Sunday Tea and how it all began
Every family has a story, something that has been handed down with a little embellishment or perhaps a spot of cleaning up as the years went by. There were three things that were said at Sunday tea by my Aunty Muriel and they were… perhaps I should explain about Sunday tea should I?
I am an only child but I grew up in a large family. My Dad was one of 12 children. They were kept close by Muriel who was the eldest. She had been told by her mother to look after her brothers and sister and this she did until she died – even though they were all grown up and had their own lives. When Muriel said “Come to tea on Sunday” they all came to tea. The thing is, they didn’t come to Muriel’s house because she lived in a tiny cottage, they came to our house because we had a huge farmhouse kitchen with a table that was six feet square.
All the brother’s and sisters would arrive with their spouses if they had them and their children, if they had them. Everyone would bring something for the meal. Aunty Mary always brought two loaves of sliced bread made into paste sandwiches – this was the 1950s and 60s I am talking about. The batchelor uncles brought cakes from a shop – so exotic! Usually they were Lyons cakes.
The seating arrangements were organised by aunty Muriel who would separate us children and spread us around the table with adults between us so we could be more easily controlled and we wouldn’t be able to eat our tinned pears until we had eaten sufficient bread and butter or paste sandwiches. I was brought up by a mother who made bread and jam and just about everything so a sandwich made of boughten sliced bread and paste from a jar was really exciting and then a slice of a shop cake from a box, well! how to describe the joy?
At some point during the meal Aunty Muriel would cut a slive of the shop cake and say ” We are related to them,” she would gesture at the cake box on the countertop “Lyons, them from the Lyons corner house” Then she would nod, pause for a second or two and finish cutting a slice of cake. The cousins (all the children were referred to as ‘the cousins’ as the easy way to issue orders – “tell the cousins to come and wash their hands”) would pause in their scoffing of sandwiches and listen intently incase there was a good story coming. When they realised is was just that old ‘related to Lyons’ thing again they continued with their efforts to eat as much as possible before their mother spotted them and made them stop.
One of the adults would ask Muriel a question and she would say “There’s a Spanish Jewess in our family.” Again the cousins would pause in their munching to see if there would be a little more information about what exactly a Spanish Jewess was. Someone would make a remark and then say something the adults thought was funny and everyone would laugh.
I would be watching cousin Bernard because he used to try to eat his pickled onion with a knife and fork and usually it wouls shoot across the table into someone’s lap and while everyone had their attention on that he would reach out and sneak one of the fairy cakes and hide it under the table. I used to make sure he kew I had seen him so he would share it with me.
Then Aunty Muriel would say “Of course, Gran was an actress, she went all over the world acting.” again the cousins would hold their breath for more information. I mean to say, how strange is that when you are seven or eight or nine years old to hear your aunty telling everyone that she had a grandmother?! Amazing! I mean aunty Muriel is OLD! she told me she was older than my dad and he was ever so old – mum said he was forty something!
The ritual of Sunday tea continued for years. As the cousins grew up and left home fewer people would arrive BUT, and this is one of those things you totally accept at the time, they all still brought something as part of the meal. Aunty Mary was more likely to bring a loaf of bread made into ham sandwiches or cream cheese or salad. Aunty Muriel still brought a fruit cake and her music (she played the piano) and she still told us those same three things; that her gran was an actress, we were related to the Lyons of corner house fame and there was a Spanish Jewess in our family.
Aunty Muriel died in the 1970s and the family drifted apart. Sunday tea became just any old meal, the cousins had their own lives and families and the increased prosperity meant that they rarely met. My Dad began researching his family tree in the 1980s and found his father’s line all the way back to 1807 in Pembrokeshire. In the late 1990s my parents came to live with me and my Dad handed me his research and said “Find those darned actors, and see if you can find the connection to Lyons – oh and there’s a Spanish Jewess in our family, see if you can find her too.”
I looked at the box of papers he had given me and said “Yes Dad” as you do when you parent tells you to do something.
I’ll tell you what I did, and what I found out about all three of these stories