CLINTON — Together, Roberta Brown and Peter Lawlor have lived 184 years.
They met online when they were much younger — in their 70s and 80s, respectively.
Both were widowed, lonely and willing to reach out and take a chance.
For the past 15 years, they’ve been each other’s confidante, companion and soul mate. They now split their time together between two islands —Whidbey and Oahu.
If you’ve given up on love, given up on online dating — or both — here’s a romantic tale for the ages.
Lawlor is 97. Brown is 87.
“I was 71, Peter was 81 when we met,” Brown said. “But we both sheared six years off our age when we went on matchmaker.com.”
Brown received many answers to her rather unusual dating profile. She met each suitor at 10 a.m. at a certain Starbucks in Kirkland, near her home. It didn’t take long before baristas caught on, giving her a thumbs up or thumbs down for each new gentleman caller.
Meanwhile, an older chap with a full head of snowy hair and a love of salty air, roamed the beaches of Clinton on South Whidbey, growing a little more glum with every passing day.
“My father was feeling despairing, lonely and wretched,” recalled Lawlor’s daughter, Gretchen, of Langley. “So a friend of mine asked him, ‘Why not try online dating?’”
Soon, they were reading about a woman who’d ridden elephants in Nepal, lived among Bengal tigers, roamed the beaches of Rio and currently lived in Kirkland, where she played her grand piano.
“Oh, I like the sound of her,” Lawlor said.
Brown’s daughter, Sydney, had been keeping an eye out online for possible companions for her mom.
“One day she called from her home in Japan,” Brown remembers, “and she said, ‘Mother, I found someone who sounds perfect for you. He’s from New Zealand, he’s a poet, he’s a musician and he lives on Whidbey Island.’
“I said, ‘Well, sure.’ Then, he called and he said, ‘This is Peta’ — Peter in that kiwi accent of his — and I thought, ‘Oh my,’” Brown said.
They arranged to meet at Lake Forest Park’s Third Place Books. Brown let Lawlor know she’d be wearing a purple coat.
Every year, they return to that same book store on Oct. 22, she in purple, and re-enact that first meeting.
“She’s a darling,” Lawlor said. “We’re quite compatible. We both love to travel. We love to read. We love to eat. I love to cook. She makes the best salad I’ve ever had, but I don’t trust her with the main course.”
The two of them split time at each other’s abodes, crossing back and forth across Puget Sound for long weekends together.
“It really is a sweet love they have,” Gretchen Lawlor said. “People tell me all the time how their relationship inspires them. It really is a beautiful thing to think about finding your great love when you’re in your 70s, 80s and 90s.”
Brown accompanies Lawlor around Whidbey, where he’s known as the island’s poet laureate; he has five books of published poems. He’s had a standing Saturday morning gig at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters Cafe in the Woods, where he delights diners by playing sea shanties on a concertina and harmonica. With his twinkling eyes and crooked smile, one glance in any woman’s direction — young or old — and there’s a sound of a swoon.
At Brown’s home, she plays piano and they sing, perform Broadway tunes and laugh into the night. With hat and cane in hand, Lawlor turns into Maurice Chevalier from “Gigi” singing, “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”
“He’s talented and so bright, and we have that love of music,” Brown said. “We maintained our independence so we had the middle of the week to ourselves, and we just have had this wonderful life together.”
Lawlor keeps up with notes and words despite “not being able to hear worth beans,” his daughter said. “He’s playing music all from memory.”
Last year, the water between them grew wider when Brown decided to give Hawaii a try.
“She was sick and tired of the gray winters, so she shipped her grand piano to Honolulu and moved,” Gretchen Lawlor said. “Dad was sad and heartbroken.
“But he went to visit and now he thinks Hawaii is kind of wonderful,” his daughter said. “He came back to Whidbey in January and he was going to stay awhile. But after three weeks of cold and rain, he turned right around and went back.”
Lawlor, born in Wellington, New Zealand, grew up to be a merchant seaman during World War II and a champion downhill skier. He also worked as a fishing guide, house painter and newspaper columnist.
In Auckland in his early 20s, he met a stunning woman with the name Valentine Mary Ongley. Their love story is one of adventure as they traveled the world, both working as ski instructors and at other jobs while raising three kids.
Brown grew up in a devout Catholic household in Red Wing, Minnesota. In the 1950s, at age 17, she entered a convent. As rules began relaxing for nuns and priests, Brown began studying for her master’s degree in counseling psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
She befriended and then fell in love with Don Brown, a professor who became a specialist in counseling people seeking gender reassignment surgery. She left the convent, married and became a mother at age 43. Soon, the Brown home was a refuge for men and women who had been abandoned by family and friends as they sought to find their true selves.
After Brown’s husband died in 1993, she moved to Seattle. Lawlor moved to Clinton from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had lived since the mid 1970s with his wife, Valentine, until she died in 2000.
“Peter and I feel so fortunate to have found each other,” Brown said. “We still go walking every day. He still writes a poem first thing in the morning. It’s like a gift from God.”
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