We had a wonderful day today. Sad in parts, and very emotional but at the same time it was lovely to share memories and celebrate the life of this remarkable woman. Thank you so very much for all your lovely messages of support, and I’m touched by the way you’ve all surrounded me with this blanket of care, and propped me up.
You’d be proud of me…I managed to get through my eulogy without falling apart. Well, I say that…I lost it a bit right at the end, but by then it was okay. I did her proud. One or two of you have asked me to share some of the memories that I talked about, and I’d be happy to.
Most people knew my Godmother as Audrey. To us, she has always been Elsie. She was my Aunty Elsie, and she’s been my mum’s best friend for the last eighty years.
I won’t dwell on Elsie’s childhood, but it’s fair to say that having lost her mum at a very early age, it wasn’t without its challenges. Never comfortable with the role of ‘victim’, her formative years put the steel in her backbone, and she rose above it all. At her first opportunity, Elsie reinvented herself as Audrey, determined to live life on her terms and show the world that she was a force to be reckoned with.
In many respects, she was a woman before her time. In the 1970s, that same backbone, together with her razor sharp intellect and drive saw her rise to the very top of her profession, and her career as Chief Export Sales Manager for a large printing firm took her all over the world. This is a picture that she and I found earlier this year when we were clearing out some of her old papers. It was lifted from her international driving license. I mean, how many women do you know who had an international driving licence almost fifty years ago? Exactly!
She would breeze into our house on a cloud of Chanel No 5, and fire my imagination with stories about places I’d never heard of. She blazed a trail through South America, and Japan and she made friends around the world. Some of those friends became our friends too.
To an impressionable little girl living an ordinary life, she was fascinating. She would float around in brightly coloured kaftans and I vividly remember her green eye shadow, and her brightly painted nails. Mum used to call her The Duchess Of Cock-a-Leekie, which Elsie found infuriating and hilarious in equal measure.
She loved to cook. She had a very temperamental oven that we nicknamed Vesuvius, and visits to her house generally involved her trying to recreate recipes that she’d encountered on her travels, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes Vesuvius would burn dinner to a crisp and she’d make me cover my tender young ears whilst she turned the air blue.
When I was seventeen and learning to drive, she would pull up outside in her very big and very fancy company car, stick the ‘L’ plates on the bonnet and throw me the keys. We’d set off, me behind the wheel, Elsie directing operations from the passenger seat and mum chewing her knuckles in the back, praying that both car and occupants would arrive home unscathed.
Elsie took her responsibilities as my Godparent very seriously. To mum’s despair, she taught me how to season a sentence with just enough salty language to drive home a point. In my teenage years she could always be relied upon to provide a steady supply of cigarettes. Sorry mum. She taught me the art of French inhaling, which felt like the height of sophistication back in the 1980s when smoking was cool, and it made me the envy of all my friends. She dispensed words of wisdom when I dated unsuitable boys, and she instilled in me a curiosity about the world which has never gone away.
In the same way that Elsie’s colourful life seemed full and rich and exciting to us, our quiet and altogether less exciting life provided a bolt-hole for Elsie in the more turbulent times of her own life. The enduring and symbiotic friendship between her and my mum which had its roots in childhood has been a beautiful thing over the last eighty years, and these two very different women, both amazing in their own way, have been the biggest influences in my life.
I will remember my Godmother as spirited, stubborn, intelligent, sometimes difficult, always determined, proud, independent and wise, and I will miss her beyond measure.
Elsie Audrey Woodhead, August 1933 – July 2017