Barbara J Zitwer talks to Bookbag about meeting the ladies at the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond on the day her mother died

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Barbara J Zitwer talks to Bookbag about meeting the ladies at the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond on the day her mother died

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Summary: Barbara J Zitwer on meeting the ladies at the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond in London on the day her mother died in New York and why these women, alongside her mother were transformed into the main characters for her debut novel, The J M Barrie Ladies' Swimming Society.
Date: 18 April 2012

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Barbara J Zitwer on meeting the ladies at the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond in London on the day her mother died in New York and why these women, alongside her mother were transformed into the main characters for her debut novel, The J M Barrie Ladies' Swimming Society.

I can say that the day my Mother died and the day I swam at the pond did change my life.

I was stepping onto a plane bound for London from Frankfurt when I received the phone call my mother had died in NYC.

I was caught between time zones and countries by the time I touched down at Heathrow and had to decide about postponing my mother’s funeral. What should I do? What would my mother want? She believed in her Jewish faith strongly and would want to be buried the next day. My sisters, and large extended family and friends back home had taken care of all the arrangements so the only question remained whether I should delay the burial or not. They didn’t need me there to do anything and my mother was gone. My Mother had warned me of her imminent departure and it was her who had pushed me onto the Europe bound flight, insisting I fly to Frankfurt for the yearly book fair and leave her bed side. She had waited until my sisters were gone from the hospital room and she smiled at me and said, if you don’t go, I will kill myself! She added, You know I won’t be here when you come back. “ Where will you be? I begged to know. With the biggest smile I ever saw on her face that seemed thirty years younger than her age, she whispered, I’m going home. And I knew exactly what she meant. So, I chose to let her funeral go forward without my attendance.

I had always had a very difficult relationship with my Mother, it was not until she got ill and then I saw her every day. My mother could be exasperating, bullheaded and impossible to argue with or talk to. She was like a workhorse and not ashamed to say it. Her stamina and drive were overwhelming and I definitely inherited those traits from her. Two weeks before her death from cancer and extremely ill by all accounts, she went shopping and bought an entire new wardrobe, signed a lease on a new office space that was ground floor so she wouldn’t have to walk up three flights of stairs and she simply forged ahead and never stopped. That is what I had to do.

My decision to keep going, to allow her burial to take place as I believe she would want, led me to discover the Ladies Pond in Hampstead Heath. On that beautiful and sad October afternoon, I gazed at the serene outdoor pond that is surrounded by foliage which keeps it a secret to anyone who isn’t specifically looking, I met a group of elderly ladies who were swimming in the freezing water. They invited me to join them. I had never met any of them before but they looked so familiar, they were like silver haired angels. May Allen and Wynn Cornwell had been swimming at the ladies pond for over fifty years together. They were laughing, giggling, splashing and happy. They seemed ageless and hearty, full of energy and youth. Who were these old women who had never grown up?

They seemed more like characters out of Peter Pan than octogenarians who were worried about aging. I borrowed a bathing costume and dove into the water to join in and it hit me - these women here in England were so much like my mother it was as if they were cut from the same cloth. As I walked away from my first swim at the Ladies Pond, I smiled and shook my head looking up to the sun in the cloudy sky, I felt my mother was with me that day - You've given me a story Mum, and now I'm going to have to write it.