Good Neighbor - July 2020
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
It’s raining, but the women seem unfazed by the steady drizzle and they spread out around the end of the large pool for a group photo. All eleven have taken off their masks for the occasion and prepare to make a toast. Each holds a special flute inscribed with the words “LiLi’s Swimmin’ Wimmin.”
“To LiLi!” they shout, laughing, and lift their glasses of bubbly up as if to catch the raindrops.
“Hey, my champagne’s getting diluted,” cries one after I’ve snapped the photo. The Swimmin’ Wimmin laugh again and scramble for cover.
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“And all the comrades that ere I’ve had
Are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that ere I’ve had
Would wish me one more day to stay…”
This one is the most intimate. These friends swam and did water aerobics in LiLi and her husband Donald’s pool almost every day. They called themselves the “Swimmin’ Wimmin.” Donald has joined the group this afternoon, although on most days in the past, he left the women to their own devices.
“I’m just the pool boy,” Donald says, but the widower is clearly adored by the group. Some, like retired nurse Bernie Cullen, helped Donald care for LiLi during her final days, making it possible for her to pass in her beloved home. Others have been running errands and bringing home-cooked meals over the past months. They’re still committed to cooking for Donald. They talk about what they’ll be bringing next. Fresh vegetables to go with meatloaf.
“I’ve put on 15 pounds,” he jokes.
The sense of comradery and loyalty they feel for each other is palpable as they speak. And there’s a common thread in all the stories: Each explains how LiLi pulled them into the group, even though most were reluctant or shy at first.
“She was a magnet,” says one. There are murmurs of agreement all around.
I can personally vouch for that. LiLi was also irrepressible and tireless. She reminded me of the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Not only would she have survived the Titanic, her strong will would have kept everyone on her lifeboat alive. No one would have dared give up on her watch.
LiLi did the same thing after Katrina, when she ran for Alderman in Waveland and worked like a fiend for two terms to help the city rebuild. After she retired from office, she continued volunteering with the same vigor.
But while working is one thing, accomplishing goals with style and flair is another altogether. LiLi dressed to the nines for any occasion with a flawless sense of fashion, whether it be a formal gala or a walk-a-thon. Her regal bearing exuded a sense of royalty. While like any royal, she never shied away from stating blunt truths others might tiptoe around, she never came off as stuffy or haughty. An aura of humor and generosity haloed her always.
Think of LiLi as a queen on a Mardi Gras float. She may have been instructed just to wave a white-gloved hand from the wrist, but she broke the rules, pulled off her heels and threw out armfuls of beads all along her life’s route.
I’ve spent it in good company…”
LiLi sensed the parade was about to end as her 80th birthday drew near this March. For her 75th, she and Donald had hosted a big blowout at the New Orleans Fairgrounds Racetrack.
LiLi's 75th birthday party at the New Orleans racetrack
“I can’t take credit for the idea,” she told me in a phone interview at the beginning of June. Her voice was strong, and I had no idea that she was living her final days. “I read about the idea in an AARP magazine.”
Instead of taking a big trip or throwing another grand party, LiLi gave $80 to 80 people. Her only instructions? They had to pass it along. All LiLi asked for from her friends was a postcard (which she provided, stamped, of course) that told the story of why they chose that particular recipient and their reaction.
“Donald said if I’d done it when I was 65, it’d have been a lot cheaper,” LiLi told me, laughing.
Reading the cards with the stories moved LiLi considerably.
“I loved, loved, loved it.”
LiLi mailed my instructions and four $20 bills to our French Quarter apartment. Since I’d had a lot exposure photographing Mardi Gras events in New Orleans for my new magazine there, I self-quarantined in the city for the first weeks of the COVID shutdown.
I’d learn later that I was like many of LiLi’s Eighty – I wrestled with who to give the money to. So many were in need. With thousands out of work, I watched the homeless population in the Quarter grow more with every dog walk. I was particularly worried about the regulars I’d gotten to know.
There’s a heavy-set, youngish man who won’t tell me his name or allow me to photograph him, but I’ve seen him for years by the Dumaine Street fountain and we always smile. There’s Lane, whose regular sleeping spot is on the sidewalk in front of Harry’s bar. In his sleeping bag at night, the older man reads. His encampment is always neat, he leaves no footprint when he packs up and takes off in the mornings. And there’s Blue and her dog, Minnie. I’ve known Minnie since she was a pup; she’s an old-soul two-year-old now. She and her owner have both seen a lot.
The nameless man got one of the $20 bills (“thank her for me!”), Lane another (“this means so much right now. It’s an amazing gift. Please let her know that.”) and Blue received $40 (“just wow! You’re kidding me, right? Thank her from us both!”).
A few months later, I mentioned this to our Shoofly Magazine web editor and writer, Dena Temple. Dena grew very excited. She had never met LiLi, but a couple who was one of LiLi’s Eighty picked Dena as their recipient. They knew Dena from her part-time work as a server at the Buttercup Café. The gift made an amazing and unforgettable impression on her.
Dena’s own account of receiving the gift is below. You’ll also find accounts by Swimmin’ Wimmin’ and birthday Eighties Rosie Dumoulin and Kay Kell. Lastly, you’ll find Bernie Cullen’s tribute.
I would say “rest in peace," but knowing you, you've probably rolled up your sleeves and are hard at work on the other shore. So like a multitude of others, I’ll just close by saying thank you.
“But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.”
If you'd like to donate to the St. Rose de Lima LiLi Stahler Murphy endowed scholarship fund, or to the Waveland Ground Zero Museum in LiLi's honor, scroll to the bottom of Bernie Cullen's tribute below for details.
From Bernie Cullen
The Swimming' Wimmin are an eclectic group, formed by LiLi. Now we're like a sisterhood. We love each other and have this gift thanks to LiLi and Donald. A few of the group have shared a favorite memory:
One said LiLi had told her, “I think Donald loves me as much as I love myself.”
Another said, “LiLi took care of us all and she is still taking care of us.”
My favorite is, “We are so blessed to live in paradise.”
Lili made me promise we would continue, and we share memories of her every day. We think we must be her favorite group of friends, but I'll bet every group she was a part of feels the same way. I think of us as children who just know they are their mother’s favorite child!
A few months ago the Swimmin' Wimmin' kept asking what could they do for Lili? At that time, mostly prayers. Then I thought she’d love it if we created a scholarship at St Rose. She loved the church and was always involved with helping the youth. When I told her about the idea the next day, her eyes twinkled and she said I'd gotten her good!
A week later I had $2,000. Every SW had given and also, a few friends. We were able to give scholarships to four very deserving students.
We also started the Lili Stahler Murphy Endowed Scholarship, and that is one of the charities she asked for donations in lieu of flowers.
She also asked for donations to the Ground Zero Museum, her baby! Mayor and Alderman recently dedicated the museum in her honor, and she was able to know that as well before she passed.
LiLi's family asked that I coordinate both funds for them so we ask donations to be mailed to me. Please specify whether you want your donation to go to the St. Rose Endowed Scholarship or the Ground Zero Museum. My address is:
216 Jeff Davis Ave.
Waveland, MS 39576
People can also donate online at the St. Rose de Lima site. They do need to specify that the donations are for LiLi's Scholarship.
We are still going to have a small 15th anniversary Katrina Memorial on Aug 29th, 10 am at the Ground Zero Museum. Directly beforehand, the official dedication to Lili will happen.
During your last week, LiLi, you whispered to me that I had a piece of your heart… Well, you have a piece of mine. Rest well, my dear friend, life well lived.
From Rosie Dumoulin
I met LiLi through a friend who was one of Lili’s “Swimmin Wimmin," an informal crew who joined LiLi in her backyard pool for water aerobics. She hosted several sessions each day, and I had been looking for a place to strengthen my muscles as I prepared for knee surgery.
The first time I joined them LiLi welcomed me with a hug and a “get to know you” poolside chat. It was the beginning of a cherished friendship with her and the other ladies in the group. After three months of encouragement, laughter, and water workouts, I put away my cane. Recovery from surgery was a relative breeze because of the workouts. LiLi liked to call me her “success story." I know she was my miracle worker.
LiLi was in the pool with us as often as possible, sometimes three times a day! She swam with us up until this summer when her health began to deteriorate. Even then, she sat at the poolside and chatted. She was so strong!
In March, LiLi presented me with a mystery envelope. Inside was $80 in cash; a self-addressed, stamped postcard; an article from AARP; some instructions; and a request to celebrate her birthday by giving back. I was to choose someone to gift her “birthday money.”
I thought long and hard about it, but two weeks later, COVID 19 hit the U.S. It seemed everyone was in need. I probably gave away that money 100 times – in my mind. Three weeks passed and I still had those crisp twenty dollar bills. Every day, I thought about her challenge and about her amazing generosity.
I passed those bills to the sweet lady who cleans for me, a hardworking single mom. When COVID hit, most of her customers cancelled. She told me that I was her only remaining customer and her income had dropped to almost zero. With masks and by distancing to different rooms as she cleaned, we were able to establish a work-around to start again. I explained LiLi’s gift and she cried. $80 may not seem like a lot, but it was a lifeline for her.
I will always treasure LiLi’s generosity and her trust in me to fulfill her request. It was her birthday gift to me that will last forever.
From Kay Kell
Oh, LiLi, I loved it. What a brilliant idea. It truly was moving.
The COVID-19 shutdown and an attack from another dog on my Jackie-O delayed me a few weeks in choosing a recipient. I have been ordering my groceries from Rouses using Instacart. Every time it was a different “shopper” and there were many differences in the way they filled my order. Some were slow, some half-assed, and some never communicated with me.
One day I had Lori. They only give you a first name. She was incredible. She started out with a text saying let’s get this done! She texted me as she went, explaining things they were out of and suggesting substitutions. She finished my order in record time.
When she showed up here, I commented on how quickly she had worked. She laughed and told me she was getting paid by the order and she needed the money. She looked about mid-forties, wore ragged cutoff shorts and drove a car that I wasn’t sure would get her back for the next order. I loved her attitude.
After she left, I realized she would have been a perfect recipient of the $80. So I started ordering groceries daily! You don’t get to choose your shopper but I figured eventually I would find her. After weeks of this and more groceries than I could take to Ruth’s Roots food pantry, I gave up. If I ever run into her again, I will duplicate the gift.
After giving up on finding Lori, I started thinking about it again. I realized I had another perfect recipient. There is a local artist I see often as she is out walking. People always stop at my gate and we talk from my porch. She has talked about the fact that she isn’t working much now but I notice she is still extremely giving. She even brought me eggs once on Christmas Day when I realized at the last minute I was out and stores were closed.
Lately she stopped by with elastic. She had heard I was making masks. I realized she was the one. I walked over to her house and she came out to meet me. I told her the story and gave her the envelope with the money. She was shocked.
Then she cried and admitted she had just been wondering how she would be able to pay for her medication this month. It was beautiful. We cried together, wishing we could hug. I told her not to worry, it was all confidential.
Thank you so much LiLi, for allowing me to experience this loving act of giving. I will carry it forward. Especially if I ever see Lori again. But I have continued giving $80 to special people I hear about. The last one was a young women in Kenya helping to empower young women to leave the men who were raping them. She was a friend of a friend and got trapped there because of the pandemic.
Lili so freely accepted me into her group at the pool. Such a special person. She had a great attitude until the end. She didn’t talk about the cancer. She and I liked the same “cheap” champagne. We bought it by the case and carried bottles back and forth if one of us ran out.
The night of the March book club at my house I asked her to bring a couple of bottles when she came. She didn’t feel well enough to come but around 5 pm Donald showed up carrying iced down champagne!
from Dena Temple
It was a typical winter Saturday at the Buttercup on Second Street. Business was brisk, but Suzanne and I were on top of things, for the most part. The couple walked in, and I recognized them as people I’d waited on before – she was friendly, and he was really funny. They were a fun couple.
“I see your friends are here,” said Suzanne. “They were here looking for you yesterday.”
I knew the couple from serving them at the Buttercup, but I didn’t see them on the outside. So while we were friendly, we weren’t really friends. Not really.
I greeted the couple with coffee, water and a quick smile. Some people make it easy to be friendly, and they fell into that category. In fact, my friendliness to them was most certainly a reflection of theirs to me. We chatted a bit, kidded around, and I took their breakfast order.
Their visit to the Buttercup was typical in every way: good food, friendly banter and lots and lots of coffee. At the end of their visit I rang up their check, and as I turned to leave, the wife pressed an envelope into my hand.
“I want to tell you a story,” the wife said. “Last week, a friend of ours turned 80. Instead of taking a trip or buying something indulgent, she handed out 80 of these envelopes. Each envelope contains 80 dollars.”
The wife smiled. “The woman’s instructions were to give this to someone who’s made a difference in our lives. And right away, we thought of you.”
Huh? I thought to myself. Me?
The wife continued, “Every time we come in here, we look for you. You are a beam of light in this place. A ray of sunshine. No matter how busy you are, you always smile, always laugh.” As she spoke, her hand gently circled my wrist. They were both grinning.
I was clearly confused. I mean, could serving someone pancakes really affect their lives? Their faces began to reflect my own confusion, and I realize now that what they found surprising was that I wasn’t aware of any of this.
She concluded, “So take this, and thank you for being such a wonderful part of our lives.”
In the middle of the Buttercup on Second Street, in the middle of breakfast service on a winter Saturday morning, I started to cry. Then she started to cry. Then her funny husband started to cry. And I’m sure it was quite a spectacle when we three mushed into a group hug in the middle of the dining room.
Later that evening, I took my husband out for a modest dinner – and we left a really good tip for someone else. It was nice to be able to pay it forward.
Thanks for your consideration!