Lillian Dowling, the world was richer with you in it

Last night, my mom gave me the news that Lillian Dowling died on August 15. She was 99. Lillian was my Grandpa Ed’s partner from 1989 till 2004. They never married (though my grandfather had married two other women after my Nana died in 1979–all three of his wives died of cancer and I think he didn’t want a further jinx).

I first met Lillian when I was about to depart for my exchange year in Germany. She was so lively. She was a schoolteacher in Wisconsin who loved theater so much, she’d rent a room in New York during the summers and go to see shows. When she was in her late 80s, she published a book, One of the Boys but Always a Lady, about her experiences as a Red Cross recreation worker in Australia during World War II. The book is hilarious.

I was used to my grandpa’s house changing when he remarried. But with Lillian, it was really something. She was an antique collector. So the suburban Milwaukee ranch house they lived in was filled with marble, oriental rugs, Revolutionary War antiques, ornate wood. Some pieces had come from the governor’s mansion. I would sleep in the Lincoln Bed, which was only produced during the years that Lincoln was president.

I will never forget Lillian and Grandpa Ed dancing together at my cousin Jennifer’s wedding. They were grooving to “You Can Leave Your Hat On” by Randy Newman. I don’t think they caught the subtext. And there’s the crazy story of my Grandpa’s 80th birthday, with the fortune tellers. She organized it; I missed it because I was in Germany.

But the thing that she said that meant more than anything was when we met. I was 17, and she was 82. We were discussing theater. She gave me a shoulder rub. And she told me, “I think we’re sisters under the skin.”

Here’s my family at my Grandpa’s memorial. Not the best picture of all of us, but the only one I have with her in it. I’ll miss you, Lillian.


  1. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m glad you have wonderful memories of her, and that you shared her somewhat with us. The world needs more Lillians.

  2. sorry for your loss. Lillian sounds like she was an exceptional role model for living and age-ing. I vaguely remember you saying something about meeting her lo those many years ago and the impression she made upon you then.

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