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ON THE SCENE: One hundred and going strong in Keene Valley

March 11, 2011
“Stell’ Dich ueber Alles weg, freu’ Dich ueber jeden Dreck.” Put aside what you don’t like, and find happiness in every little thing. These are the words that Marion Biesemeyer lives by. Marion, surrounded by friends and family celebrated her 100th birthday at the Mountain House, her family’s home on top of East Hill in Keene. Over those 100 years she has had many occasion to learn the hard way just how valuable those words of advice are.

Marion was born on February 22, 1911 in Berlin, Germany. She spent the first 3 years of her life in Brussels until the outbreak of World War I, when her parents, Fanny and Joseph Hempel, moved to Heilbronn in southern Germany where her parents ran a brewery. After the war, her father became an importer of jewels and Marion, after high school, enrolled in medical school at the University of Freiberg. Her degree, however was invalidated by the Nazis in 1937 because her mother was Jewish. The family was then living in Konstanz, near the Swiss border, where she met Walter Biesemeyer, a young architect. In 1938 she and Walter moved to Paris, soon to be followed by the rest of her family and, in 1940, were able to get on the last commercialized liner to sail across the Atlantic.

Their life in Keene began as caretakers at the Putnam Camp in St Huberts, and Walter sought work as an architect and draftsman. In 1946 they bought an old camp on East Hill, which they expanded and turned into a guesthouse. By then Marion had 3 children with youngest Bob, now a local contractor, being born at the then named Mountain House. Her goal was to take and pass the necessary courses to become certified as a doctor, but those plans were dashed by the untimely death of her husband Walter in1953 by brain tumor. She found herself having to raise three children and operate an Inn, indeed she had a full house to contend with. It was not until 2001, at age 90, that the University of Freiberg awarded her an honorary M.D. degree. In the meantime, to help make ends meet, she taught Latin in the Ausable Valley School system, and later French at Keene Central.

“I can remember growing up here when I was a kid,” said Brett Lawrence. “Some of my fondest memories where being up here with Uncle Bobby and having all the fantastic meals. When Mary and I were first married Marion had us up for probably the best lamb dinner I have ever had, that was 38 and a half years ago. It was the first time I had ever had lamb cooked rare. I didn’t know you could cook it that way. It was delicious. When Bobby and I were just boys we’d sleep upstairs in a feather bed. In the winter when we woke up there would be snow on the floor.”

The next morning in church, the Rev Milton Dudley said, “Marion asked Brett how old he was. He said, ‘65.’ She responded (mimicking her German accent), “Ach, and I am only 67.’ Quite a trick when her son is 72.”

“Peter, how does it feel to have a 100-year-old mother?” I asked her oldest son.

“It gives me something to shoot for,” he said. “What did I learn from her? To never lose sight of the important things. She was very self-disciplined and she tried to install that in us. One of the things that most impressed me was when I’d come across some quotation or some odd fact, and I would share it with her, she already knew more about it than I knew and asked if read the other books by that author. Her breadth of knowledge was outstanding. I am most impressed by how she ran the business after my father Walter died. He died in the summer when the place was full and she had us three kids. She just did it all. I don’t know how she managed all that. She had some steel in her backbone. She had no use for nostalgia. She didn’t believe in looking backward.”

“Having a mother who is 100 gives me some reassurance that there are some decent genes in at least one side of the family because I haven’t done myself too many favors,” said her youngest Bob Biesemeyer. “What’s an interesting thing that I learned from her? One time I said to her, ‘I think it is important to believe in oneself.’ She replied, ‘It is much more important to believe in others.’ That really struck me, a pretty profound statement when you think about it.”

“Are you aiming for 100 as well,” I asked Marion’s brother-in-law Lewis Lipschutz.

“Hmm, I am 89,” he said. “Yes, I think I had the right parents. I had an aunt who lived to be 95.”

“I have vivid memories of her taking us to Montreal,” said Lewis’s eldest daughter Elizabeth. “She is the one who taught me the most about plants and flowers. What’s the German expression for, ‘What’s in your head they can never take away from you?’ She used say that.”

“I used to be Little Marion and she was Big Marion,” said Marion Lipschutz, Lewis’ youngest daughter. She was called big Marion until a very advanced age when she said; ‘I just want to be called Marion now.’ But to my children she is Great Big Marion, so she wasn’t able to get it dropped very long. She had a very practical, what comes next, approach that served her very well given the cards she was dealt and the many things that happened to her that could have collapsed another. She had the temperament to be a doctor and ended up an innkeeper. She grew up in one culture and ended up in another. She always looked forward. I once asked her how do you decide what to charge for a room. She said, ‘It depends on how many times they ask where my accent is from.’”

“What I liked about her is that she’d tell it like it was,” said Pat Anderson.

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