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Obituary of Margaret Brown Mackay

Obituary by Alan Lindsay Mackay, 23 August 1993

Margaret Brown Mackay (21 Aug. 1900 - 12 Aug. 1993)

Margaret was born in 1900 so that she knew the world before it was shattered by the cataclysm of the First World War in which very many of the young men of Scotland perished. Her age has thus increased with the number of the year as this most terrible of centuries has unfolded. On 21 August this year she would have been 93. The contrasts, between what is and what could be in a rationally organised society, have become sharper than ever.

For the first quarter of Margaret's life she lived in Clydebank within sight and sound of the great shipyards, where much of the world's shipping was then built. The sound of rivetting was an immediate index of economic health. There had been a century of rapid industrialisation which had made Glasgow the second city of the Empire with great riches and widespread poverty and squalor. Individuals survived in this by comradeship and mutual help. However, progress was real and there was and urge to get on, to get educated, to see the world. Glasgow engineers ran the Empire. 'Clyde-built' was a guarantee of excellent engineering.

The buildings of Glasgow University dominate the Glasgow skyline and it was the ambition of my mother and of my father separately to go there. They both were able to study medicine there. Loyalty and gratitude to that institution was one of the characteristics of both Margaret and Robert for the rest of their lives.

The significance of the Great War in the lives of Margaret and Robert cannot be exaggerated. Robert became a lieutenant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and was on the Western Front from July 1916 to the end. The 15th Scottish Division, with a nominal strength of 15,000 suffered some 45,000 casualties. Every day of life after the war was an unexpected bonus. To have eventually seen a great-grandchild was happiness beyond reasonable prediction.

They met in Glasgow University after the war, where both qualified in medicine about 1923. It must have been strange for Margaret to sit in prosaic lectures on anatomy with men who had seen most of their friends killed. She said that she never asked Robert about the war. "If he wants to tell me he will", but mostly he never did, but he used to think about the war almost every day and Margaret said that sometimes he had bad nights. A few colleagues, such as Duncan McAinsh, a doctor in Cheslyn Hay, used to come in the thirties and fight over the old battles, but in the mid-thirties Robert burnt all his war-maps and tried to clear his mind.

In 1925 Robert and Margaret were married in Glasgow University Chapel and George McLeod, later the founder of the Iona Community, and eventually Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland officiated. (George McLeod had been Adjutant of the battalion of the Argyles in which he and Robert both served.) They followed the social rites of the communities into which they were born, but they had their doubts, which they kept to themselves. The ties binding communities were more important than the formalism.

Robert then came to Wolverhampton to join Margaret who was assistant to her uncle who was in medical practice in Lea Road. They lived at first in Woodfield Avenue in Penn. Life was hard because it was the Depression, people needing the doctor often had no money and the the principal of the medical practice had be be bought out as Robert took it over. As the depression slackened, work began again on Clydebank and in 1934 Margaret went to see the Queen Mary launched from John Brown's Yard. On the wall of the surgery there was a map of Wolverhampton with every house, in which they had visited patients, marked with a blue pencil. There were very many. Professionally they had helped very many people and were familiar with the extremes of human suffering. Before 1938 (when sulphonamides appeared) there were very few of the modern drugs and morphine, aspirin and a few others were the staples.

Nevertheless, somehow there was still energy for the holding of literary evenings, where, after dinner friends would discuss a novel or a writer or poet. The children were too small and were firmly sent to bed.

The four children were born in the period 1926 to 1937 and Margaret did less work in the practice and picked up many social service jobs. In 1936 she became a Justice of the Peace in Wolverhampton and gradually worked up from being the most junior to becoming Chairman. The medical practice was successfully sold in 1938 and Robert took the leap in the dark to set up as a consultant. He had a lifelong connection with the Royal Hospital. Both Robert and Margaret worked for the medical inspection of factories and became familiar with the immense number of industrial enterprises in the area.

In 1939 Robert enlisted again, this time in the RAMC and was away from 1941 to VE day, serving again with distinction in Egypt, Palestine, Normandy and other theatres. Margaret had four children to fend for during the war and did innumerable public service jobs: Citizens Advice Bureau, Forces Canteen, Marriage Guidance Council, training of nurses, medical lectures for soldiers, Factories Inspectorate, the Juvenile Court and so on. She was co-opted as a Town Councillor as an independent but did not continue this after the war.

All their four children got excellent educations, attended universities and made good careers in the professions. How all this was done with the resources available is a mystery to them. The urges to know, to understand, to doubt authority, to travel life alone, were somehow inculcated.

After Robert's safe return in 1945 he set up again as a consultant and Margaret continued with more jobs. She was a Governor of the Grammar School and other schools. Some of these various voluntary jobs continued after Robert's retirement.

Particularly after retirement Robert and Margaret continued to develop an enormous network of friends, all over the world, with whom they corresponded. They were able to travel and, since their family were dispersed and were building new families in Australia and in California, visited one or another almost every year and were able to see other countries of the world. They traced the fate of remote relations who had emigrated, as about a third of the family in every generation has done.

Robert and Margaret did not engage in politics but contributed through their numerous personal friendships to the preservation of sanity in the world.

