneeling in church, which for my aunts was a 24 hour commitment.

One day at dinner, Auntie Beattie was telling everybody for the cajillionth time how the obstetrician said, “You’ve done it again, Mrs Boyle,” when she delivered her 10th baby, which apparently was as big as a hippo.

But by this time I had become a doctor and had rocketed from being an insignificant guttersnipe to the next best thing to the Pope.

“There’s a bit of diabetes in your family, isn’t there?” I inquired, in the style of Emile Zola. “Could be why all your babies were such whoppers.”

“J’accuse!!” I could have added, but didn’t, as it was unnecessary. Res ipsa loquiteur and the fuse had been lit.

There was immediate uproar; my blood aunties were jumping up and down with excitement, while Auntie Beattie was incandescent with outrage that these highlights of an otherwise implacably mundane life could be so glibly dismissed as merely the consequence of a family delicacy.

Order was eventually restored by the old “I’ve got a gun” trick, but the seed of doubt had been planted, and we never heard those gargantuan baby stories ever again.

 

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