My Auntie Lena

by Michael Lewis

Most Welsh people have a lot of Davids in their family because St. David is the patron saint of the Principality and is honored there as much as St. Patrick is in Ireland. I have 5 Davids: two uncles, two cousins and a son. David is commonly shortened to Dai in Wales. Uncle Dai Middleton was a favorite of mine. He was married to my Auntie Lena. He was perhaps the most well educated of that generation of my family having earned admittance to Ton Sec (Ton-yr-Efail Secondary School) and so stayed in school until he was 16.  Most others were let out at 14 and even at 12 if they could pass an exam. He described himself as a “scribbler” though I think he would have preferred “chronicler” or even “historian.” It is to one of his pieces entitled “In Defense of Spiritualism” that I owe the substance of this memoir, along with later conversations with my Mam. I never experienced one of Auntie Lena’s sessions for “grown-ups.”

My Auntie Lena was the second child and eldest girl in a family of seven children. Barely a year in age separated Lena from my Mam, and, as they had compatible personalities, they were great pals. On our visits to Wales we always stayed with Lena and Dai at their stone-built terrace home built on a bank and with an imposing steep stone staircase to the front door. Although the front room had a charming view across the valley it was rarely used because the coal fire was in the kitchen at the back of the house.

Lena was the village shaman or witch doctor bringing counseling, psychological and even psychiatric services to those who would never consider it or afford the real thing.

There is a long tradition of mysticism in Wales that goes back to pagan times and in my childhood days still thrived in those rather isolated and undereducated mining villages. The word “Llan” which features in many Welsh place names is, these days, interpreted as “Church of” but originally referred to a holy place where the fabric between our world and the spirit world thins. There was therefore a good deal of superstition among the population and omens and portents were important, and Lena and my Mam were a part of this tradition. I remember in my Grandmother’s house was quite a collection of books on physiognomy, phrenology and palmistry and others on Tarot and Omens and tealeaves. Bible thumping preachers and fervent hymn-singing in chapels was a feature of every Sunday.

So Spiritualism fitted right into the community and Auntie Lena was a Medium.

Now there were a lot of widows in the valley in those times because mining coal was a hard and dangerous occupation and “the dust” (silicosis or pneumoconiosis) and Woodbine cigarettes claimed their share of victims. This was Lena’s main client base for whom she held meetings every month or so. Mam told me there was no hokey-pokey, no theatricals at the meetings. Lena spoke in a hushed but normal voice. I remember her as a spellbinding storyteller and I’m sure the sound of her voice in the warm and darkened room created an atmosphere of trust and comfort and relaxation that opened her clients’ senses to her words. My Mam told me that it was amazing what Lena divined as part of the stories that brought such comfort to her listeners with messages from beyond the veil, from the other side.

I’m sure that Auntie Lena was no more able to contact the spirit world than I was. However, she had a number of advantages that played into her clairvoyance. She was a woman who encouraged intimacy in whom it was easy to confide and all the gossip she gleaned at chapel and the Co-op and bus stop was filed away in her prodigious memory. Dai contributed tid-bits heard at the Workingmen’s Club. Also, she lived in that rather close community all her life and knew most of her clients since they were 5 years old at Cwm Lei Primary School and understood their family background and connections. Finally, life in every miner’s home followed a similar pattern of work and play and so her own trials and tribulations and successes and failures were a reasonable model for those of her clients. And so what she did not know she could guess.

Couple these advantages with a well-tuned intuition and there is a Medium of amazing talent.

There was physical abuse and excessive drinking in the community and gambling and womanizing. Widows of such men were a natural part of Lena’s clientele. Mam told me a conversation might go like this:

Lena: “I’ve got Ifor Evans here for Elsie.”

Client: “That bugger! I hope he’s roasting in hell.”

Lena: “He says “Cariad (beloved) I regret what I did to you and always appreciated you.”

Client: “From Elsie would come a torrent of expletives and specific complaints.”

Lena: “(as Ifor) Cariad! Cariad!”

Then after much to and fro and tears:

Client: “That’s the best conversation I’ve had with Ifor in 30 years. We can work it out.”

That was the point of Uncle Dave’s defense of Spiritualism: Lena was the village shaman or witch doctor bringing counseling, psychological and even psychiatric services to those who would never consider it or afford the real thing. She brought comfort to the bereaved, structure for the perplexed and a beacon for the lost. If that’s Spiritualism I’m all for it.