By Stephen Jourdan
At 10.30 in the evening of Tuesday 16 July 1929, a baby girl was born in Düsseldorf in Germany. She was named Clara, after her grandmother, and Rita, which was the name her parents really liked, and which she was always called. For the next 3½ years, her mother kept a journal of her life. Let me read you a couple of extracts, translated from the original German.
At 11 months: “Rita is a very observant lively and intelligent child. She is a delight, always cheerful and loving”. Nothing changed there.
At 12 months: “She eats with good appetite and likes everything that is given”. At 2 years: “She eats almost anything and appreciates food. Particularly fruit, cake and chocolate”. This was the beginning of a life long habit.
At 13 months: “She is not tearful or self pitying. If she falls or knocks herself she rises unaided and carries on.” Here too, the child was mother to the woman. I cannot remember my mother ever expressing any self pity. She had some pretty hard knocks in her life, but every time she would rise and carry on.
When she was 8, in 1937, her father, who was a doctor, got a post in the Department of Physiology at Cambridge. Mum had to learn English, and settle into an English school – the Perse school for girls – at a time when Germans were not especially popular in this country. The family moved into an enormous house called Southacre, which was going cheap because it required a huge amount of maintenance. It had central heating, but this was not much good because coal was rationed during the war and my mother and her family would huddle around tiny stoves in the freezing Cambridge winters.
After leaving school, my mother obtained a job working at the Agricultural Research Council at Babraham, near Cambridge. This suited her as it gave her plenty of time to indulge in the great love of her life at the time – riding. I remember when young finding an old box in a cupboard and opening it. It was full of rosettes that my mother had won for show jumping and 3 day eventing. By the time I found it, in the 1960s, she had been forced to give up riding, because of a back problem. I remember asking her if she missed it. Yes, she said, I loved it, but you have to look forward, not backwards. “If she falls or knocks herself she rises unaided and carries on.”
In the 1950s, the children of family friends came over from South Africa to work in England for two years – Eva and Werner Jourdan. Werner got to know Rita and was very taken with her. He he did not say anything at that time to her. However, after he went back to South Africa he communicated his feelings – not to my mother, but to my grandmother.
This is what she wrote in her memoirs: “Werner Jourdan had some girl friends but I had the impression that he preferred to marry Rita …. Having intimated Werner’s intentions I invited her to join me on my trip to South Africa the following year. They took to each other at once and got married after four weeks”. That is what you call an accelerationship.
That was in April 1958, when my mother was 28. They stayed in South Africa for two years. In March 1960, South African police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters in the township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people. My parents were not willing to go on living in a country where something like that could happen, and moved to England, where they settled in Stanmore, first in a little house in Winscombe Way, and then a couple of years later in 7 Bowls Close, which they bought off plan for £5,000, and where they remained ever after.
In the early 1960s a lot of new things came into the world. The Beatles, mini skirts – and my brother Paul and me – although not in that order. It was just after Paul was born that my father started suffering from serious fits. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was operated on. After the operation Dad was better than before, but his life was dramatically affected. His short term memory was shot. He could not drive. He found reading difficult, and writing impossible. He went from having a stimulating and responsible job as a graduate mechanical engineer to work he hated – sweeping factory floors, and working on an assembly line. It was incredibly frustrating for him, and terribly hard for my mother – this was not the man she had married. Many would have given up on the marriage, but not her. “If she falls or knocks herself she rises unaided and carries on.”
Instead, she decided to get a job to help support the family. She signed up for teacher training college, and qualified as a teacher, after which she worked at Kenmore Park School. She was a natural teacher, and loved her work. She moved on to specialising in what was then called remedial reading – helping children who found learning to read tricky. When I was 10, in 1972, she wanted me to sit the entrance exam for Haberdashers’ School. She decided to coach me, and some friends. This was a great success, and she carried on her coaching practice for the next 44 years, both while she was teaching and after she retired. She never once advertised for a pupil, and whenever one child stopped, there were always more parents who had been recommended to her. She thoroughly enjoyed coaching, and would often talk to me about her children and how they were doing. She took great pleasure in her retirement, which gave her more time to see her many friends and to go on a variety of exotic foreign trips with her brother Peter, to whom she was always very close.
I’m not sure when Mum first came to Stanmore Baptist Church. I came here in the 1970s when I was a teenager and so she was clearly coming then. This church community was a very important part of her life, which she loved. Others can say more about what she meant to you, but for her, you, and the faith that you share with her, were a source of great joy. You were a wonderful support to her when she had her first heart attack, and triple bypass operation, in 2003, and when my father died in 2010. Thank you for all that you did for her. She loved you and I know you loved her.
We knew she had an issue with one of her heart valves, but were told it was not serious. About a week and a half before she died, she came to lunch with us on Sunday, as she generally did. She told me she had been feeling short of breath and finding it difficult to walk. Her reaction to that was that she said she wanted to get something she could exercise on. So I took her to John Lewis and we chose something suitable, which Paul and I gave her as an early Christmas present. Some people, at the age of 86 if they found walking difficult would get a wheelchair. My Mum got a cross-trainer.
Her death came as a terrible shock and was very difficult for us; but for her, it was exactly how she wanted her end to come. She did not fear death. She did have some concern about becoming an invalid. In her handbag, she carried a note saying “please do not resuscitate me”, although it was buried deep beneath the many paper handkerchiefs, pens and chocolate bars she carried with her, so I doubt that any paramedic would ever have found it. She lived her life to the full from the beginning to the end and her life came to its conclusion in exactly the way she would have wished. From beginning to end, she lived up to her mother’s early description of her: “She is a delight, always cheerful and loving”.
Paul and I – and all of us – will miss her enormously.