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Emily Van Strien Story

The Emily Van Strien Story

(The following article was published in the Kalamazoo Index in 2002, shortly after the memorial service for Lillian Anderson.)

In the Woods with Lillian
Emily A. Van Strien '00

Lately, I've been acknowledging overlooked "K" moments, subtle interactions not penciled into my four-year plan but nevertheless creating a lasting impact. During the last few weeks, I've been thinking about my encounter with Lillian Anderson.

Her name is familiar to most members of the Kalamazoo College community. Lillian donated to the College some 100 acres of marsh, meadows and forests of pine and hardwoods located off M-43 in Oshtemo Township. Today that land is called the Lillian Anderson Arboretum. Lillian knew it as home, the land where she grew up and lived for more than 70 years.

I was first introduced to Lillian in the spring of 1998. Associate Professor of Biology Paul Sotherland, head of the Arboretum committee, approached me to ask if I'd be interested in writing the biography of Lillian Anderson, a ninety-four-year-old "K" graduate and benefactress of the College. The first time I went to her residence at Friendship Village, an assisted living center, I remember standing in the lobby trying to guess which one of the white-haired ladies scattered among the various love seats and rocking chairs could be Lillian. I thought I had her pegged when I noticed a blur of floral print, stockings and orthopedic footwear whisk around the corner, heading my way. The woman approached me briskly, shook my hand, and then informed me matter-of-factly that I must be "Emily from Kalamazoo College." Lillian then whisked back around, indirectly summoning me to follow.

"I was a great one for picnics," Lillian asserted early in our conversation. "I would take a picnic and go to the field that was right behind the house. I always managed to get my picnics in." Many of Lillian's early memories suggest her free-roaming spirit, and all of her stories from girlhood are intrinsically tied to the land she grew up on. Her father, Edward Anderson, a Kalamazoo native, purchased the land in 1890. For thirty years, he grew alfalfa, corn, rye, and potatoes, and raised pigs, cows, a few chickens, a couple horses, and a sheep named Nancy. Lillian's mother, Mary Elizabeth, known as May Bell, a native of Kalamazoo and a former schoolteacher, sold butter and eggs to help make ends meet. Lillian was the only child in the family. She was expected to pull her weight, milking the cow every morning and fetching the water. But Lillian remembers hers as a leisurely childhood. She spent the majority of her time trekking through the woods, climbing trees, picking berries, reading "a book a day, sometimes two," tending to her flower garden, and picnicking in the meadows.

She remembered seeing an Indian women on the edge of Bonnycastle Lake, taking her own horse and buggy to the First Presbyterian Church on Sunday, and the transition from her kindergarten-through-eighth-grade one-room schoolhouse to Central High School six miles away. Lillian graduated from Central not long after World War I. When Lillian entered Kalamazoo College in 1922, tuition was about $100. Once, when the Andersons were tight on money, Nancy, the family sheep, was shorn and the price of her wool helped pay the tuition that summer. Lillian's love of nature and stories was reason enough for her to pursue a double major in biology and history. And, along the way, "somebody put it in my head that being a librarian would be a good thing and I thought so too." She started working at the Kalamazoo Public Library a day after she graduated. After one year, Lillian had saved enough money, "exactly one thousand dollars and two cents," to attend Columbia University in New York City where she received her Master's degree in Library Science.

Lillian never married or had children. She described herself as a loner even though her stories always came loaded with an array of close friends, cousins, fellow librarians, communities of people from her church, and memorable strangers.

At age 94, Lillian remained a conscientious caretaker of the earth. She led me on a tour of her flower garden, a 50-foot strip running along a brick wall of her residence at Friendship Village. Scattered about was the typical spread of gardening paraphernalia: 10-pound bags of dirt and peat, shovels, hoses, watering cans, dirt-stained gloves, and a few flats of pansies waiting to be planted. I couldn't believe it was all hers. More amazing were the plants in bloom: rows of marigolds, daffodils, tiger lilies, amaryllis, violets, begonias, forget-me-nots, iris and more.

"In many ways, the rose is my favorite flower, but I guess whatever is in bloom is my favorite at the moment," she suddenly told me in the midst of cataloging each plant's blooming time and hardiness. She would stop periodically to yank out some weeds she knew had been creeping in. That garden, I realize now, was perhaps the last piece of earth privileged to receive her tending.

Near the end of our time together, Lillian and I visited the Arboretum. I'd been there only once, but Lillian, I figured, would have an intuitive orientation to the land where she grew up, regardless of years of change. We got lost. I apologized profusely. Lillian ignored me; she didn't seem to mind one bit. "Well, if we aren't out by tomorrow, I reckon someone will come looking for us," she hollered from about ten paces behind me. "What do you think about sleeping outdoors?" I think she started to sense my nervousness when I responded with silence. 'This doesn't bother me any," she assured me. "I walk three miles a day. Now when I get home, I'll only have to walk about half of that." Just as I was beginning to break a sweat, we entered the shade of the pine forest. The tall pines perfectly create majestic hallways, and their boughs and needles fracture the sunshine into hundreds of thin streams of light. The space feels sacred. We stopped for a moment, and I told Lillian the pines were my favorite part. "I planted them," she said nonchalantly. "What was that Lillian?" I was pretty sure I had misheard her. "When I was about thirty or so, I planted these trees. They were just little things." Right then I was able to feel her history more deeply than I had ever before simply by looking up. I can go back there, look up, and feel her all over again, anytime.

In late August of 2001, Paul Sotherland gave a eulogy at Lillian's memorial service. He drew parallels between her alma mater's motto, Lux Esto - be light - and her life. "Lux Esto simply told people to lead lives though which light could shine," said Paul. "It was that life - a life filled with the love of people, books, flowers, and land - that Lillian lived."

I only knew her for a short time, but the seed that was sown reminds me that it doesn't matter so much if I walk down this path or if I walk down that path; the scenery is equally interesting and, eventually, even the fresh-cut trails lead back around.