Monday, August 17, 2015


An Imperfect Life


1. Early Days

‘Pat quick!  Give me yer prayer book.’

I recognised the panic in my Grandmother’s voice and quickly handed her my latest acquisition – a present from her - a hard, white, shiny prayer book with some coloured pictures inside.  Following her gaze I saw my father on the other side of the road astride his motor bike.  His arms were folded and with his clenched jaw and lowering brow he looked grim as only Dad could look grim.

  Gran - my maternal grandmother - was my greatest influence.  It was because of her I eventually became a nurse.  It was the thirties - we were the cinema generation and with the cheap seats costing tuppence we could go twice a week

 Inspired by Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers I planned my future.

‘A’m going to be an actress when I grow up Gran.’

  Gran gave one of her sniffs and folded her arms over her capacious bosom,

 ‘Not if I’ve owt to do with it yer not! Actresses are no better than they should be!  They ‘ave to sleep wi’producer to get on.’

‘But what d’ye mean Gran?’  I was very young at the time.

‘Never you mind lady – you ask too many questions for yer own good.’

End of conversation.

 She was built like Queen Mary – our Queen’s Granny I mean - not the ship; regal and deep-bosomed with the demeanour of a duchess until she lost her temper.  Then she would become a positive virago and the family would take to the hills until Granddad - a man of few words - would glare at her and call out in his booming voice:

’OH WOMAN!’ and I could feel the furniture reverberate as Gran subsided.

 They were an unusual couple: Granddad an English atheist and Gran an Irish Roman Catholic.  He was an engineer and he and Gran led a good life travelling in South Africa and Portugal with their small baby – my Mum.

Then one day Granddad got his right hand caught up in the heavy machinery he worked with.  Fortunately they managed to release him but he was left with a badly crippled hand and - no longer able to do his job - was pensioned off.  With the insurance money they bought a grocer's shop and settled in Lancashire near the rest of Gran’s family.
  Never one to be dictated to by circumstance, Gran left Granddad holding the fort, the shop and their small daughter and took herself off to Edinburgh to train to be a midwife.  She was successful, returned home, became the local midwife and from then on half the babies in the valley were delivered by her and she became a respected member of the community.   Travelling on the local buses with Gran you could bet your bottom dollar you would be told at least a couple of times:

‘See that lad/lass over yon? That’s one o’mine!’

  Granddad made a success of the shop – he loved people and they warmed to him. From humble beginnings – a terraced house in Cumberland – he had travelled the world, was well read and hadn’t lost the common touch. I thought he was the best Granddad in the whole world and loved going to stay with them in the holidays.

As soon as I got there I would give him a big kiss, trying to avoid his tickly moustache and say:

‘Please Granddad can I ‘elp  in’t shop?’

I would be given a miniature striped apron-like his - and was allowed to do simple tasks.  I could only just see over the top of the counter but I could reach things at a low level to stop Granddad having to bend down and I burrowed in the dark, scary  corners helping to find things.  Scooping up dried peas from the sack to put in a paper bag was my speciality.  If ever I had a sore throat I would be given a spoonful of a deep purple, sticky liquid from an enormous glass bottle, kept well out of reach.  Indian cough medicine was how Granddad described it

There were no refrigerators and the shop was full of interesting smells.  It must have faced north because in the window was an enormous pat of butter on a large oval dish and two ridged wooden paddles to handle it.  After Granddad died the plate was kept and is still used today for the turkey at Christmas

    The Rossendale valley where we lived (sometimes known as the Valley of Death) in NE Lancashire was surrounded by hills which were soot – blackened  from the spirals of smoke emanating from the mills, factories and all the coal burning houses. We kept the fires going winter and summer.  Even the sheep were black.

  The main road alongside the River Irwell was lined with slipper factories and cotton mills.  Dad worked at the Globe, and my Mum at Lambert Howarth’s.  Four times a day you would hear the clang of clog irons on the cobbles as the workers marched down Edgeside Lane in the morning and returned back up the hill at dinner time, down again in the afternoon  and back after the hooters had sounded at 5.30pm.    Maddie, Evan and me were latch-key children.  Money was tight but every Thursday the ‘order’ would be delivered from Granddad’s shop.

On Saturday Gran would take three buses to come and see us. 

She would sit down briefly; have a cup of tea and a slice of Mum’s malt loaf then say:

‘Cum on Pat we’ll go down t’ Scout Bottom and get sum fruit an’ veg,’

 She would make sure that as well as Granddad’s groceries we had adequate vitamins in our diet.  As I was quite tiny I was constantly dosed with Cod liver Oil and Malt – to little effect - but I was quite healthy.

