Betty and Patsy, a joint obituary
It is difficult to think of Patsy Markham being dead. She had so much presence. So many of her qualities were expansive without being crude. Like a portrait, she was even dramatic when she was still. She was as lively on the phone as she was in person. The list of things you can easily associate with her is characteristic: eye masks, pekinese, a make-up case as big as a medicine chest, dressing gowns with a train, extra large eggs, caravans, jewellery. Her eye make-up was always bright, even on days when she was not. Her laugh was enormous and all the more enjoyable for it. She brought glamour to her surroundings.
Her energy made her a captivating story teller. She lived in India until she was sixteen, and she could bring to life the palaces, jewels, customs, and lost world of life as the daughter of the man who ran a flying school for the Maharaja in Jodhpur. Her capacities as a raconteuse made her a compelling double to her husband. They would tell the story of how they met on a cold night in a pub on the way to a dance. As one of them expounded about the three feet of snow the other would pinch their fingers together to intimate that it was, at best, half an inch. While he rattled off tales of adventures she would correct names, dates, events, and perspectives. They were well matched.
In many ways she was the opposite of Betty, who died a few months before her. Betty was like a cat that could always be found in its favourite spots: watching television on the sofa, playing cards at the dining table, drinking wine in a bar after mass. She wasn’t just reliable in her habits. Whenever you called her, you would get a reviving dose of her warm-hearted conversation. Whenever you saw her she would try and feed you three times as much as you needed. Whenever you needed her, she was available. Throughout her life, she grew into the role of grandmother perfectly. She gave her grandchildren the best gift of all: her time.
Betty was another one with a memorable laugh. It would stand out in a room full of laughs. She was always ready to enjoy herself with a glass of red wine and conversation. Coming from a large family in a small house she seemed to thrive at busy parties. She also had an extraordinary capacity for patience. She would pass the time alone quite capably just with a pack of cards, or the television on in the background. ‘I’m busy doing nothing,’ was a characteristic phrase. This patience made her a grandmother that all seven grandchildren admired in different ways. Her life had seen plenty of tragedy but she never let that show in front of them. She was such a dedicated Catholic she often went to mass twice a day. (She lived in what seemed like a museum of Catholic icons.) Her consumption of tea would rival Samuel Johnson, famous for his seventeen cups a day.
Her early life had been very different. Born in Wales, one of ten children in a Catholic family, the stories of her early life were full of misdemeanours. Every Friday a quorum of the ten siblings would stand around a frying pan, waiting for midnight, at which point they would drop sausages and bacon in to start sizzling. Their father was appalled at their use of this loophole to avoid the 'no meat on a Friday' rule. He was especially peeved when he caught them feeding sausages to the dog. ‘He’s a good Catholic dog and he don't eat meat on a Friday!’ They lived with five children in a room. Betty was remembered as the trouble maker who caused a ruckus at bedtime. She never lost her sense of mischief in later life. Just when she looked her most unassuming in the corner, zingers would start flying.
Despite their outward differences, Betty and Patsy had lots in common, in their personalities and because of their generation. Each of them could happily turn up in a shade of purple most of us would be afraid to try on. Each was a perfect subject for a sympathetic mimic. Neither of them ever drank too much. They cooked in a functional and sometimes haphazard way. On the one or two occasions when they happened to be with each other they talked like old friends, sensing perhaps a shared perspective. Betty lost one son in her fifties and another in her eighties; Patsy was a surviving twin whose sibling died at birth. They had both been children in the war. Old people who know what it is to be unhappy, lonely, or afraid, are often good at enjoying family events, and making the most of just being around large groups of relatives. Patsy wasn’t raised in the busy conditions Betty was, but she remembered the pub her father ran being so full there was no room for anyone to use the stairs. Life had been different when they were young.
Neither of them had the benefit of a long education, or of living at a time when as much was expected of daughters as of sons. Betty left school at fourteen and like Patsy she was clearly an intelligent woman who would have had a different sort of life if she’d been born at a different time. Both of them got on with the lives they had to live, not always uncomplainingly perhaps, but with a sense of accepting their lot and enjoying their benefits. They both had strong memories, not least for the complex and almost arcane details of their extended family trees, which were global and convoluted. Patsy railed at the headlines and Betty was addicted to Su-Doku. Few people can have read more Georgette Heyer novels than Patsy, and Betty must have seen more murder mysteries than anyone else. They both enjoyed saying disapproving things about their grandchildren while a characteristic twinkle in their eyes betrayed their indulgence.
Both of them raised successful children. Betty’s became a chartered surveyor and RAF navigator, a successful businessman, and a lawyer and senior leader for local authority commissioning and procurement. All three of Betty’s children were ambitious and self-motivated. Her surviving daughter Christine is resilient, self-educated, and selfless. Patsy’s children became a pilot and captain, and the headteacher of one of the country’s most successful schools. Her two children survive her, carrying on her sense of knowing exactly who she was. Betty enthusiastically taught maths to her grandchildren and Patsy used to sing hers nursery rhymes in Hindi. Betty had worked as a carer in a retirement home. Patsy was a former stewardess, hired because she could speak Urdu.
If they looked like little old women, it was deceptive. Patsy clattered around on floral walking sticks, and Betty had the sort of handbags you could tie a knot in sturdy enough to tether farmyard animals with. This tame appearance didn’t stop them enjoying rude jokes, or matching their language to their emotions when things got testy. Betty was a diminutive Catholic who disapproved of Anglican baptism, but she could find almost anything riotously funny — just so long as it didn’t include His Holiness. Patsy could often surprise you by unleashing a voice powerful enough to fill the Albert Hall. Of course, that didn’t mean it was always capable of bringing her dogs to heel. Patsy was devilishly talented with a sewing machine, and Betty kept dozens of people in high-quality knitwear, especially her famous aran jumpers. Like many women of their generation, these talents were practically professional capabilities. The biggest thing they shared in common was that, although they could be bloody-minded and fabulously irritating when they chose to be, they were both incredibly good-value, and deeply memorable, worthwhile company.
This is slightly different from the usual weekly essay. That will return next week. Most of the time on this blog we hear about the lives of important strangers. It didn’t seem like such a big departure to devote some time to important relatives. Obituaries are a form of biography that can be as well matched to people without any major public achievements as to those who changed the world. Everyone’s life matters, and this is an experiment in writing something like a formal obituary for people who wouldn’t otherwise demand one. I have avoided the usual formula of dates and details. We are memorialising Betty and Patsy for their personalities, the effect they had on those around them. There’s more to be said, but this is what mattered most to me.