Margaret Leibbrandt, long-time resident and familiar face in Primrose Hill, died in September. She lived in Jacqueline House in the Oldfield estate for over fifteen years. Friend and local resident Judy Rich remembers her.
Margaret and I shared a love of writing. I first noticed Margaret in 2007. At that time, I did not know her name. I called her Walking Woman and wrote about her in my writing class:
Walking woman is my name for you
I pass you often in your marathon around Primrose Hill
Do you see me?
You walk calmly and slowly, hands by your side
Gnarled, veiny and brown. l like your weathered face.
Wise Walking Woman – I want to know your story.
Little did I know then that Margaret’s stories would unfold for me, but not for many years. Margaret recovered, miraculously some say, from her wandering years when she suffered from depression. Years later she would write to me about it.
“Depression – the blight of many lives has been the blight of my life intermittently. Blight is a clear word, it rhymes with flight, fright, bright and light . . . and fight, and that’s what I do – not with happiness pills or endless words but with chutzpah and colour. My paintbox is poetry, reading, people and hope.”
And in another letter:
“So what colour are feelings? Depression is a dark blue bird, disappointment is grey, hope is silver like the moon, anger looks like a popped black balloon, golden are the sunshine times – love is the rainbow when all colours shine.”
In 2014, almost seven years after my first sightings of her in the neighbourhood, Margaret wrote a letter to our cat, Miss Kitty. We did not have a cat flap and Miss Kitty would wait patiently on the step for a door opener. Margaret would stop and talk to her on her early morning walks to the post office for milk and cigarettes. One day she slipped a letter through our mailbox with a love letter and a cat nip mouse addressed to ‘the cat on the doorstep’.
“You are adorable. I love your pink nose, white boots and emerald eyes that look down on me from your top step. I miss you when you are not there.”
Margaret was thoughtful enough to put her return address on the envelope and I replied as ‘Miss Kitty’s mother’. A tsunami of cards, words, letters, poems and memories poured forth from Margaret over the years. Even though we lived three blocks away from each other, we shared the love of letter-writing. Margaret’s letters were never dull, although it would take ages to read them, my husband Richard carefully decoding her artful handwriting.
Her letters were funny, thoughtful, curious, courageous, spiteful and sometimes angry: rants about Trump and Boris Johnson, funny stories of friends and family, her neighbours, memories from her childhood in South Africa, reviews of the latest books she’d read, her childhood romance with Roy Rogers and her love of learning. Margaret’s letters would be woven with lines from her favourite poems and dotted with child-like drawings.
Margaret wrote letters to her favourite poets and well-known authors – including Wendy Cope, Andrew Marr, Clive James, Alan Bennett – and often received handwritten letters in return, which was unheard of in these days of computers and email.
Margaret loved Primrose Hill. Here is what she wrote in late summer when she knew her time in Primrose Hill was limited.
“Muffins and coffee at 10 pm. A quiet evening at home after a happy day sitting at my table outside Shepherds. It’s important to me that I don’t become an invalid. My world is small and safe. I like going out with my chariot, popping into the bookshop for chats with Alice and Jessica, buying cards, Rageeta’s welcoming smile at the Post Office, seeing Dr Jonathan at the surgery. He will look after me well and see that Marie Curie has a place for me … later on … before the end.
And walking home this evening, alongside my hill, I watch people passing by on their way to Lemonia, dinner or home. This is my home place, I love Primrose Hill. Amazing that it took one small cat to introduce us after all these years. Our lives now connected and full of love and goodness.”
Sadly that one small cat – Miss Kitty – passed away several years ago; but Margaret continued to refer to her as the root of our friendship.
Margaret did not talk much about her faith, but used poetry, writing and hymns to reflect. I know she had a strong belief and took her religion seriously, often attending St Mark’s church. One day near the end we joked about Miss Kitty guiding her through the pearly gates, and when I asked if I could quote her, she was shocked: “Oh no,” she said in her wonderful raspy voice, “that would be too sacrilegious.”
In her last days Margaret enthusiastically planned her funeral with Ros Miskin at St Mark’s, selecting her favourite poems and hymns and designating friends to read them. She wanted the service her way ? and that was just like her: feisty, independent and bossy to the end!
Her friend Ruth Rabinowitz said: “From her humble pad in Primrose Hill she created a grand life, spanning old and new, presidents, paupers, aggressors and aggrieved. Her love of words lifted all our spirits.”
A JustGiving site has been set up to raise money for a commemorative bench in Primrose Hill. To contribute, go to: