Lillian Tully isn’t about to let old age get the best of her, especially since she possesses a valuable skill that can help sick people feel better.

At 91, Tully spends much of her time knitting colorful shawls that she donates to cancer patients.

When I visited Tully and her husband, Donald, in their Waterville home last week, she had just completed knitting her 91st shawl.

“It makes me feel as if I can really contribute something at my age instead of just sitting back and getting old, you know what I’m saying?” she said. “I’m still capable of helping people who need it.”

Lillian started knitting the 5-foot-long shawls a little over three years ago. She gives them to her son, Dan Bahr, a patient negotiator at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta, and he gives them to people who may need a little extra support.

“I say a prayer while I’m knitting the shawls,” Lillian said. “I ask God to bless this person who’s going to wear this shawl and help them through their difficulty. I say, ‘Please, God, help the person who is wearing this.’ I say it many times while I’m knitting. The sad part is I don’t know or get to meet the person who receives it because of patient confidentiality. My son can not tell me who he has given the shawls to.”

But she shows me three thank-you notes, each showering her with praise, not only for her beautiful shawls, but also for her kindness.

“I’m telling you, it makes me cry, every time,” she said.

Lillian is a small woman with gray hair, blue eyes and reddish wire-rimmed glasses. Wearing blue jeans and a multicolored striped pullover, she moves fairly easily around her impeccably neat living room and doesn’t look or act her age. She stands a mere 5 feet tall, but she is a giant when it comes to her capacity for compassion.

“My family has a history of cancer,” she said. “I lost my mother to cancer. I lost my only sister to cancer. I had a bout with it and my son is a throat cancer survivor.”

So making shawls to help comfort cancer patients is a mission, but she worries about what will happen when she can no longer do it herself.

“I’m the only one that does it for the cancer center. When I pass on, I wish someone would pick it up and do it. My son keeps them in his office, and he gives them to those he feels really need them. Basically, it’s two things. Taking chemo, they do feel cold and the prayer shawls help them to stay warm, but also if they’re having difficulty getting through this mentally — if they’re despondent or discouraged — the shawls bring comfort.”

You might say helping people is in Lillian’s blood.

She knit more than 100 pairs of mittens for children in schools from Waterville to Jackman. She also knit more than 100 pairs of socks for her family members.

“It gives me something to do, and I get a nice feeling out of it.”

After she retired from her 16-year job as administrator at Sunset Home, a retirement home for women on College Avenue in Waterville, Lillian volunteered at the former Mid-Maine Medical Center, now Thayer Center for Health, on North Street.

“I volunteered in the emergency room and at the information desk. I volunteered for 16-plus years there, accumulating about 10,000 hours. I loved it — every minute of it. In the emergency room, I helped the nurses. I helped mostly by talking to people out in the waiting room — letting them know what was going on inside the emergency room. On the information desk, I was directing and taking visitors to whomever they were coming to see. I had to do an awful lot of walking, showing patients all the different departments.”

Eventually, polymyalgia, which causes her pain and stiffness, would prevent her from continuing her volunteer work.

“My legs would ache,” she said. “I couldn’t walk for very long before my legs would give out.”

As she recalls her past, Lillian smiles and tells stories. She was born in Madison, went to school in North Anson and graduated from Anson Academy in 1941. She and her first husband owned and operated a dry cleaning business in Madison. They later divorced and she met Donald Tully, now 89, at the American Legion hall in Waterville after she asked the bartender if he knew anyone who liked to dance and he said Donald did. Donald is a retired custodian at the Federal Bank. They have been happily married 32 years.

In addition to her son, who is 62, Lillian has a daughter, Donna, 70, as well as five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. She and Donald are comfortable in the warm, tastefully decorated house they share with Buddy, their 15-year-old brown dachshund.

“I used to love to dance and play cards,” Lillian recalled. “I used to hunt. My father was a registered Maine guide. He taught me to hunt when I was 12 years old. I’m an avid Red Sox fan. I even keep a journal of every player, their number and what position they play.”

And, of course, she loves to knit.

“I started out at a very young age. I was in high school, in my junior year, when my step-mother taught me how to knit. Thank God for her.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]


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