  We lived in a brand new council house; a small, three bed-roomed, end of terrace, with a piano taking up most of the living space.  We would all cluster round the ever burning open fire which heated the oven, the water and left brown scorch marks on our legs.  The oven shelves, wrapped in a towel kept the beds warm in winter and the larder, facing north was as cold as any fridge. We were poor but well loved and content.

  We kids had all been brought up in the Unitarian chapel which is why Gran panicked when she saw Dad that Sunday morning.  He knew very well where we had been.

 Gran used to take me to the Catholic Church every Sunday when I was staying with them.

‘No need to tell yer Dad Pat’, she would say.  Granddad – very wisely - kept well out of it.

 I really enjoyed the theatricality of the Roman Catholic service; the ornate costumes, the scattering and smell of incense, the devoutness and above all the knowledge that it was naughty and I really shouldn't be there.  It was anathema to my Unitarian parents.

 Prayer book or no prayer book when Dad saw us he knew exactly where we had been and what we had been up to and I felt my new found holiness dissipating fast.
'Right,’ he growled, 'Get in’t sidecar. Yer comin’ ’ome!' 

 For once Gran was speechless.


  I can’t remember how I found out that Maddie was conceived out of wedlock although a favourite pastime of mine was to sit in the stairs steps and listen to grown ups talk.   It was never really mentioned until my last chat with Mum.  She was aged 90, and about to emigrate to America to live with Maddie who was - by then - widowed.

All I knew was that Mum had left the Grammar school as a teenager and was working in a mill when she met Dad and they fell in love.  She got pregnant and they were married – she was just seventeen.

  As we waited for the taxi to take her to the airport I knew it could be my last chance to ask her about it.

‘Mum d’ you mind if I ask you something?’

  Encouraged by her silence I went on:

‘Mum how did Gran react when she found out you were pregnant?’

‘Well she wasn’t best pleased,’ Mum said with one of her sniffs

‘But did she try to persuade you not to have it?’

Mum looked horrified.

‘Eeeh no Pat!  Never!  Yer Gran and Granddad were my friends.  They did everythin’ they could to ‘elp us get married before Maddie were born.’

‘But what did Dad think about that?’  Mum shook her head.

‘I don’t think we should be talkin’ about this Pat.’

‘But Mum you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.’

I knew she had had a hard time in the early days - from such august bodies as The Ladies Aid at Sunday School.  She was a teenager, pregnant and an ex- Catholic.  She must have been very vulnerable.

 Mum went into one of her silences when you never knew if she had said all she was going to say or if there was more to come.  After a lengthy pause she said:

‘Well yer Dad and me alus wanted to get married but we knew with me being R.C. and ‘im Chapel it wouldn’t be allowed.’

I wanted to ask more questions but didn’t want to overstep the mark.

 I marvelled at Mum; outwardly quiet and gentle but - like Gran - she could make things happen.  Did she get pregnant deliberately?  The more I thought about it the more likely it seemed.

 It was very shocking in those days to have an unmarried, teen- age daughter who was pregnant and involved with a person of a different religion.  I’m really proud of my grandparents.  They took the whole situation in their stride and did all they could to support the two young people.

Gran made sure they were married before the birth and four months after they were married delivered my sister Maddie the same year 1927.  Two and a half years later I appeared and after another two years my brother Evan was safely delivered - all by Gran.

Meanwhile back in the thirties our family of five became a family of four as my sister Maddie, aged six, left home.





Exile on Pain Street said...

Pat! That was one of my best morning reads ever! Thank you. A fantastic remembrance. Didn't your modeling come close to acting? How did your Gram feel about that? Do you have anything left in the tank? There must be more where this came from, right? I wish I had the wherewithal to come out there, take you to tea and force you to talk all afternoon.

kenju said...

You have quite the talent for story-telling, Pat. I look forward to reading the rest of the story!!

Pat said...

Exile: I have been writing this since I started blogging and this is my latest edit. I had begun to lose my mojo but will try to keep on posting it and working on it at the same time. Better then letting it moulder and myself be submerged in guilt.
Will I be able to eat meringues and hold forth at the same time? It could get messy:)

Judy: thank you and I'll try to keep it going.

Kim Ayres said...

You've changed your accent over the years then, Pat :)

Anonymous said...

Ooohh, Pat! Are you going to post it all again? How wonderful, I love your story and can't wait!

Pat said...

Kim: you haven't seen me angry. It all comes back:)

Roseneath: that's the plan. Hopefully it will be in a better state.

angryparsnip said...

Oh Pat, just wonderful.
Every time you write about your life I am transported and standing right there with you.
Quite wonderful.

cheers, parsnip

Pat said...

