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."

13 January 2011

They sell crayons in the hotel lobby

They sell crayons in the hotel lobby. Just a 16-pack, but that's something, anyway.

Robert Krulwich said tonight in his Science Online 2011 keynote (this about Radio Lab and radio in general), "When I give you the words, you get the brush." That is the "magic of radio" — words are actually richer without pictures; everyone gets to paint his or her own story.

If I were at home, I'd have the watercolors and crayons out and the BIG sheet of paper across on the kitchen table. Ready.

Actually, I'd probably "paint" with torn up scraps of paper and magazines, because that's my way. But the point is...

I am trying to express what I got out of tonight's keynote talk. A sense of bubbling over. Of playfulness. A desire to paint with words, knowing I will never, ever get them on the canvas right. When I level my brush at the blank canvas, the words jumble and hang askew.

No, I did not have any of the fancy bourbon at the reception tonight. I had PEOPLE and WORDS. Engaging discussions, a fantastic lecture. People as interested (or more so) as I am in the topic at hand.

Suffice for now that I tack down a few of notes:

Krulwich spoke about the music, the sound, of life, of our lives, kind of in a generational way. What sounds surrounded you when you were young, growing, and now older (whatever age that means)? From thirteen on for me is the sound of my powder-blue portable Smith Corona typewriter. Clack - stick - clack clack - stick - more clacks - ping! Zing.... back to the start of the next line. I typed and typed and typed - I loved the feel of the keys, the sound, the way words came out onto the paper. I so wanted to BE A WRITER.

What other sounds surrounded me? Whirr.... ten-speed, twelve-speed, 18-speed narrow bike tires against the road, Verdi's Four Seasons in my head as a racked up the miles.

Purr purring amplified against my ear. Flick flash. My mother lighting a cigarette with her plastic Bic lighter. Metallic crumpling - smash, skitter, smash - against the cement floor of the garage - my little brother flattening aluminum cans to trade in at the grocery store. Silence, silence, holding my own breath in so I could hear — because hearing somehow made the dreaded awfulness somehow safer? I'm holding my breath right now.

Whoosh! The gas heater coming on in the middle of the night, the whispers of my brothers and me talking about "what to do" as we sat in our pajamas in front of it.

Clank - reverb - the sound of a locker slamming shut and swinging open again. The barely imperceptible swish of paper falling, swaying, drifting to the ground. I can almost hear the scratch of my mother's pen on the legal pad, the sound of her ripping three letters *snap* from the tablet, one for each of us. I crumpled it. I threw it away.

Sigh. Reel it in - back to some happy sounds, shall we? My first record player - Petula Clark! Then came disco... Disco Inferno. And YES. Yes.

Seong Min playing Chopin's Scherzo #3. The scratch swish of my jeans against the dusty church floor underneath the grand piano where she played. Sneaking in - the push and pop of the lever-release door handle.

Mother singing "Oh what a beautiful morning," and "I feel pretty, oh so pretty..."

Scott telling stories, always making me laugh. Robbie and the plinky sorting and clicking of Legos.

The sound of a whip just before it hits you...

Hearing your little brother cry but not remembering whether you did too.

Oh, here we go again.

Let's bring it to the present day. Santana. India Arie AND Santana. Nothing more to say here.

(And this, friends, is the essence of "Dragonfly Wars" as I tried to explain to Steve Silberman tonight. Please see my first post...)

05 January 2011

Poem to a Friend

Painted Passerine

Little bird —
Hope in one eye,
Mischief in the other,
Mocks the rainbow
And laughs at the wind:
Cheeky, brave, and free.

May such cheer hold you
Aloft, awing,
Like this little bird,
Unbound by life's travails.

(inspired by pictures of Gouldian finches)

01 January 2011

Fresh Start

Remember when we saw the world for the first time?

Happy 2011!