Obituary of Eszter Lidia Katalin (Gyapay) Schwenke
Hungarian-born athlete, gardener, and librarian, Eszter Lidia Katalin (Gyapay, 1937) Schwenke, three-time cancer survivor, died peacefully on Friday, November 17th, 2023 in her still-new room at Windsor Court after months of heart and health challenges.
Eszter was the beloved sister to Csaba (died 2017), István (died 2021); wife of 62 years to Jülf Schwenke; mother to Andrea (Herb Wyile, died 2016) and Richard (died 2002); grand-mother to Hannah, Anikó (William McRae); great-grandmother to Clara; sister-in-law to Margrit and Christine, and aunt to Ilona and Julia.
She will be greatly missed by her Wostawea xc-ski friends, former UNB colleagues and students, and family and friends far and wide.
Bring your stories to share at her memorial gathering Saturday November 25th, 2023 at 1:00 pm at McAdam’s Funeral Home.
For the many who are unable to attend the in-person analog memorial on November 25th, 2023, below is some additional information about Eszter's incredible life.
Born to Klára (Schubert, 1912-1988) and Ede Gyapay (1907-1998) in Léva, northern Hungary, Eszter Lídia Katalin (Gyapay, 1937) Schwenke was the middle child between two brothers, Csaba (1935-2017) and István (1941-2021), and athletic from the outset. Growing up amid vineyards, orchards and gardens, she was a member of the swim team and won medals in track and field for shot put and javelin. During the war and communist takeover, the family was evicted from their home and relocated to Móhr where they shared a house with another family. Around 1950 they moved to Tata, where Eszter completed her Senior Matric. At that time, Hungarian schoolchildren were required to learn Russian and encouraged to snitch on their parents and neighbours. Eszter greatly admired the courage of some of her teachers who dared tell the class about the works of Hungarian poets who had been censored, and she and her family continued to go to Church though that was a crime (the boys to the Lutheran Church and the girls to the Calvinist Church as the tradition was that girls would follow their mothers and boys their fathers). Because of the new regime, she was not allowed to pursue her dream of studying medicine. By 1956 several family lives were at risk so they fled across the Alps in the night without bidding anyone, including their aged grandmother, goodbye. Eszter wore her tracksuit and carried a very few items in her small gym bag, as if she were going to practice. After a short time in Austria, where they were reunited with Csaba, the family emigrated to Canada, landing in Saint John, NB. While her parents were in quarantine, Eszter went to Ontario with family friends, where she got her first jobs working in the TB Sanatorium and washing dishes at Alma College while trying to learn English. Her favourite job was minding the Edison boys on Lake Simcoe over the summer months; they taught her a lot, and some of the dresses that Mrs Edison passed on to her have been passed on down two generations now. Eventually the family settled in the Montreal area. Eszter received a BA (’61 and Bachelor of Library Science [’62] from McGill, ), where she fortuitously also took German courses, a language she would also teach her children. She met and married her German husband of 62 years, Jülf-Tammen Drawes Schwenke in her final year, and they were married in 1961. Devoted appreciators of music, they used to buy one record a month and listen to them on Eszter’s Perpetuum Ebener suitcase record player.
To be closer to her parents and out of the city, Eszter and Jülf moved to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue the year following the birth of their daughter Andrea in 1964, where they lived for a time in an apartment in an old Hudson’s Bay Trading Post that had fabulous deep windowsills. They enjoyed getaways in the Laurentians on Bethlen Lake, a Hungarian community near Labelle founded by Eszter’s father, among others.
Their son Richard was born in 1967 and soon after they bought an old farmhouse belonging to Stella Coates on Brookbury Road in Bury. Upon this little piece of paradise in the Eastern Townships Eszter recreated some aspects of her family home in Léva, growing huge gardens on weekends and summer holidays in the country. During the winter they created wonderful cross-country ski loops and particularly loved the runs down Batley’s and Johnny’s hills. The lovely little cemetery a bit up the road has a marvellous view overlooking the fields and hills; there Eszter will be laid to rest, alongside Richard (2002) and many dear neighbours met over 50 years, who grew the best corn and made the best maple syrup.
Both Eszter’s children attended French school, which at that time required special permission. In 1977, soon after the language laws came into effect in Québec, the Schwenkes moved to Fredericton, then known as the City of Stately Elms. They took up residence on the part of Saunders Street formerly known as Goose Lane. Eszter’s flowers attracted attention and delightful conversations with passersby.
