Shirley David

Shirley David

22 March 1936
12 March 2022
Welwyn Garden City
Words by
Keren David, Alun David and Deborah Nathan Shirley's children

I’m going to talk about our mother, Shirley David nee Selbey, on behalf of Dad, my brother Alun and my sister Deborah, and my aunts Marian and Sylvia. This is a speech that I’ve been dreading because it means that we’ve lost someone so special, so full of love, so much the centre of our family that we can hardly imagine life without her. But I’m also privileged to have an opportunity to tell you just how Mum was so special, and about just some of the things she achieved. I can’t promise to be in any way comprehensive because there is just so much to say.

Mum was someone who gave a lot and was much loved in return. Seeing her in these last weeks, when she was desperately ill, we all noticed how she always had a smile for everyone, how she expressed gratitude to every single person who did anything for her, how she assured us that she was ‘fine’ and a ‘fraud’, how she made jokes to cheer us up. She even – and I still can’t believe this – told us her only two rude jokes, which admittedly weren’t very rude – but were very funny.

She came out of hospital a month ago, knowing that she had come home to die. She wasted no time on self-pity, her only sorrow was in leaving Dad and leaving us. Over the last month she gave us a masterclass in how to face death with grace and courage. She has given us shining memories of her humour, her sweet nature, and her ability to make everyone around her fall in love with her. It was truly humbling to witness. She even timed her passing to when the district nurse was there to look after us, and when we were gathered around her bed with Dad holding her hand, telling her how much he loved her, as he did every single day.

A week ago, she and Dad celebrated their sixty-third wedding anniversary. Their love story is legendary in the family. They met at a party. When I say ‘met’ I mean that Dad looked across a crowded room and fell instantly in love with a beautiful woman with an elegant neck. ‘That’s the woman I am going to marry,’ he said to himself. He then waged a campaign to prove his devotion – attending her choir rehearsals, getting down on his knees to propose at every party. At first she said no …and no…. again and again, but – she would tell us: ‘He wore me down’. And also: ‘He was just so nice’.

Aim for the Top, Have as Much Fun as You Can and Just Muddle Through

Mum was the middle sister of three girls, the daughters of Hymie and Kitty Selbey of Kingsbury. Growing up she felt like the gawky, awkward one sandwiched between super glamorous older sister Marian and super cute younger sister Sylvia. We believed this story until we saw pictures of her as a young woman. She may have felt like an ugly duckling, but she grew into a swan. She was just stunning. Not surprisingly, before she even met Dad, she had broken a few hearts.

When Mum was born, and her father went to shul to give her her Hebrew name there was a muddle. Her parents had decided to call her after a favourite aunt – Steshie – and chose the name Shirley to go with it. But up on the bima, her father was told ‘Steshie isn’t a name’. Instead, the minyan men settled on Marsha as her Hebrew name – because it was March. We can only imagine the scenes when her father arrived home and confessed that his daughter had a completely random name.

But March, it turned out was a significant month for Mum. She was born on March 22 1936. Her beloved husband Joe shared the same birthday – albeit eight years older. They married on March 4 1959. Their first child – me – was born on March 13, four years later. And, of course, now she has died in March as well.

She was born just before the Second World War – there’s a cruel irony in the timing of her death, as she was very worried in her last weeks by the news of the war in Ukraine, asking us for updates every day. ‘Don’t worry,’ we told her. ‘But I do worry!’ she said. Her early years were spent as an evacuee. She and her mother and sisters moved to the countryside, while their father stayed in London. Then they returned to London. Mum used to tell the story of the time when they were in their house in Kingsbury, and they heard a German doodlebug overhead. Huddled under the dining table, they heard the engine cut out, which meant that a bomb was about to fall. Certain she was about to die, she sank her teeth into her sister Marian’s leg.

But the bomb didn’t fall, they all survived, and she had to face the consequences.

an excellent radiographer, who went on to highly technical work specialising in brain X rays

Having gone to lots of different primary schools, Mum went to North London Collegiate School which she absolutely loved, and throughout our school days often told us how perfect it was – so much so that I have always nurtured an unreasonable envy of anyone who went there.

She would have loved to have studied to be a doctor or pharmacist, but her parents were not keen on her going to university, so instead she took a medical foundation course and then trained as a radiographer at the Middlesex Hospital. She was an excellent radiographer, who went on to highly technical work specialising in brain X rays – and she was invited to move to America to teach at a school for radiography. But instead she was persuaded – by that very nice man Joe David, who kept proposing at parties – to get married and leave London for Welwyn Garden City where she become the one and only radiographer in the town’s cottage hospital, trundling around heavy equipment. In her later years – when her own bones started to crumble and her joints needed replacing – she was always fascinated by the advances in X ray and scanning technology. We called her the bionic woman because she had two knee replacements and three new shoulders – ordeals she faced with her typical fortitude.

She gave up her career as a radiographer when she became a mother. She was a brilliant home maker – her jam strudel was an iconic dish which I will now have to learn to make. She went to wood-work classes to make toys for us. She was such a good nurse that I loved being ill because of the superb care on offer. And she found out what interested us and encouraged us to pursue those interests. For me (Keren) that meant she bought me a lot of books, and she let me dictate my earliest stories to her because she could write faster than me. I became a storyteller by profession, and there is no one on earth whom I enjoyed telling stories to, more than Mum.

She was also great at the smaller details of family life. We sang a lot. We laughed even more. And she managed to persuade us for YEARS that the rudest word in the English language – I still can’t say it – began with ‘fiddle’ and ended with ‘sticks’.

she became a pioneer in the integration of disabled children into society

Mum’s life changed profoundly when in 1964 my brother Alun was born and she became a mother to a child with disabilities. All parents must expect to meet challenges and make sacrifices, but what she faced were difficulties quite outside the norm. Remember, this was a time when disability was mainly thought of as a tragedy, and institutionalisation was a standard measure.

Of course, at first Mum grieved deeply  that Alun has cerebral palsy. But quickly she became a pioneer in the integration of disabled children into society. She and Dad became active in local disability charities. Before inclusion became fashionable, they fought hard against prejudice to make sure Alun had opportunities in local, mainstream schools. And Mum ensured he had access to cutting-edge techniques in physiotherapy, through a unit at St Albans City Hospital specialising in the new Bobath method for treating children and adults with cerebral palsy.

It is worth stressing the last point – transporting Alun to St Albans once or twice a week for the first sixteen years of his life was a huge ask, along with the many other daily activities involved in his care. Mum made great sacrifices to make sure it happened. And yet, it must equally be emphasised that there was never the slightest suggestion that all of this was a burden for her. To the contrary, it became part of our normality, and more. Alun remembers those rides through the countryside between St Albans and Welwyn Garden City as amongst the happiest moments of his childhood, full of stories, games, songs, and conversation.

Mum may have been a fighter, but she was not embittered – she was motivated by love and duty. She worked selflessly as best she could to give all her family what they needed, and in doing so helped to bring about real change in the world. Her anthem at that time was We Shall Overcome by Joan Baez, and she and Dad – and Alun – did overcome many challenges.

Her new career as a musician spanned several decades

When my younger sister Deborah started school Mum had time to take up learning the guitar, something she had always wanted to do. She had no interest in taking exams – Mum hated stress of that kind – but studied hard with a local teacher and eventually started taking beginner’s classes for him. When he returned to Australia, Mum took on all of his pupils. For many years the background noise in our house was the plink plink sound of guitar pupils playing tunes…and then, when they had finished, Mum playing beautiful classical music. Her new career as a musician spanned several decades, and in that time she must have taught hundreds of people. Her aim was never teaching towards exams, but more to spread the joy of music making. She also played at old people’s homes, and for children in local schools.

Mum and Dad were active members of Welwyn Garden City shul – not quite founder members – but they joined in 1959, just a few years after it was founded. Mum was one of the people who set up the local WIZO group, she was a stalwart of the ladies’ guild, she played an active role in the shul’s book group. Mum and Dad brought us up to be active members of the Jewish community – it is no accident that Deborah and I both work for Jewish organisations. Judaism was the foundation of Mum’s life – but she was never ever someone who cared only about Jewish people and causes. Her love and respect was for all humanity.

She was also a brilliant aunt. Here are some of the things my cousins have written to me over the weekend.

– My cousin Sherrie: When I last saw her she insisted on sorting out my guitar string and seeing the painting I was doing, a skill that started when she encouraged me to paint when I was a child

– Sherrie’s son, Richard: I remember years and years ago being at their house and Mum was saying how much I was struggling with my handwriting,. She gave me an old and hefty typewriter to help me. I still have it and used it for years. I refused to let it go because it’s such a reminder of love and care for the individual.

– My cousin Jules: Auntie Shirley gave me some booklets when I was little, they were the actual stories of the ballets. So I could understand the music better. I had forgotten all about them until a couple of Sundays ago on a car journey, there was a classics programme. And then I remembered those books. I just wanted to say the most amazing thank you. It encouraged me to understand theatre, art, music and performance. And she gave me that.

Of course, Mum was absolutely the best grandmother you could imagine. She took huge interest in her grandchildren’s lives, and gloried in seeing them grow from babies to adulthood. Josh, Phoebe, Avital, Eliana and Judah – she could not have loved you more. Never forget that her love is still there for you, that she wanted nothing more than your happiness and that you should lead fulfilling lives full of love.

Mum wasn’t just lovely to her own family. She was kind and thoughtful to everyone and anyone, always interested and always encouraging, taking people under her wing and nurturing them.

I don’t want to give the impression that she was perfect (although she pretty much was). She had her foibles. She was absolutely obsessed with her hair, to the very last days, making sure it was brushed just so. When I was a child, she’d drive me mad, following me around with a hairbrush, trying to tame my wild hair.

In a family split between the hyper punctual and the constantly late, she was definitely the leader of the latter camp. And she had an absolute talent for losing things – assuring us that she’d tucked them away in a very safe place. If only she could remember where that was.

 It will be hard to see the garden bloom without its creator

Mum’s garden was her passion, and she spent many happy hours planning it, working on it, sitting in it. March is a cruel month for a gardener to die. After the bleak winter, her garden is springing into life. It feels harsh that she will never see the daffodils and hyacinths, the flowering quince and magnolia tree, the cherry blossom. The pigeon that she fed every day – the fattest pigeon in Hertfordshire, known as Mr Hoover for his speedy eating habits – waits on the rooftop for her. It will be hard to see the garden bloom without its creator. But it will give us all – especially Dad – great comfort to see its beauty, and remember her hand in making it.

We will think of her when we see the roses in summer, and when we hear guitar music. We will remember her when we sing in shul and over the washing up. We will cook her recipes, we will open our homes to strangers, we will say please and thank you and we will smile. We will remember her catchphrases: Aim for the Top, Have as Much Fun as You Can and Just Muddle Through.

We, her family, will go out into the world and try and be as kind and courteous, appreciative and loving as she was. And if we achieve even half as much as she did, we will be doing very well.