The Sopris Sun

Here, gone and back again: Lilly comes home

(Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment in a series about Mary Lilly. She is 99 years old).

By David Troxel

Sopris Sun Correspondent

As western ranches go, it wasn’t grand or impressive, but the location was good. Eight and a half acres carved out of the 52-acre Four Pines Ranch, right on Nettle Creek where it joined the icy blue Crystal River.

Mary thought it would do just fine. “It had an apple orchard and two little guest houses, an old house that had been fixed up, and a beautiful old stable,” she remembers. And there was a bonus: “Free water, coming out of the creek through a wooden pipe held together by wire, running right through the property. Well, you know, in the west free water is invaluable!”

Life on the ranch

So in 1971, Mary Lilly quit her life in Washington, D.C. to settle near Carbondale, the little mountain town she had grown to love from afar. Charles, the younger of her two sons, had helped her to scout out the property. Now he too made the big move, leaving his college studies in Iowa to help his mother start a new life. Together, they fixed up the ranch buildings and stables, cleaned out some ditches, and started using that wonderful mountain water to grow apples like nothing found in the produce aisle today.

“The orchard was planted with heirloom varieties like Pear apples and Wealthy apples. And Charles was wonderful with animals,” she adds, “so we raised some pigs and boarded cattle and sometimes horses, just a few.” When the ranch could spare them, Mary and Charles were active in the Carbondale community that already included good friendships going back 20 years or more. They had stayed close to John and Anne Holden, and the Perry clan, met and befriended new people, and were soon involved with the Mt. Sopris Historical Society, the Carbondale Methodist Church, the League of Women Voters and other local groups. Charles continued his education at Colorado Mountain College, and Mary soon signed on there to teach art.

Life at Nettle Creek was much like any ranch lifestyle — hard work blended with great satisfaction and shared freely with neighbors and friends. It went on like that for 28 years, and might have lasted longer but for an urgent call for help that Mary and Charles could not refuse.

Family in need

After her marriage to Dr. John Lilly ended in 1959, Mary had kept the family home near Washington. Dr. Lilly continued his research on dolphin intelligence and metaphysics, ultimately establishing his own laboratory facility in Malibu, California. But with two sons and 23 years of marriage between them, John and Mary Lilly were never entirely estranged. “Every time he came to Washington, D.C. he would call me up to see how I was doing,” she recalls. Mary and Charles had been living at the ranch near Carbondale for just over 20 years when, in 1992, Dr. Lilly retired to Hawaii.

Within a few years, John Lilly’s health had begun to fail, while at the same time the ownership of his Malibu property was challenged in a California court. Dr. Lilly was by then a famous man, but in retirement in Hawaii he had only Philip, his caretaker, to provide reliable support. In 1999, faced with poor health and legal troubles, he reached out for family, and son Charles was soon on his way from Nettle Creek to look after his father.

“Two months later,” Mary recalls, “I had sold the ranch and bought a place in Maui. Charles was the general overseer of all of that, taking care of his father and fixing up the new house.” In what seemed like only a moment, her life in Carbondale appeared to have become a memory.

End of an era

With the court date fast approaching, Mary and Charles helped Dr. Lilly prepare for the trip to Santa Monica to save his Malibu home and research center. The tension of their situation mounted when John developed an infection near his heart and had to undergo surgery to have a pacemaker implanted. Shortly after, weakened and not at all well, he left Mary and Charles in Maui and flew with Philip to the mainland.

The court case went badly for Dr. Lilly, and the property was lost. Under the stress, he was hospitalized again almost immediately. John Jr., the Lilly’s elder son, traveled from his home in Mexico to be at his father’s bedside in California. Mary and Charles waited in Hawaii for news, and on Sept. 30, 2001, they received word that Dr. John Lilly had passed away.

Mary would later learn that all his friends, and Johnny and Philip, were there when he died. “One day he just said ‘It’s too noisy, everybody get out of here,’ so they left him alone in his hospital room. And he died,” Mary said.

Alone on the island

So Mary and Charles found themselves alone on Maui, far away from Carbondale and their close friends, sorting through the pieces of Dr. Lilly’s legacy. They wintered there on the island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When the Hawaiian spring came in, it brought with it another unexpected blow.

As Mary recalls, “One morning at 6 a.m., Charles asked me to take him to the emergency room, about 15 miles away at the Kahului Hospital. I drove him, and he seemed to be alright, but at midnight they called me up and said that Charles had died.” Her younger son and former ranch partner, she learned, had suffered heart failure caused by a medication he had been taking. Their friend Philip, who had been Dr. Lilly’s caretaker, drove Mary back to the hospital that night, where she found Charles “sitting up in bed looking alive.” But he was gone.

Home to stay

As she relates the events of those months following Dr. Lilly’s death, Mary’s gaze seems to softly penetrate the confines of her living room, beyond the present moment, to rest on the memory of that difficult time. She continues: “I began thinking then, ‘Where will I go? What will I do?’ So eventually, about three months later, I sold the house in Maui and bought this house, and moved back here.” Here, of course, being Carbondale.

Mary Lilly was home again, and with the help of son John Jr. she settled into the little house in the Carbondale west side neighborhood where she now lives. Johnny stayed with her for a time, while she put her household together, and then he returned to his home and work in Zacatecas, Mexico.

Mary quickly renewed her friendships and activities in the community. After nearly four years had passed, she took a trip to Mexico to spend some time with Johnny. He encouraged her to consider moving there herself, where she could be closer to him and his wife Colette.  “So we toured around Guadalajara and various places looking at property for me,” she recalls. “I didn’t see anything I thought I could stand, and so I came back.”

It would be Mary’s last visit with Johnny. Not long after returning to Carbondale, she got word that her firstborn son had been hospitalized for pneumonia, and soon succumbed to the condition. “So now,” Mary says, “I’m the only one alive on both sides of the family.” She does know of two nieces and a second cousin in California. But apart from them, she says, “That’s all, there are no more. I’m it.”

“So here I am.” She pauses and then smiles. “It’s been very complicated, and I’ve only told you the highlights.”   

I put down my notes and turn off the recorder. We sit quietly for a moment, surrounded by photos and artwork, mementoes of a long and fully lived life. Mary’s yearling cats, Daisy and Sophie, who earlier were romping and getting into mischief as she talked, are dozing in their chairs. Then the doorbell rings us both back into the present, and a familiar voice calls “Hello! Are you home?” Mary’s soft smile widens and her eyes dart to the door. “Yes, yes,” she calls back cheerfully. “I’m here, come in, the door is open!”

Mary Lilly is home in Carbondale at last, and as they do most every day her friends have come to see her. As they enter, she turns back to me and beams. “Life just seems to go on and on, doesn’t it?”