Her first librarian jobs had been at Vanier College and the McGill Medical Library, and then she joined the staff at MacDonald College where she gained tenure shortly before the move to NB. She worked for a few years at the York Regional Library where she was instrumental in building the music collection and then got a job at UNB. Before long, she became Head of the Science and Forestry library, where she had a wonderful team of colleagues and ran searches for all manner of research projects. In over twenty years of service, she never took a sabbatical. She was one of the early proponents of bringing in computers and was already using email in the 1990s, a boon for remaining in touch while in isolation for various cancer treatments, calling herself a Digi-Bird. There is a special tree in Odell Park she liked to visit and credited with her many recoveries. Stretched as she often was, especially in the last several years of caring for Jülf after his traumatic brain injury, Eszter was reliably positive and appreciative of beauty and goodness, was amazing at remembering to connect with friends’ and family on their special days or in times of need, and found reason to laugh until her last day.
The daughter of a champion fencer, Eszter had strong working hands and was light on her feet, be she dancing at the Hungarian Ball in Montreal, or with Fredericton’s Scottish Country dancers, or waltzing in the living room. She and Jülf made a wonderful dancing pair. Her feet pushed her skis to glide along sections of the Canadian Ski Marathon (100 miles from Lachute to Ottawa), the Maritime Marathon, the North 100, and many a Loppet, from the early skiing with kids paced days of to later runs done solo or with friends. She was a proud and enthusiastic member of the Wostawea Ski Club and served on the Membership committee for many years. Her feet, which hurt so much later in life, took her hiking the White Mountains and Appalachian trail, nimbly climbed Mount Katahdin, where she inched her way across the Knife’s edge with trepidation. Most remarkably, they carried her to realize her dream of climbing Gros Morne rather than succumbing to one of her earlier palliative pronouncements over three rounds of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Her many miraculous recoveries from near certain death were an inspiration to many.
Her father was an agronomist and her mother a teacher, superlative cook, and creative needlewoman. Eszter had two green thumbs – and fingers too – and somehow grew vegetables and fruits in several gardens in two provinces simultaneously. Her matrilineal line was renowned for its culinary savoir faire, and her mother Klára was written up with acclaim in the Montreal Gazette for her delectable cuisine. Eszter’s family enjoyed her repertoire and inventions, and her many friends loved being invited for meals they wouldn’t get anywhere else. Jülf complimented her often and provided fine wine pairings. When she knew she couldn’t survive yet another round of chemotherapy, she took the alternate route, travelling to the Kushi institute outside Boston, to learn all about Macrobiotic cooking and philosophy. She who could whip up a delicious meal with whatever was to hand in under half an hour, marveled at how learning never ends, and how many ways there are to chop carrots; she learned to chew her soup and drink her rice.
Eszter loved her currant and gooseberry bushes and considered every plant a miracle. She admired the perfect patterns in slices of fruits and vegetables. Trees were her very special friends. She was greatly saddened to have the Elm in Wilmot Park cut this past winter. She had named the tree Krúszi because she identified with the trunk and branches’ gnarled and crinkled state, saying how much they had both been through in their lives. The last time she went outside this November, she was pleased to spot a blooming dandelion in the lawn.
Due to heart failure, Afib, gout, Raynaud’s and a stroke, her last summer was a difficult one. Though she already talked of being ready to go in the spring, she persisted and overcame, learning to walk a third time in her life, this time with a walker and supervision. For such an independent and giving person, it was a challenge to be so reliant on others, and it was heart-breaking not to be able to return to her garden and house on Saunders Street.
She and her family are deeply grateful and appreciative for all the help she received at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital, especially on the Cardiac Care Unit and 3NE, the amazing Rehab unit. Having no family doctor made things so much more complicated, so special thanks are due to those doctors who stretched further to see her through the lurches. Thanks is also due to the wonderful Oncology staff in Saint John who saw her through over three decades of cancer care and follow up. And thanks too to the kindnesses and special attentions of the staff at Windsor Court Retirement Home who made her two and half months there as comfortable as possible. The past months also would have been even more impossible without the loving attention of her fast friends and her good-spirited and devoted Klister Sisters.
When asked whether she had any wishes for donations to go to any particular places, Eszter said that people could choose whatever they felt was appropriate. For those who are at a loss, or wish for alternatives to the many medical options, may we suggest the Trans-Canada Trail, which many contributed to on Richard’s behalf, or the United Hungarian Fund. Anyone wishing to connect directly with Andrea can do so via the email at www.widowwyile.com