27 January 2011

Lillie Henrietta Ibser Asmus

Tomorrow marks the 8th anniversary of my grandmother's death. Lillie Henrietta Ibser was born the oldest daughter to an immigrant Czech (Bohemian) family on 4 March 1906. She died of old age in Boulder, Colorado, USA, on 28 January 2003. Lillie was a remarkable woman, and I fear this post, written in haste to mark the anniversary, won't do her justice.

A little family history:
Henry Ibser, my grandmother's father, was an orphan who was raised by the family Novak in Prague. The family is believed to have been grocers because one of his tasks was to wash radishes in the Moldau River and hurry home before the radishes freezed. He had no shoes, so he would wrap his feet in newspapers. The Novaks also had a son named Yindrik (Henry). When his adoptive mother was dying, she called for Yindrik, and they brought her biological son, but she was calling for the adopted son, and this would have been the last time she could have told him who he was. Henry, who played the violin quite well, emigrated to the United States at the age of 14. 
Lillie Vitek went to a convent school in Prague. She came to the United States with her aunt (whose married name was Masar) during her teens, much to the ire of the rest of her family, who cut off all contact.  She married and gave birth to my grandmother, her first child, when she was 18.
Grandma said that when she was a little girl, one day she and her mother were walking by a convent, and her mother said, “I would rather you were six feet under than in a place like that.”
Grandma’s mother and father met when he attended a church where she was singing and, the story goes, she winked at him. Henry made work first as an itinerant Methodist preacher and then as an encyclopedia salesman.
Though he preached the gospel, Henry Ibser was quite grim. His children (six of them: Lillie, Henry, Gertrude, Ruth, Rose, and Homer) were not allowed to play games, dance, or engage in any other "frivolity." Thus, my grandmother grew up in a cheerless home of literally all work and no play. Even learning the violin was a forced task.
Grandma broke with her family when, as a young lady, she argued with her father about African Americans. Again, even though he preached the gospel, Henry Ibser was a hateful bigot. Grandmother did not agree with his bigotry, and after an argument over race, she was asked to leave and never come back.
She remained closest with her youngest brother, Homer Ibser. Homer crossed the family by marrying a Japanese woman, so in a way, they became orphans unto themselves.
My grandmother attended college in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her desire was to study biology, but her father felt that was not appropriate for a young woman, so she compromised and studied botany and fine art. For most of her life, Lillie was an accomplished artist using block prints as her preferred medium.
Lillie met my grandfather, Ernest Asmus, when she was about 29 years old. He was a farm boy; she, a city girl. He was ready for adventure, and proposed a honeymoon trip of bicycling through Europe. This was in 1935, shortly before the beginning of WWII there. Lillie had never ridden a bicycle before, but they did it — took a ship to Liverpool, England, outfitted their two bicycles, and began a three-month ride.
This is a story I wish I could've gotten down on paper before Grandma died. Quite an odyssey it must have been! I just have a couple of anecdotes that come to mind quite often. First, as they were bicycling through France, they stopped at a farm and asked to fill their water bottles. With water. The farm family was aghast — "Water? Why would you want to drink water? We have wine or milk." So, they drank milk (remember, Lillie grew up in a strict Methodist household). Another anecdote: My grandfather and grandmother spent some time camped outside a Dutch family's house, which was on a dike. During WWII, that dike was bombed and destroyed. The family contacted my grandparents, who were able to send them much-needed supplies. My aunt still receives letters and small gifts from that family all these years on.
The most remarkable thing about my grandmother, I think, is her recovery from a stroke at 58 and her accompanying spirit of adventure. She had a stroke after losing a job at the University of Colorado in 1964, and her left side, speech, and ability to hand-write were all affected. But she powered through, spending much time after this typing letters and walking everywhere she could.
After her stroke, my grandmother found work as a housekeeper and caretaker for a fairly well-known cellist, Cornelius Van Vliet, who lived in Boulder, Colorado. When he died, Mr. Van Vliet left my grandmother $10,000, which in the early 1970s was an incredible amount of money. Grandma was able to pay off the mortgage on her house and use the rest of the money for travel, as called for in the bequest.
Lillie's first trip was to Bhutan in 1975. She was a member of the first American tourist party allowed into the country, and made the trek around the mountain kingdom with renowned mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. I had the pleasure of talking with her many times about this trip, and an article I wrote about the adventure was published in the 28 June 1992 issue of the Boulder Daily Camera. I also wrote about the trip in an earlier blog post.
Grandma completed another trek in the Scottish Hebrides in 1980 and took other trips, mostly to the UK. More stories I wish I could have recorded!
I lived with my grandmother when I was seven and again when I was 17, when I moved to Colorado from California to finish high school. Without my grandmother's influence on my life, I'm not sure where I would be today.
I helped take care of my grandmother during the last years of her life. The hardest part wasn't that she was nearly blind or nearly deaf or nearly crippled with arthritis — it was that she no longer knew who I was. Instead, I was "that girl who lives in the back" (the back bedroom), and she did not like me very much.
When it became too hard for my aunt and me to take care of Grandma on our own, we moved her to a local nursing home. Grandma actually blossomed there. For one thing, her main nurse (CNA) was a young man from Bhutan! She loved him (once even hinting to me that if she were younger she would marry him). Yes, she even liked me better, though still did not really know me.
Three days before my grandmother died, a nurse phoned to tell us to "come quickly." Something had changed — grandma was alert, happy, and talking. For much of the time prior, she had been sinking farther and farther away.
When I got to the nursing home, grandma recognized me and told me she loved me. What a gift! Another gift: I got to sit next to her, holding her hand, when, three days later, she took her last breaths.
After she died, the Bhutanese and Nepalese members of the staff came quietly into her room, bowed a Namaste, and parted in peace. I crawled into the narrow bed and lay beside my dear abuelita (which was my nickname for her) just as I had when she was at home and awakened terrified that she was dying. Then, I lay next to her to comfort her; this night, I lay next to her to comfort me.
True to her nature, that of living outside of other's expectations, my grandmother insisted that her body be donated to science. I know that's a great thing to do, but it has always been hard for me. Even when I wasn't living with her, I always knew where she was. For once, I would no longer know. I hope she has been a helpful teacher, and I hope she rests somewhere in peace.
We did have a memorial service for Grandma. I spoke at the service and then played the song, "There's a Hero," because that's what Grandma was to me. The lyrics say, "There's amazing strength in a willing hand; there are victories that you never planned." Grandma was willing to take care of me when no one else would. And if I had one thing to say to Grandma's spirit, it would be what the song says, "Go on and trust yourself — you can ride the wind."


  1. This is a great post, Kea. You have written what is true and close to your heart, and it's great to be able to share it. I've written about my own grandma, Mom, who passed in the early 90's, but those stories will be stowed in family files, at least for now. Hopefully the younger generation will someday want to read about her.

    I wonder, have you planted a tree for her, or something like a garden or rock, a *place* that is more for you than for her? Maybe that would ease the absence of knowing where she went?

    It is true ...you can ride the wind.

  2. What a gorgeous post and what a rich life Grandma led! So full of your heart and beautifully written - I feel like I know a good bit about her. I also love that you wrote about her for the Daily Camera - that's great and she met Tenzing Norgay - wow!

    What a lovely way to honor her memory and her life. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.