There was rarely a time when the shiny brass doorbell or home phone wasn’t ringing at the Thornbury home of Elaine Egan.
She was, says her son Brendan, like a “frustrated social worker” – a listening ear for many people over many decades.
“She was constantly finding people in need and doing what she could to help them,” says Brendan. “She would reach out to help people in their illness and old age, organising groceries, doctor’s appointments, washing and cleaning.”
It was a compassion and empathy which also reflected a personal understanding of tragedy and pain.
Elaine and her husband Basil lost three children – their son Peter died of Hodgkin’s disease aged eight, son Paul died during childbirth, and her daughter Elizabeth died from leukemia aged 14.
“Grief was a constant in her life,” says Brendan. “Her own grief was so palpable that her compassion for other people’s loss and sorrow was very strong.”
“There was no counselling and no therapy, no 1800 phone number. There was only the love and support of her devoted husband and her sisters, brother and their families.”
It also meant her love for her three other children – Margaret, Josephine and Brendan – knew no bounds.
“She was incredibly dedicated and loving. And protective, very protective.”
Elaine was born in 1924 in a taxi somewhere between Bendigo and the small town of Sebastian in northern Victoria.
Her parents, publicans at the Sebastian Hotel, were on their way to a midwife’s house in Bendigo, but didn’t quite make it.
She was the second youngest of nine children in a “large and lively” family full of jokes, teasing and stories.
“Money was tight but they had great fun, out of very simple things,” says Brendan.
It was the Great Depression and war was on the horizon when Elaine moved to Thornbury in Melbourne with her mother and sisters to find work.
She won a scholarship to the Northcote Business College, which her son said “should have led her onto further opportunities” but she needed to earn and took a job with her sisters as a telephonist at the Melbourne Telephone Exchange.
“They had lots of fun. I can remember her telling me they used to draw pencil lines on the back of their legs to make it look like they had stockings, which were very expensive and hard to come by.”
Elaine met Basil Egan, a friend of the family. He joined the Air Force and served in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, returning safely to marry Elaine at St Mary’s Catholic Church Thornbury on December 27, 1947.
The newlyweds bought the Thornbury house which her mother had been renting and lived there for 60 years.
Even when many people of their generation moved to outer suburbs, the pair stayed in Melbourne’s inner north, devoted to their local friends, family and community.
The area slowly changed, becoming more multicultural, and Elaine made friends with people from Italy. She loved the way they kissed on both cheeks and was taught how to make pizza, as well as visiting the Greek family next door for coffee and spanakopita.
The brass door bell – which was polished regularly – was “forever going with neighbours dropping in unannounced for a cup of tea”.
“She had an innate sense of community and connectedness to her extended family, her parish and the Northcote locality,” says Brendan.
Elaine was devoted to Basil, and the pair were “incredibly close”
“I think sometimes when people experience tragedies in a relationship like that it can either make or break a relationship,” says Brendan. “It made their relationship. Dad was incredibly devoted to her and she to him. They were absolutely devoted to each other, it was very inspiring.”
Elaine was also a devout Catholic, drawing comfort from the church. She was a talented cook and baker, and loved making roast lunches and specialty cakes for her eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
She had a way of making room for unexpected people around the table. Her memory for numbers – particularly birthdays and telephone numbers – was legendary. She was forever knitting jumpers and cardigans.
“She could sort of be a bit like the Queen – she had an air about her people would watch their Ps and Qs. When she walked into a room everyone behaved themselves in front of Mum,” says Brendan.
“But actually she had a naughty side to her too, she often used to impersonate people, she used to do great impersonations and have us kids in stitches, impersonating relatives or neighbours.”
In 1996, Elaine and Basil were mugged getting off the tram after a trip into the city. Her handbag, which contained precious pearls her son had bought for her in Venice, was stolen.
It prompted them to move into Veronica Gardens Retirement Village in Northcote.
Six months after they moved, Elaine got a call from the Northcote police station to say the handbag had been found in a bush covered in dirt.
She reached into the bag and in a hidden pocket were the pearls. She was overjoyed.
The couple spent 16 “beautiful” years at the village before they moved into Mercy Place Parkville in 2013. Her beloved Basil passed away of kidney failure in 2015.
Elaine, sharp until the end, tested positive for coronavirus. She passed away peacefully on September 10, aged 96.
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Simone is a crime reporter for The Age. Most recently she covered breaking news for The Age, and before that for The Australian in Melbourne.