In Memoriam of Eileen Oakman

In Memoriam of Eileen Oakman

eileen stuffed dog

This is what a real saint looks like. But, I don’t get the wrong idea. Saints are not always easy to live with. Perfection in all respects does not make a saint. Unconditional love makes a saint.

On the 23rd of March 1927, the newborn baby Eileen was left on the steps of the Tuffnell Children’s Home in Nundah, Queensland. In the note attached to her clothing, the mother had written her name is ‘Eileen’. For her first 12 years she was shunted from institution to institution. Some of the care she received was loving, mostly it was not. Skinny and cross-eyed, she made often made to work hard for her food. For part her childhood, due to a lack of orphanage spaces, her accommodation was a mental hospital and her only companions were individuals diagnosed as insane. Eileen never attended a school.

When she was around 6, a policeman apprehended her stealing sausages from the back of a butcher’s shop. Realising this waif was hungry the kind-hearted policeman took her to his home where she had a shower and ice cream and jelly – yummy her first taste. After some more back and forth shuffling with orphanages, this policeman’s sister took Eileen into her home. Although Eileen was never formally adopted, she lived in this home until her marriage in 1945. She married a returned soldier James (Jim) Oakman and their marriage was intact until Jim’s death in 1995. Jim and Eileen had 12 children.

There are many stories about Eileen. I will only tell a few of mine.

My first meeting with Eileen was in her state-house by the railroad tracks in Caboulture. There I also met her husband Jim, who at this time, because of multiple strokes was confined to bed and a wheelchair.

I was staying for a few nights, and my bed was cushions on the lounge room floor. Eileen had a little dog she adored and who had free reign in the house. I am also a dog lover but my opinion at that time was that dogs should stay outside of the house.

The dog was a fast mover and very affectionate.  He jumped all over the furniture and whenever possible he would lick your face. He was especially fond of doing this to me when I lay on the floor at night. Patience exhausted I told Eileen that the dog should be kept outside. Taking the situation into my own hands, I carried the dog outside and shut the door. But within a few moments the animal re-appeared, unrepentant and eager to lick. Wondering how this was possible, I checked around the perimeter of the house looking for an open door or window. I found none. On the second night that I realized what was happening. As fast as I put the dog out the front door Eileen would sneak him into the house by the back door. I protested loudly but nothing changed. All Pauline said was, “You can’t win with my mother!”.

Over the years, Eileen visited us in New Zealand on a number of occasions. It is from these visits that I have the clearest memories.

Eileen was a closet technophile. She loved the ‘latest’ – the latest torch, the latest radio, the latest music player etc.. She would purchase one of these prior to every New Zealand visits. Then she would spend a huge amount of time sitting on her bed, talking to herself as she assembled and disassembled her latest gizmo. It seemed that invariably something would go wrong and this would lead to more hours of fiddling. She could have had a career as a ‘torture-tester’ for new products. To me it was almost beyond belief as to how many ways she found to insert batteries ‘incorrectly’. I can still hear her muttering, “I’m not going to let this beat me”.

Actually, Eileen’s New Zealand visits created a kind of ‘holiday’ space for me. Those who know my wife Pauline well, know that she is very intense and every now and again she has to let off steam. She normally does this by rousing on someone near and dear – usually me. But when Eileen was staying with us, Pauline’s fixing-up energies were focused on Eileen and my life was much more relaxed.

In Brisbane, Eileen lived a simple, uncomplicated life. When it came to eating out, a cup of tea and a tomato sandwich was her choice. Pauline felt her mum had been denied the finer things of life, especially in respect to eating out. The only problem was, Eileen never wanted to eat out. Confronted with a menu she would declare there was nothing on it she liked. Pauline devised a plan. She would take Mum to ‘Valentines’. ‘Valentines’ is a huge all-you-can-eat smorgasbord (Australia’s Sizzlers). The assortment of food, salads, pasta, soups, bread, desserts is huge. You serve yourself with whatever you fancy in any quantity. Pauline led Eileen to this enormous banquet, explained how it worked and left Eileen to serve herself. A few minutes later Eileen returned to our table with an empty plate. “I couldn’t see anything I liked’ she said. That was it! Mount Vesuvius exploded and it went on rumbling for days. In that period, I could get away with anything – crumpled shirts – undone hair – dishes in the sink – odd socks, you name it.

Eileen loved many things that did not appeal to me – fluffy toys, André Rieu, a huge cat, sentimental cards. And she loved giving things away. Many of our carefully chosen ‘special’ gifts were not there on our next visit.

But her main love was her love of people, in particular, her love of family.

Eileen’s qualification for sainthood comes down to this one thing. Her capacity for unconditional love. Through their love, Jim and Eileen created a tribe – 12 children, 28 grandchildren, 30 great grandchildren. Eileen knew them all by name and recognised them personally until her death. This is not a perfect family. Many of the troubles that effect our society impacted our extended family. From traumas in relationships, traumas with the law, traumas in health, traumas with addictions; we came to her and were always welcomed personally. Gruff, tough men were melted by her smile, wilful teen agers calmed in her presence. In my own heart, I experienced it. Whatever was in the past was of no account.  We could start again. We would do better.

That is God like. That is an extension of the divine. This is what Jesus came to share. Eileen did it. Eileen was it!  Unconditional love made her a saint. You blessed us all Saint Eileen. Thank you!

Stan Stewart – January 8, 2018

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