The chapel at Oi’s home
A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
My friend Oi (pronounced O-ee) had ideas so advanced that even Quaker Meeting – that most liberal and open- minded Christian group – threw her out.
With no family around us, friends of all ages were always important and she mattered to us as much as Philippa. Edith Oiroa was born in 1900- called Edith by conventional people but Oi by kindred spirits. She was the youngest of ten, born to a father who was sixty years old, and she died when she was a hundred and two – so the two life-times covered a hundred and sixty- two years, and went back to 1840. Her father had been a cabin boy on a ship that was wrecked on the NZ coast in 1856.
Local Maoris formed a human chain to rescue him, and he stayed with them for some time, becoming very close to the chief. After returning to England, he came back with a seventeen-year-old bride, and the Maori chief gave him land with which to start his life here.
Robert Batley, Oi’s father, established a huge sheep farm, built a big beautiful house, cottages for his shepherds, barns, wool-sheds and an exquisite little chapel, where Oi and her nine brothers and sisters played the organ and helped hand out prayer books to the shepherds and their families as they entered. As each child was born, the generous chief had given them some Maori land.
He ceremonially adopted Oi, and gave her the Maori name Oiroa, which roughly translated, means: ‘compassion for those in need’. Though it was shortened to Oi, she lived up to her name always, and when I met her was beloved by many people for very good reasons.
She married a distinguished Auckland architect – William Gummer – who worked with the famous Edwin Lutyens in England, and is sometimes known as NZ’s Frank Lloyd Wright. He created many of Auckland’s great buildings, and beautiful private homes including some famous ones in the Hawkes Bay. Oi herself was very musical, and played the piano, and was so deeply involved in the musical life of her adopted city, that in the early thirties she and another musical aficionado, started the first orchestra in the city, whose descendant is still thriving.
She was beautiful – and open-hearted and sweet-natured. She was also unhappily married to a much older controlling, jealous and angry man. Other men loved her, and I picked up hints over the years of tempestuous scenes and dramatic confrontations, one in which her loyal cleaning lady divested a desperate suitor of his shotgun at the front door. Oi received and declined her last proposal in her eighties.
Her zest for life never diminished, in spite of a son’s suicide, a difficult life, and much loneliness. Neither did her kindness fail, or her energy, for that matter. I was sure her inner life kept her young. She was often busy driving “old ladies” shopping until well into her nineties. She obviously didn’t feel she qualified for that label – yet! Her spontaneity and authenticity, happiness and serenity, endeared her to all ages.
I met her at Quaker meeting, where we were both what is called attenders, as opposed to members. On occasion when the beautiful and mystical silence was gently broken by a deeply felt message, if it was Oi, as she was known for short, it would be a profoundly mystical and eminently practical thought.
Throughout her life she was drawn to mysticism, a branch of the spiritual life which has always been mistrusted by organised religion, as its devotees seek union with the Source, whatever it is called, thus bypassing the need for priests, mullahs, rabbis, gurus or whatever. Whether these mystics were Muslim, as in the case of Rumi and the Sufis, or Christians like Master Eckhart, Mother Julian or St John of the Cross, they often came to a sticky end at the hands of their respective religions.
Luckily in the twentieth century, this fate is not so common, and Oi escaped lightly by just being blackballed by Quakers! She explored most branches of both Western and Eastern mysticism, and in her thirties, became a lover of Ramakrishna’s teachings, keeping a photo of him by her bed-side always. He practised several religions, including Hindu, Islam and Christianity, and taught that in spite of the differences, all religions are valid and true, and they lead to the same ultimate goal- God.
After Oi introduced herself to me, and invited me to her beautiful house (I had not been long in NZ then), we became close, and she became my mentor. My two small children looked on her as a grandparent and we loved going to her serene and peaceful home.
Though it was in the city, it sat among mature trees and a rambling, flowery garden with a stream. Her architect son had designed it for her. Music, in her mid-seventies, was still her passion. Sometimes I would arrive at the garden entrance, and hear the glorious sounds of a trio or a quartet streaming out of the windows, and I’d stand silently outside under the persimmon tree, listening to Mozart or Mahler.
When the children and I were there, we‘d often end up singing round the piano with the student who boarded with her, and was a brilliant pianist and lovely tenor. We’d all sing favourites as diverse as Handel’s, ‘Where e’er you walk”, to: “Feed the birds,” from Mary Poppins. My other musical friend, Phillipa, whose unbearable life was slightly improved by taking clarinet lessons, and who longed to play in an orchestra, needed practice playing with others.
Hearing about her, typically, Oi offered to play with her, and through music-making, they learned to love each other too. I was spending the day with Oi when I learned that the ship Phillipa was sailing on had caught fire, and she and the children, plus her six-month-old baby, were adrift in a lifeboat in a violent storm. I spent all day praying and imagining her anguish and exhaustion trying to keep the children warm in an open boat, never realising that they were already dead.
Oi’s unorthodox thinking, which of course, was not confined to spiritual practises, but spread into all areas of her life, alienated her family who were very religious and ultra- conservative. She rarely saw them, so she began spending Christmas with us until one son who disapproved of us too, was shamed into inviting her for Christmas after many years.
Their loss was our gain, and in some ways Oi became a part of our family. She gave me many of the books which had sustained her and influenced her thinking, and which had helped her find her path to expanded consciousness and freedom. One of the joys of reading them was that she’d underlined or marked the passages which sang to her.
Not only did I find this a wonderful aid to a deeper understanding, both of the texts and of Oi, but it also taught me the pleasure of marking and making my books my own, which I had never dared to do before.
I’d grown up learning that books should be treated as sacred, and never marked, turned down, or in any way treated as familiar friends. I do it all the time now, knowing that others who eventually find their way to them will – or might – enjoy the same pleasures of insight and intimacy as I have done.
Oi’s words still remain in my mind, and often come back to me. When there was a problem she would close her eyes, and focus for a minute, then open them and say firmly: “You cannot know the solution. You can only pray that the situation evolves for the highest good of you, and everyone else involved. And know that this will happen, and let it go.”
She’d quote T.S. Eliot: “It is not our business what others may think of us,” or: “God wastes nothing”. She’d say: “Let go and let God.” – and, “Happiness is like water in the palm of your hand. If you gently hold your palm open, it will stay. But if you clutch it and try to hang onto it, you lose it.” She died at over a hundred, fourteen years ago, but her loving wisdom sustains me still.
When my life began taking some strange turns, becoming involved with an innocent man accused of a double murder, our phone being tapped, death threats, drug lords, and other frightening developments, Oi was always there encouraging us and supporting us.
To be continued
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
I love puddings – hot, cold, chocolate, lemon, fruit, baked, steamed, chilled – you name it. I haven’t made clafoutis for ages, but decided, it being winter, we could do with a hot pudding, and dug out this old recipe from my clippings. It has more eggs in it than some clafoutis recipes, but when I was worried about the children getting enough protein when we were vegetarian, this was one of the dishes that stilled my anxieties.
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a pie dish or oven proof dish. In a large bowl, whisk together six eggs, eight tablespoons of sugar, a teasp of vanilla, until the sugar is dissolved. Add twelve tablespoons of flour and whisk until smooth. Pour the batter into the pie dish.
Now add two and a half cups of pitted cherries, fresh or frozen if you have them – or any other berries. If using frozen don’t melt them, but toss them in frozen. You can also use plums, or tinned peaches. Sprinkle some sugar over the top and bake until the clafoutis is beautifully puffed and golden, 35–40 minutes. Serve immediately – with cream or even good ice-cream.
Food for Thought
Lovers of God do not belong to any caste.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa