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Lieselotte (Lilo) Kirby was born in 1927 and grew up in an area of eastern Germany that is now Poland, during the Nazi regime. There was little to laugh about and the only memories she has of that time nearly 90 years ago, are bad ones. She prefers not to talk about it. But coming to America in 1951 brought about many happier memories. A couple from Indiana sponsored her entry into the United States, a process that she remembers taking more than a year.
“I had to write that I will not be a burden to the United States,” says Lilo, “If I couldn’t support myself, I’d have to go back (to Germany). They (the couple who took her in) were lovely people and it was wonderful. I lived with them until I got married.”
She met Paul Kirby while taking ballroom dance lessons in Tucson, Arizona.
Paul was not a very good dancer according to Lilo and often told her that he might be a better dancer if she wouldn’t try to lead.
“I could follow, but he wouldn’t lead,” says Lilo laughing.
They became friends first, enjoying long conversations and getting to know each other for about a year, before marriage entered their minds. Out of their friendship they built a marriage.
The Marriage Years
“We had fun together. But it was an ordinary proposal,” recalls Lilo. “Paul was not a man of many words. One time I asked him, “Do you love me?” He said, “I wouldn’t have married you if I didn’t.” That was Paul Kirby.”
They married in 1956 and moved to Edmond, Oklahoma in 1962 so Paul could take a job as a physics professor at Central State University which is now, University of Central Oklahoma. He taught there 30 years, and in 1970 they had a wonderful surprise when their son Russ was born. They enjoyed traveling and celebrated their 40th anniversary at Maple State Park in Texas. “It was just the two of us,” says Lilo wistfully. And when Paul retired in 1982 they bought a recreational vehicle and traveled the United States, often camping with an RV club they had joined. Their favorite destination was Lake Murray in south central Oklahoma.
“It was a very relaxing place for us. We enjoyed being out in the open.”
Paul suffered with emphysema and passed away from complications with the disease in 1999 after 43 years of marriage.
Living After Loss
“I’ve been lonesome since,” says Lilo, “but my memories are good. He was always there when we needed him.”
Unlike some women in her situation, she possessed the financial skills she needed to tend to the family finances after he passed away. Lilo had worked doing bookkeeping over the years and was comfortable managing her household. She even knew how to handle the fairly regular tornado warnings that are common to the area.
“The first few years in Oklahoma, I was a nervous wreck, to be honest. I belonged to many different organizations and if I heard a tornado was coming during a meeting, I’d pack up my things and go home, so they stopped telling me. After a while you get used to it.”
When tornadoes are headed her way she keeps her eye on the news, hears sirens which are all over the city and goes to the middle of the house. Her hallway and bathroom are the designated safest spaces in her home. She recently heard recommendations to wear hardhats as a safety precaution so she bought one, just in case. “It’s a lovely city. I’ve had a good life with my husband in Edmond and those memories will keep me there,” despite the tornadoes.
Over the years she was active in her community serving in different capacities with groups including Faculty Wives, League of Women Voters, and there was always church work to be done. At the first United Methodist Church in Edmond, she has served as treasurer and been involved with the church newsletter.
“When you live by yourself, there isn’t much time,” says Lilo about her community involvement. She enjoys the companionship of her faithful dog Niner, and is busy tending to her home. She enjoys her flower gardens filled with Iris, Flocks, Daffodils and “a lot of those little yellow flowers…oh Dandelions,” and favors gardening to housecleaning. She cuts down weak tree limbs here and there, and even mows her own lawn. She will be 87 in November and says she might give it up some day but for now, she is more than able to continue. When the weather keeps her indoors, she gets out her knitting needles and works on a sweater or afghan.
Despite her home commitments she makes time for the labyrinth ministry at her church, the third Monday of each month. She has been involved with it since it began more than 20 years ago when the minister introduced it to the congregation. She finds it a worthwhile ministry and the church now has two portable labyrinths. A labyrinth is a walking meditation that symbolizes the spiritual journey. It has been around since ancient times and appeals to people of all faith traditions. Lilo’s attraction to the labyrinth is what draws many people to its quiet, reflective practice.
“It’s the stillness of it. You can really be yourself. You can be by yourself and renew yourself. Sometimes after people walk they will come over and tell us a few things about the labyrinth that helps them. People from all different churches come. It doesn’t make any difference…you are one….I like that feeling. It is open to everyone.”
For the past 10 years, she has gathered once a week at 7 a.m. at her local Denny’s Restaurant to meet with a group of women who support and encourage each other. When they started getting together in 2004 there were just five of them but their Breakfast Club has doubled in size. There is plenty of laughter, they aren’t afraid to share their stuff, good and bad, and if someone doesn’t show up, they will be on the phone to make sure they’re okay. Some are married and some are not, but they care about each other in that genuine Midwest way.
“I’m glad I have a sense of humor,” says Lilo. “It helps me a lot in many situations. I guess that’s why we like each other at the Breakfast Club. It’s good.”
Despite her busy schedule and the camaraderie of these women, and the support of her church and son, there are still moments when Lilo just feels alone. She will often decline an invitation to avoid being with other couples when being alone feels too challenging an ordeal. She has never considered dating again citing, “too many good memories with Paul.”
“There are moments when you just have to deal with it,” says Lilo. “You feel alone even after all this time. After Paul died I had a down time. But you can’t stay down there. You have to get up and live again. I guess it’s not in me to give up. I learned that in the war. I was in Berlin at the end. It was time to get up and get going, and life goes on.”