Robert died in 1981 and Margaret continued to live alone in the same house in Wolverhampton, with only the invaluable domestic help of Mrs. Annie Woodward who came in by the day. She entertained a steady flow of friends and relations. She followed the lives of her nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren and, no doubt feeling that the end was approaching, managed to see most in her last year. Only last year Margaret went by herself to visit her daughter and family in California.

Gradually mobility became less. The winters became more of a trial. She fell twice and injured herself quite severely. Deafness closed her in. She worked hard at her limitations. "You do not understand geriatrics till you get there" she insisted. Her mental faculties remained sharp and her handwriting almost unchanged. She continued to keep track of an immense number of people and their intricate relationships.

Finally she suffered an internal haemorrhage and was taken to Newcross Hospital with the evident marks of death. She was revived with transfusion and spent a final wonderful day speaking with some friends and relations and writing to others. She even contemplated recovery, but that night her body came to the end of the road and she died peacefully. Nobody by planning could have arranged matters better for herself and for all the others she loved. Of close relatives she lost almost none by premature death, but it was hard for her to outlive so many of her dearest friends.

Altogether Margaret was immensely fortunate in her whole life, but she worked and planned for it selflessly. It did not all come by chance. Happiness came, but by service to others and not by being sought directly.


Sheila Hodgkinson:

The Gathering of the Clan

It is four o'clock in the morning in California on the last day of August 1993. In Wolverhampton Mrs. Woodward has already been to the empty house in the Parklands. She will have taken the sheets off the beds and wiped the dusty floors where the oriental carpets used to lie. Some of the potted plants must already be drooping.

Just over three weeks ago, Mrs. Woodward came as usual but found Mother in bed, ill, pale and cold. Soon she was in hospital, bleeding somewhere internally. Alan and Sheila were summoned from London, Murray from somewhere in Texas. Blood transfusions revived Mother and she seemed better. She urged Alan and Sheila to continue their planned trip to America and China. He and Sheila returned to London.

On Wednesday, Mother's friends, Rosemary and John Cox, visited at the hospital along with Mrs. Woodward. "She was very bright", said Mrs. Woodward, "the brightness before dawn."

By phones across the world we heard that Mother died early on the Twelfth of August.

Murray had come back from America. Judith was returning from a trip to Russia with her Mother. Alan and Sheila sent notices and with Murray planned the funeral service, met solicitors and organised everything. Peter, Robert and I flew from San Francisco for a night in London before going on to Wolverhampton on Saturday. It would have been Mother's ninety-third birthday.

We stayed at the Parklands. Claire, Paul and Jaime came by train from Brighton, to stay the night at the Novotel in the town centre. It is wet and gray in Wolverhampton. Alison was in London waiting to meet Mary who had been delayed many hours in Melbourne.

On Sunday Alison and Mary arrive in Wolverhampton. Andrew and Wendy come up from London. The Birmingham Mackays came over for a family supper. Cathy had come from Paris, Adrian from New York. Sheila coped with everyone, producing regular meals for varying numbers of people. It was a good family gathering for Sunday evening. Andrew and Wendy stay at the Novotel.

Monday was sunny, the living room was cleared of surplus furniture and the people came. Rogan drove from London to Bury St. Edmunds to bring Bill on the long journey across country. They arrived, both somber in dark suits and ties, but glad to meet us all again. Barbel came alone from Charmouth where she was staying with Marie Louise. Agnes and her husband, Alan Bainbridge, came from Canterbury. Agnes' brother, John Lindsay, is living in Perth. He is not well enough to make the journey.

By two o'clock the family is assembled. The Parklands road is lined with cars. Two big black limousines take some of us to lead the slow procession through Tettenhall to Bushbury. At the entrance to the crematorium a crowd of friends and neighbours wait outside. White, pink and yellow flowers from the family lie on top of the coffin as Jennings' men carry it into the Chapel. All seats are filled, friends standing at the back.

"Who would true valour see?" Familiar words followed. The Minister spoke. Cathy read from Ecclesiastes, Murray read poems, Sunday night memories of Springfield House. Each person has their own special recollections as the final rites are observed.

We go out into the sunshine on the terrace overlooking the green. Many faces are unfamiliar to me.

The black limousines take us back more quickly to Finchfield where caterers serve tea and sandwiches. Tensions ease in the garden as family and friends mingle. Mother would have been in her element talking to everyone.

Goodbyes are difficult. Bill leaves early with Rogan to return to Bury St. Edmunds. He will be ninety in October. Barbel sets off for Charmouth. The Broomhill Mackays leave together, to disperse again next day.

We stay on at the house. Mary and Sheila write to friends. We sort out goods and chattels. Alison packs boxes. We take walks in the neighbourhood. David Berriman comes to the house, the real estate agent who is to handle the sale. Alan has been dealing with much paperwork.

Peter, Mary and I go to the Sheepwalks at Enville and view the English countryside Father loved so much. Mary leaves to visit friends in Wales.

We do our packing. Alan takes our luggage and other boxes in his car to London. Sheila, Peter and I walk away from the Parklands to get the bus to the station. We wait on the platform where so often Father and Mother left me to begin another journey to London and California, wondering each time when we shall meet again.

Mountain View, California. August 31, 1993

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