Parsnip: thank you so much. That makes me so glad I decided to try it.

AndrewM said...


It's grim oop North.

Pat said...

Andrew M: you'd better believe it:)

Mage said...

Gosh Pat. What a wonderful story. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Leni Qinan said...

I enjoyed reading your first chapter. Your style is very clear and direct, very pleasant to read. And the story is endearing. I'm looking forward to reading chapter 2! :)


kenju said...

I will hold you to that promise, Pat!! It needs to be told and we all need to share in it!

gypsywoman said...

fabulous fabulous story-telling, pat! of course, i've known that since the first blog post of yours i ever read - your first chapter has us all waiting on the next - and the next - xx

OldLady Of The Hills said...

Oh, how I LOVE your story, Pat....And to get to read your new 'edit' is just Wonderful! You write so well, my dear, and it is ALL so very interesting and delightful, too.....Looking forward to the next installment, my dear.

Pat said...

mage: thank you. It's been burning a hole in my pocket:)

Leni: nice to have you reading it.

Judy: gotta keep goin' now;)

Jenean: yes much of it will be familiar to you.

Naomi: you are one of the friends who inspired me to get going again.

Vagabonde said...

I enjoyed your Baltic cruise and beautiful photos. In 2014 we also went on a Baltic cruise. At the Sibelius monument I had to wait a long time before taking a pictures as so many Japanese tourists kept taking pictures of themselves near the monument. We met a blogging friend in St Pertersburg and the weather was lovely there. I still have not written a post on this trip. I also enjoyed all your excellent pictures of Gavarnie, what an amazing landscape

I love your reminiscences. Your style is so fresh it holds the attention immediately. I could easily visualize your grandparents and the countryside. I hope there will be more to come.

Anonymous said...

Indian cough medicine I remember that well.

When's part two, here I was really getting into the story and you finish with 'our family of five became a family of four as my sister Maddie, aged six, left home.' No no no you can't do that.


Pat said...

Vagabonde: how exciting to meet a Russian blogger. We had the same experience at the Sibelius monument it seems. Thank you for your very kind words.

Helen: I aim to do one a week. Be patient and I'll try to survive until its finished:)

Pat said...

I was delighted when Jennifer Brookins - author of that fascinating memoir 'Tharon Ann' wrote on /face Book:-

Jennifer Brookins‎ Pat Mackay

Yesterday at 12:24am ·

'An Imperfect life' - Chapter One is a fabulous write. Pat Mackay writes with clarity of thought, imagery ... and downright fabulous sense of relationships . If I can't hear the author's voice loud and clear, I usually put the book/story down, but my only concern about Past Imperfect is: When's the next installment? I highly recommend checking out her blog at:-
Past Imperfect

Ms Scarlet said...

Oh Pat! Thank you for sharing this with us! I've been asking to read this for so long now. Wonderful, and such different times. I'm looking forward to Chapter two.

Robert Smith said...

Glad you found your mojo again! I have grown old, very old, waiting for your biography to be published. I was fascinated by this post and can't wait for the next bit.

I met you once at some big "do" in London, (drinkies and things on sticks) when you were a top model (to me you still are!) and I worked for the BBC at the time. That was a while back. . .I wont mention the date!

Pat said...

Scarlet: then I'm glad I decided to do this:)

Pat said...

Keith: thank you. I've never made any secret of my age. I'm proud to be still standing. Just:)

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

My Internet's behaving today, it's a lovely Sunday...what a delightful way to spend my morning, reading your story!

Charming and full of history!

It's interesting how women's lives are the same in so many different countries...can't be pregnant while unmarried, can't marry someone out of your religion. Not so long ago, this is how it was here. Times have changed here now though.

Pat said...

In my lifetime it is hard to believe how things have changed.
My gran was before her time (and Granddad) in the way they reacted to Mum's pregnancy. I often wonder though how we would have turned out if Maddie had stayed at home.

Joe Pinto said...

My dear Pat,

This is Joe Pinto, Pune, India. Remember my five-part memoir on my mother, April-May 2009, on my blog "Against the Tide" ??? I have added 20 chapters and now it will come out as a book on 2 May 2019, her 50the death anniversary.

I was looking up your encouraging comments to my writing and decided to look up your blog and found -- "An Imperfect Life" !!! So I've scrolled back to Chapter 1 and hope to read up to date.

Thank U for plucking courage to tell your story.

Do send me your email address, so we can decide how to get a copy across to U.

Peace and love<
-- Joe Pinto, Pune, India.
WhatsApp: +91 94037 66122.