Woman Reunites With 91 Year Old Former Housekeeper
Nancy Hall Cloonan last saw her former housekeeper, Lillian Wilder, at her mother’s funeral in 1958. After 54 years of searching, a chance occurrence led to their joyous reunion.
When Cloonan’s mother died, the family sold their home and Wilder did not know how to reach her.
“I kept calling,” said Wilder, “but I couldn’t find her.”
Cloonan was also searching for Wilder, but she only knew her first name which made her search close to impossible.
The situation seemed hopeless until fate had a chance to work its magic. An article in the Star-Ledger’s Black History Month series on domestic workers led the two to find each other.
“You look like your mother!” Wilder exclaimed after first laying eyes on Cloonan. “I can’t believe I’m crying. I’m so happy to see my little girl.”
“I came prepared,” said an emotional Cloonan with tissues in hand.
At 16 years old, Wilder answered a help-wanted ad and was hired to help elderly sisters Elizabeth French and Annabelle Hall with Cloonan. Hall was Cloonan’s grandmother. She took in her son and granddaughter to live with her and needed someone to care for Cloonan.
“Nancy was like my own child. That’s how I felt,” Wilder said. “I would hold her, I would diaper her; I fed her.”
Wilder lied about her credentials on her job application. She was an orphan since the age of 13 and was sent to live with her cousins in New Jersey. Because of the job scarcity during the Great Depression, and the fact that she was a young black woman, Wilder felt it necessary to embellish her skills to land a position.
Wilder knew how to clean but she lied about her cooking skills. Hall caught on right away since she was a Home Ec teacher.
The two women reunited in 1958 at the funeral of Cloonan’s mother. At the time, Cloonan was 16 years old.
Cloonan went on to marry and had four children. She worked and traveled and enjoyed a fulfilling life. But she never had any information to search for Wilder since she only knew her by her first name.
The Star-Ledger interview led to their recent reunion. The article mentioned a woman named Lillian who loved the people for whom she worked because they made her feel like family. She told the paper that the family encouraged her to do something great with her life and gave her a flexible work schedule to allow her to attend school. Wilder eventually quit school and became a care worker for the developmentally disabled.
“That household was just the nicest household. I’ve got to give it to them. I forgot I was black,” Wilder said. “They always treated me like family.”
It was Cloonan’s daughter who spotted the Star-Ledger article about Wilder. She remembers her mother speaking about a woman named “Lillian” and how she cared for her.
Cloonan contacted Wilder on the phone and the two decided to meet in person. Cloonan traveled to New Jersey to reunite with 91-year-old Wilder who carved a special place in Cloonan’s heart.
The women, now a grandmother and great-grandmother, barely had enough time to share the stories of their lives and the positive memories. Even so, they were happy to have found each other and consider their reunion a miracle.
“I thought I’d never find her,” Cloonan said.
Wilder replied, “You were always in my life.”