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, over four 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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There are 14 comments.

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  1. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA

    She: carrying on as Muffetts do (this means: all talking loudly at once, and no-one really listening to what anyone else is saying),

    Our family does this too.

    Lovely story. Happy Birthday Miss Muffet.

    • #1
  2. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT

    Happy Birthday to your lovely Aunt Pat. Thank you for sharing her with us.

    • #2
  3. She Member

    Thanks, Jules and Kay (of PA and MT).

    If we have to have a Department of Education, I do so wish Pat could be put in charge of it, in either the US or the UK.  Here’s what she has to say:

    “No child is good at everything.  But every child is good at something.  And it is the teacher’s job to find out what it is.”


    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher

    I just had a mental image of an English clan descending on some poor, inoffensive pub for their “Can You Top This” eccentricity fests. :)

    • #4
  5. iWe Coolidge

    Wonderful! Thank you!

    • #5
  6. MarciN Member

    What a lovely story. For reasons too numerous to write out, I believe that kindergarten and first grade are the most important years of a person’s life. As is the twig is bent, . . . , and all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten . . . .

    My children all had the same first-grade teacher. That’s because once I saw the good work she did with the kids in my first child’s class, I was could have no other teacher for my next two children. I did some crazy things to ensure that my kids had her for first grade. And then I didn’t worry about the rest of their education. And I was right, by the way.

    And I was not the only person devoted to her. One year the high school graduating class was asked to name the teacher who had had the most influence in their life. Interestingly, the kids went all the way back to first grade to Sandy Deemer. Sandy grew up in Pennsylvania, which I believe is the friendliest state in our country. I’ve wondered if her Pennsylvania childhood was what enabled Sandy to love the kids in a friendly respectful way and to get a little bit closer to the kids than most people ever do. (And I don’t mean the kind of close that is sick, where an adult gets his or her daily ego lift from the kids’ captive adoration.)

    In her home state, Sandy’s mother was the principal of a middle school, and her father was a superintendent of a school district. Sandy had moved to Cape Cod just because it was very pretty place to live. Given Sandy’s education and achievements, people often asked her why she was wasting her time teaching six-year-olds. At one time, she did consider going into the administrative side of education, but eventually she decided she wanted to stay right where she was. “I think I can do more good helping twenty-five kids each year than I can do as an administrator.” Indeed she did help them.

    Our spending and attention in education are inverted. We should be putting most of our efforts into early childhood education. We can fix so many things the kids experiment with at young ages when those experiments are not a big deal. The same behaviors at middle school and high school frighten the staff, and the kids end up in big life-affecting trouble. Also, there has been some research that children who are not reading at grade level by the end of first grade seldom catch up.

    I enjoyed this post very much, and I would have loved and admired Aunt Pat.

    • #6
  7. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum

    Hello, She!  Late to the party, but…Happy and Blessed Birthday to your memorable Auntie!  A treasure indeed; this runs in your family, I believe. :-)

    • #7
  8. She Member

    Percival (View Comment):
    I just had a mental image of an English clan descending on some poor, inoffensive pub for their “Can You Top This” eccentricity fests. ?

    I’ve mentioned a few times the “Monty Python” affect that quickly comes to the fore when any number of my family gets together.  It’s not as pronounced in the younger generations as it used to be, but when my brother, my sister and I get together things go sideways pretty quickly.  We generally don’t need to spend a lot on external entertainment . . .

    • #8
  9. Trink Coolidge

    She:  . . . all talking loudly at once, and no-one really listening to what anyone else is saying . . .

    This line out of all those in this beautiful love song to your aunt – reminded me so much of my mother and her sister, Aunt Ann – at the family dinner table as I was growing up.   I miss them.

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    I think I want to be adopted into your family. Do you think we can make that happen? How about if I chop wood and carry water for Aunt Pat? ;-)

    Wonderful story, She. I just love your stories.

    • #10
  11. She Member

    By the way, I wasn’t kidding about the family karma, in terms of the “Little Miss Muffett” costume party thing.

    My own ordeal took place when I was about four or five, and travelling by boat with Mum and Dad between Liverpool and Lagos.  Among the many shipboard activities scheduled for the kids was the mandatory “fancy dress party.”

    I wore a fabulous dress that we’d bought during the stopover at Las Palmas (loved these–women hawking their beautiful handmade sewn, knitted, crocheted, and lace, wares came down to the quay, and we’d go ashore and shop).

    And my major accessory (other than the empty bowl and spoon) was a spider that Dad had concocted by: cadging a some toothpicks, a couple of olives, and a large “bap” (a roll about the size and shape of a hamburger bun) from the kitchen.  Two half-olives, stuck into the bap with toothpicks made fine googly insect eyes.  Then, a piece of elastic (from the ship’s seamstress), stuck through the bun from bottom to top, with a loop on the end so I could thread it over my wrist, gave me a way to hold onto the thing without having to have it in my hands.  And eight artistically bent pipe cleaners (Dad always had plenty of these on his person) formed legs, and were stuck around the perimeter of the bun, about equidistant from each other.

    Much to my surprise, and perhaps for the last time in my life, I won the competition!

    • #11
  12. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron

    She (View Comment):
    Thanks, Jules and Kay (of PA and MT).

    If we have to have a Department of Education, I do so wish Pat could be put in charge of it, in either the US or the UK. Here’s what she has to say:

    “No child is good at everything. But every child is good at something. And it is the teacher’s job to find out what it is.”



    Your Miss Chips sounds like the teacher that every child should be lucky enough to have.



    • #12
  13. Barry Jones Thatcher
    Barry Jones


    • #13
  14. Grosseteste Thatcher

    She looks determined!  I’ll try to incorporate “I’m well forward” into my working vocabulary.

    Thanks for the post!

    This conversation is part of a Group Writing series with the theme “Family”, planned for the whole month of July. If you follow this link, there’s more information about Group Writing. The schedule is updated to include links to the other conversations for the month as they are posted. If you’d like to try your hand at Group Writing, August’s theme (Beauty) is open for submissions. Please sign up!

    • #14
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