Norma Falk. Nechama bas Chaim Eliyahu v Esther Chaya.
My mother, ninety eight years old, almost ninety nine on this earth. Alastair and I were blessed to have her for so long, and despite her deteriorating health over the last three years,a difficult situation for a fiercely independent woman, it is still very hard to say goodbye.
Mum was one of four sisters, each one elegant, intelligent and warm. Yet each so different from one another. They were close in age, each two years apart, and they remained close with age despite physical distance.
Brought up in Sheffield, in a home full of love, a home with an open door for a Shabbos or Yomtov meal for friend and stranger alike, she imbibed and internalised this sense of caring not just for family but for others. Her sense of duty came with a sense of what is correct, but was also mixed with a love of music and the arts. Like many of her generation, she was an intense admirer of the late Queen. But she also had, many years ago, a remarkable cameo appearance in a full-page photo in a British magazine, taken by a famous American photographer for an article “People who look like other People”. She featured as the Queen!
a nurse at the first war crimes trial
Her sense of elegance and duty was mingled with a sense of adventure. She was fifteen when the Second World War broke out, and by the end of the war she was a fully-trained nurse, first working among the impoverished Yorkshire coal miners in a small hospital, and then joining the British Army where she was sent to post-war Germany to look after wounded British soldiers, and where she assisted in running a blood bank. When in Germany, she was given the job as a nurse at the first war crimes trial, that of the murderous guards, doctors and commandant of Bergen -Belsen. It is likely that, with her passing, the last British observer of this trial is now gone.
She returned to Sheffield after her tour of duty and, in 1948, on a coach ride to a Maccabi Jewish social in Manchester, she met Joe Falk, a young, handsome Jewish doctor with an Edinburgh brogue, also recently demobbed from the British Army. Within several months they were engaged and they married, in Sheffield, in 1949. It was a blissful marriage, tragically cut short by my father’s early death in 1965, leaving her with two young sons, and deeply grieving for many years. But, despite this, she threw herself into assuring that Alastair and I would get the best education and upbringing. She worked very hard to do so: opening a small dress boutique, working as a hospital phlebotomist and moving to London in 1967 where she lived for a few years until Alastair finished high school. She then returned to Sheffield to look after her aging parents, seeing to their every need with love and affection.
But she did not just give to her family—among many other volunteer activities she was a regular, long-time volunteer in Sheffield’s in-patient hospice where terminally ill patients, young and old, spent their last weeks and months in comfort. At one stage, she noticed that visiting relatives traveling there by bus had to wait for their return trip in the rain. Incensed, she campaigned to the Sheffield City Council to provide them with a bus shelter, and against strong odds she prevailed.
singing in the chorus in Italy, with Pavarotti as the soloist
She loved to travel, often as part of an international opera group, and her highlight was singing in the chorus in Italy, with Pavarotti as the soloist. On another occasion, when visiting her sisters in Cleveland, Ohio, they drove with her to Niagara Falls and crossed easily on to the Canadian side. However, she had neglected to bring her passport on the car trip and the United States Border agents would not let her back in. Stuck on the Canadian side, she loudly proclaimed herself a British citizen who was visiting her sister in America. Sensing the lack of response from the agents to that plea, she demanded that they call “The Chief Rabbi of Canada”, at which stage she was immediately returned across the border. The US agents had met their match!
My mum was selfless. As a young professional in 1977, I was thinking of spending two years in America, but was reticent to move so far away. But she insisted. She had spoken to someone in the USA who knew of the doctor I was considering going to train under, and who had told her that it was a great opportunity. From then on, no argument was broached.
I went, and I stayed, and her regular trips to Boston to see her grandchildren Leora, Avital and Shira (and, I suppose , Joni and me) were highlights. She particularly enjoyed our sedarim on Pesach, adding her comments, singing beautifully and occasionally giving me that disapproving look “Rodney! Why are you eating so much matza at once!? We never did it like that in Sheffield! You’ll choke!!”
He closeness to her geographically distant grandchildren can be gauged by the fact that two of my daughters flew in from New York this morning for the levaya and the third was deeply upset that she could not make it. She loved her grandchildren, our three daughters and Alastair and Judi’s two sons and daughter, Joshua, Benji and Dina, and she lived to have eleven great-grandchildren. But she was not only her grandchildren’s grandmothe. Whenever she was in Boston all my children’s friends knew her as “Grandma Norma” and still refer to her as that to this day. They loved to chat with her and she loved being with them.
