When Sheelah Rudman was seven years old she was told that the polio she contracted would stop her from ever walking again. One could only wonder what that doctor would say today to the 101-year-old as she strolls her neighbourhood delivering the local newspaper.
Born on 19 April 1914, Sheelah has lived through two world wars and outlasted nine popes, but she still takes life one day at a time.
“I don’t know what’s around the next corner,” she says with a glint in her eye, “and I don’t want to know.”
From the moment you meet this lively centenarian, as she squeezes your hand in a vice-like grip, you know you are in for an entertaining journey.
With a queen-like presence, Sheelah sits regally in her favourite lounge chair and fondly regales tales from her early days in Northam, her time as secretary for St Mary’s Cathedral architect Michael Cavanagh, her marriage to Arthur Rudman in 1939, her escape from Darwin two days before its bombing in 1942 and the significance of her Catholic faith, particularly her involvement with St Mary’s Cathedral where she has been a parishioner for over 55 years.
Born Sheelah Alice Taylor in North Perth, she has always treasured her Catholic faith, particularly during her most difficult periods.
Her first memories of such adversity came on the day she arrived home from school as a seven-year-old with aching wrists and ankles. Condemned by the local doctor to a life of infirmity due to polio, Sheelah was to discover that God had other plans and a visit to another medical practitioner and several months of treatment launched her into a life of mobility and activity that she continues to enjoy today.
“I went on to become the champion runner at Our Lady’s College (now Mercedes College),” she recalls, with a cheeky grin.
It was the same faith and determination that carried Sheelah when she was told as a young woman that she would never bear children.
Six years after her marriage to Arthur Rudman, she delivered Barbara and they have been inseparable since, sharing a beautiful and caring relationship.
Barbara, who has inherited her mother’s vibrant nature, sat alongside her during the interview, prompting her memory and sharing the laughter her stories ignite.
Both were taught by the same nuns at Mercedes, attend St Mary’s Cathedral, where they were both married (75 years apart), share a love for music and regularly attend the WA Symphony Orchestra, and continue to live together, along with Barbara’s husband, Bruce Walther.
Initial impressions of Sheelah would lead someone to believe that she is content with a sedentary life, happy to spend her time doing crosswords and knitting scarves and coat-hanger covers for charity but, as the interview unfolds, another side of this irrepressible lady is revealed.
She volunteers at Harold Hawthorne Senior Citizens Centre, assists Barbara on her weekly paper deliveries, renewed her driver’s licence test at 99, exchanges her knitting needles for some daily weight work and heads to Broome every year for a holiday.
Time spent with Sheelah also reveals an unspoken spiritual dimension which gives the impression that her faith is so entwined into her life that she instinctively knows God will always look after her.
She shares the story of standing up her future husband on what was to be their first date.
The meeting outside the Perth Town Hall never eventuated because Sheelagh didn’t make an appearance.
Almost 12 months to the day later, very close to the Town Hall, the two virtually bumped into each other on the street.
“I’m not letting you go this time,” Arthur vowed, and the romance blossomed from there. After 43 years of marriage, Arthur passed away in 1982.
Barbara is adamant that her mother’s faith is what provides her with the strength and patience she has needed to get through the tumultuous periods of her life.
“Rain, hail or shine, she makes sure she goes to Mass,” Barbara shares.
“I remember her once saying to Monsignor Keating, ‘There is nothing in the world like the Catholic faith’.”
It was an interesting note on which to finish our interview. Because, as this delightful centenarian firmly squeezes my hand and slips me a few chocolate bars, I feel I have just been in the presence of a loving grandmother and I couldn’t help but think, “There is no one in the world quite like Sheelah Alice Rudman”.