Joan Patricia Schwitzer Ph.D.

1925 - 2009

Eulogy to Joan Schwitzer

We are here today to celebrate the life of my mother Joan Schwitzer, and to mourn her passing.

My mother died peacefully at home in the afternoon of Saturday 19th September, aged 84, having for the preceding week or so been too weak to stand, and for the last few days being more or less asleep. My father Mat, my sisters Laura and Veronika, my niece Susan, and one of her many helpers Antonia were at her side.

Christians teach the inextricability of death from life, and scientists know that without death there would be no evolution: that in effect without death we would all still be amoeba.

But still it is no easier, and so we are here together today to share our great loss, to comfort each other, and to support my father Mat after 62 years together.

My mother had three bouts in hospital. The first period in 2005 was the most difficult, once septicaemia set in from a leg infection, but she showed that tremendous determination of hers, and over a period of about 6 months made a more-or-less full recovery, and was rewarded with a beautiful diamond wedding celebration in 2007, the satisfaction of watching Emma and Susan - the eldest of her 6 grandchildren - embark on fulfilling careers, and this year seeing the youngest of her four children - myself - reach 50.

We recognise now that our mother was a remarkable lady, an 'independent thinker', espousing politics - indeed a way of life - that were way ahead of her time. As children, we felt different, and sensed that our Mum was special: my sister Veronika recalls how Mum wore jeans long before they were mainstream; I could write a ban-the-bomb symbol before I'd finished learning the alphabet; anything that could be recycled within the house Mum christened "useful rubbish"; we had no television of course; and we were virtually brought up on compost! And the smallest room was adorned with Mum's campaign posters on the dangers of nuclear energy, so that at every call of nature one received a heavy dose of subliminal messaging for a call back to nature.

Mum had a driven and restless personality, much to the dismay of her parents, and my grandmother Eunice would often say "I do hope your mother is not overdoing things". But she was selfless and altruistic in the extreme, and her energy was put to nurture her family, to encourage and inspire us, and to help friends. Always positive, and always accepting of others, decisions seemed to torment her, for she hated to have to reject an option.

"Ama il tuo sogno se pure ti tormenta" is an Italian saying, meaning "Love your dream even if it torments you", and this was Joan.

So, as an only child, she longed for a largish family, and this is what she set about establishing (fulfilling too my father's need to replace his irreplaceable loss in the Holocaust). And having moved around the home counties as a teenager a bit too much for her liking, my mother yearned to put down roots, and once she had found Highgate some 57 years ago, this is just what she did: deep roots, staying throughout this time in the same house in Shepherds Hill, and making so many friends in Highgate.

And so we grew up in a stable and open house, with relatives and friends from all over the world, that enriched our childhood, and with our holidays and education shaped by your passions, Mum.

Anger was virtually alien to her, and on the one occasion I recall Mum showing any anger, the situation most certainly merited it. We were on a long train journey and a drunk slumped in the narrow corridor and obstructing the passageway caused a door to slam on my mother's hand. Very shortly afterwards, the bottle was made to make firm contact with the man's head, and its contents ended up all over him.

When not admonishing drunks, my mother had a unique knack for inspiring others, whether in her own fields of interest or others'.

So Astronomy and Mathematics were two of my passions, but not hers. And so it is that my most vivid memory of the annual Perseid meteor shower is when, perhaps 11 or 12 at the time, my mother in dressing gown woke me at around 2am and we had a wonderful view of one of nature's greatest spectacles, with my mother waiting patiently till I had had my fill of meteors or sleep got the better of me…

Or later as a teenager I might try and discuss with Mum the sheer power and beauty of the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, that every number can be expressed as a product of primes - and in a unique way! And whilst at the time I might have got frustrated that her retort was rarely deeply mathematical, I see now that her patience to hear me out, and her simple "well, you explained that very well, William" were just the way to inspire me on to greater things.

And so she nurtured us 4 children and encouraged us in our different pursuits as every perfect mother should.

But many others too, benefited so much from her power to inspire, her grandchildren of course, and all those she taught at St Michael's School, helping for a few years what we would now call 'special needs' children with their reading. And not least of course in the field of local history, which she championed with a passion, writing an intensely scholarly yet immensely readable history of St. Michael's School, and in founding the Hornsey Historical Society, planting an acorn, and only withdrawing from nurturing it when she was sure it was the firmly established oak tree which it is today. And she was so proud, yet still modest in the extreme, when the British Association for Local History presented her with an award for personal achievement, which she collected in person in June this year from Friends House on the Euston Road.

So we thank you, Mum, for your love, your encouragement, your inspiration, that have made your family what we are today, helped so many others, and established local history in Highgate. And I know that, though in later years you were still restless to do more, that you looked back with satisfaction on what you had achieved and on the family that you had brought up, and so in the closing stages of your life found a degree of peace and tranquillity.

I know that my mother would want me to thank all who helped her these last few years, for the devotion of my father, who never missed a day to visit her in the Whittington throughout her times in hospital, and for all the help from my sisters Laura and Veronika. And a particular thanks to my cousins Monika and Marek for their help, support and love, to Susan my niece who has been living with my parents and helped no end, and to the many other carers and friends that have supported my mother.

And so, as we say goodbye, Mum, know that we love you with all our heart, and miss you so much.

And by the way - you did make all the right decisions.

Mum, may you rest in peace.

William Schwitzer, September 2009