Only when she was well past ninety did she have the first of several medical problems, leading to her move to London, where Ali and Judi cared for her unsparingly. First for a year in their house and then, since she still insisted on her independence, in a beautifully, newly bult self-decorated apartment in Jewish Care’s Wohl House. Then, after a prolonged hospitalisation, she spent the last two years of her life in Anita Dorfman House, where the care from her nurses and carers was spectacular. Some of them are here today, and I want to personally thank you, especially Sheki. Thank you one and all from the bottom of my heart. I know, as she told me many times, that she really, deeply, appreciated all of you.
her talent for affection, her warmth and her gift for friendship
I could go on for much longer, about her love of reading, watching University Challenge, playing tennis into her eighties, swimming, and volunteering for those less fortunate. About the residents in her Sheffield apartment, where she lived in her mid-eighties who all loved her and spoke so highly of her. But time dictates that those details will have to remain as memories. So let me finish by sharing with you an email Alastair and I received yesterday from an old Sheffield friend of hers. I shall read just an excerpt:
“…. she was always elegantly dressed and her house was immaculate. She always managed to look glamorous and at least twenty years younger than she actually was, and that stayed with her well into her nineties. Of course, she was immensely talented in other respects. She had a glorious singing voice and a terrific stage presence that graced the Kol Rinah choir and Maccabi Players. She gave a lot to the Sheffield community, especially, I recall, as a leading light of Daughters of Zion, and her bravery after your father’s awful sudden death was legendary. She never allowed self-pity to swamp her and she managed to rebuild her life with courage and total commitment to you boys. I suppose that, more than anything, my abiding memories of Norma will be her talent for affection, her warmth and her gift for friendship which seemed to come so naturally to her. Certainly, she always greeted me as if I were her best long lost friend and in doing so, made me feel special. You have lost a most wonderful mother, but you will have equally wonderful memories to sustain you, of when you were young together.”
Mum, These few words are not just a hesped on your death, but are meant as a short tribute to your life. You were not just my mother, but also my friend, and you guided me so many times in my life, knowingly or not. I am proud to have had the privilege of being your son. We will all miss you, but we look back proudly at your life as an example of dignity, caring, empathy and compassion mixed with a love of life and family. You are sorely missed but now, after fifty eight years since his passing, at last you will find rest with the undying love of your life, my father.
T’hi Zichronah Livracha
The video of this hesped can be viewed at
Sitting shiva has been hard . Not because the chairs are particularly uncomfortable nor because my mum was in effect the only parent I knew, since my father died when I was very young. Certainly not because of the lack of comfort or support. On the contrary I have been overwhelmed by people’s kindness (and the well oiled machine that is the shiva meals rota). But for the rather odd reason that during shiva we sit, that’s what we do, as the visitors arrive , comfort the mourners and leave, and my mother , who was always a stickler for good manners, taught me to stand up when a lady enters or leaves the room.
always insistent we did things in the right way
My mother was always insistent we did things in the right way. Her lessons were a reminder of a wonderful line from one of her favourite playwrights, Alan Bennett, when in ‘Forty Years On’ the newly appointed headteacher asked the departing headmaster, “Don’t you think your standards are a little old fashioned?”. “Of course they are old fashioned”, he replies, “that’s what makes them standards.” But while she had clear standards, old fashioned was a description no-one would have used about my always young looking, always active Mum. For my mother, doing things properly offered , I think, a sense of order and permanence in a life that had been turned upside down for her when she lost my father. He was forty eight, she was forty, my brother was fifteen and I was eleven. It was an event that in some ways drove the rest of her life. It was the reason we moved to London to be near one of her three sisters ( she liked Chekov too) and I think a key reason she went back later to her home of Sheffield, where part of her could pick up at least some of the threads of her past. And it left a deep grief.
adventurous, vivacious (one of the highest compliments she could pay anyone) and charming
I read something about grief recently : ‘grief isn’t just sadness , it’s a mix of emptiness and guilt and anger and forlornness and loneliness’, and I think for my mother all those were true. On top of which she had the tribulations of being both parents to two boys. But in the manner of how she picked up her life and carried on, it was not simply for the sake of ensuring we had everything we needed, but because of who she was at heart; adventurous, vivacious (one of the highest compliments she could pay anyone) and charming, and she lived a long life that was full, open and incredibly active – the tennis playing, opera singing, world travelling, amateur dramatic acting, business building, blood taking (professionally, in a hospital!) mum and grandma elegant, gracious and always with a string of pearls. Above all, a lady.
And so we remember her tonight with love, and a huge sense of gratitude and admiration. A lady for whom (she was quite a stickler for grammar too) it seems only right to stand, as she leaves this mortal room.