Family

Happy Birthday, Miss Chips!

Patricia Helen Mead Muffett was born 94 years ago today. She is my dad’s youngest sister, the only one still living of six siblings almost perfectly spaced in age, born between July 14, 1907, and July 13, 1923. (Most of the women in my family are excellent at planning and stellar at execution. Perhaps this trait originated with my Granny Louise. “I’m well forward” was her favorite remark, when asked how things were progressing with the latest of her always numerous, and usually simultaneous, projects. However she managed it, she certainly had the NFP thing figured out. She must also have been an extraordinarily gifted mother, raising a brood of uniformly outgoing, sociable, bright, kind, and intellectually curious children in a family that left no stone unturned when it came to eccentricity and individuality. But somehow, in what must have occasionally seemed like a three-ring circus among the larger-than-life Muffetts, my tiny granny held her own.)

For the first eight years of her life, Pat lived “above the shop” where Grandpa was the manager: S. Ward, Ltd–Ham and Bacon curers, Melton Pork Pie and Cambridge Sausage Makers, 222 Broad St., Birmingham. The burgeoning young family enjoyed the run of a sixteen-room flat, and, when not in use, the Board Room and the Typing Room (presided over, so I’m told, by “Miss Horton,” who appeared as a fearsome old lady to the children).

In 1931, the family moved to Farquhar Road in the well-to-do Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston. The house, on which they bought the leasehold, was enormous–ten bedrooms, three spacious “reception” rooms on the ground floor, huge kitchen and scullery, enormous dining room, large cellar, and beautiful grounds. Plenty of room for an energetic family with six children, with enough left over for a couple of servants and frequent guests. (In the 1970s, the family had the opportunity to buy the freehold on the place for several thousand pounds. They did not. The place last sold, in 2015, for £1.65 million. My well-organized Granny Louise is probably spinning in her grave over this.)

War broke out when Pat was sixteen, and in her last year of school. She and her classmates were evacuated to Attingham Park, a stately home in Shropshire, and although she was quite excited at the prospect, upon arriving, she discovered that the old pile was “drafty,” “freezing cold,” and that “the food was terrible.” So she was grateful to return to Birmingham for her teacher training course, volunteering in her spare time as a “bicycle boy” for the Home Guard.

Pat sailed through her training, becoming certified in Fröbel teaching methods. Unlike most of his contemporaries, who scoffed at the idea of early childhood education, Friederich Fröbel (1782-1852) recognized that a significant amount of brain development occurs at a very young age. He pioneered the concept of “kindergarten,” believing that early childhood education could be stimulated and enhanced through an understanding of the child at play, and developing one of the first “respectable” career paths for women, who he believed were best suited for such a teaching role.

Pat’s first teaching job was at Stanley House School, in Edgbaston. And it was while she was there that she introduced her older brother, David, to another Birmingham lass, a young teacher’s assistant (think, a more robust version of the early Lady Diana).

That young woman was my mother. So, you see, I have much to thank Auntie Pat for, up to and including even the fact that I am here to do so.

From Stanley House School, Pat moved to Edgbaston High School (not denoting a school for older children, as it does in the US), where she taught for almost forty years, finally retiring as Deputy Headmistress of the Preparatory Department. Three years ago, at the age of 91, she decided she’d had enough of living on her own, and moved to a retirement community where, I’m sure, she’s got them all organized and eating out of her hand.

How can I best describe Pat for you? I’d say, if she were to be featured in a movie, that the only actress fit to play her might have been Katharine Hepburn. Ferociously bright. Tall. Lanky, sometimes a bit awkward and gawky. But always comfortable in her own skin. “With it.” Self-confident. Articulate. Determined (this is not a trait that stands out much in my family). Kind. Always youthful and sometimes childlike in her enthusiasms. Intellectually curious. And even the voice. A bit loud. Staccato. Exclamatory. Unique.

I’ve only every seen Pat embarrassed once in my life.

It was about fifteen years ago. I was on a visit to the UK, by myself, and we had made our usual pilgrimage to The Peacock Inn, a nice pub, restaurant and hotel, centrally located for family members to swarm to, on our all-too-rare get togethers. We were enjoying our main course, and a few drinks, and carrying on as Muffetts do (this means: all talking loudly at once, and no-one really listening to what anyone else is saying), when a piercing voice from across the room called out, “It’s Miss Muffett, isn’t it?”

The voice belonged to a woman a bit older than me who hadn’t seen or heard from Pat since she was a five-year-old pupil in Pat’s preparatory class, five decades previously. Much reminiscing ensued, but unusually, and for one of the few times I’ve known her, Pat didn’t say much.

Her pupils who’ve stayed in touch with her (and many have) love her. She receives Christmas cards from all over the world every year, and occasional visits from those who live in, and pass through, Birmingham. Although she herself never married, James Hilton’s words about another dedicated teacher might have been written for Pat:

“I thought I heard one of you saying it was a pity–a pity I never had any children–But I have, you know . . . I have . . .”

“Yes. I have,” he added with quavering merriment. “Thousands of ’em. Thousands of ’em . . .”

Happy Birthday, our very own Miss Chips. May you live forever.

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