The Last Witness

By David Brown
Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lillian Gertrud Asplund was 5 1/2 years old when her family booked third-class passage and went aboard a ship called the RMS Titanic in Southampton, England, returning to America. The trip ended a four-year sojourn in Sweden, where her father helped straighten out problems on his widowed mother's farm -- a task he agreed to on the condition that he could bring his family with him. Now, they were all headed home to Worcester, the city in central Massachusetts that by the turn of the century had more Swedes than any place east of Chicago.

Four days out, the ship hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, with 712 passengers and crew saved, and about 1,500 lost. Among the latter were Lillian's father, Carl Oscar; her 13-year-old brother, Filip; her 9-year-old brother, Clarence; and her twin brother, Carl Edgar. Of the family, only Lillian, her mother, Selma, and her 3-year-old brother, Felix, survived.

I met Lillian Asplund three times over successive Easter weekends early this decade. Her year-to-year survival surprised me, although perhaps it shouldn't have, given her apparent satisfaction with simple pleasures and her unwillingness to be pushed where she didn't want to go.

I came to her with a purpose -- the same one shared by many strangers over her very long life. I wanted to hear her version of the Titanic's sinking. If the memories she had were her own -- and not details unconsciously assimilated from her mother -- then she'd be the last eyewitness of the event on Earth. She was 96 when we met, one of only three survivors, not counting two, still alive, who were in utero when the ship went down. The other two, both women living in England, were 11 months old and 9 weeks old when the ship sank, which ensured they remembered nothing.

On May 6, Asplund died at the age of 99 in Shrewsbury, Mass. She took with her the last survivor's memory of the sinking. What she recalled of the early hours of April 15, 1912, was something she jealously guarded all her life. Curiously, those memories were also what she spent nearly a century trying to be rid of.

I discovered Lillian Asplund when checking the date of the Titanic catastrophe for a reference in a news story I was writing. She resided about 15 miles from where I'd grown up, in Framingham, Mass. I easily found her address and wrote her a letter. It was intercepted, as all her letters were, by Philip Maloof, her attorney and guardian of her privacy. Inquiries seeking an audience with Miss Asplund arrived frequently, and they were all turned down, politely but firmly. She had long ago decided to refuse all interview requests. She could barely stand to hear the word "Titanic." Recalling the events still upset her, and she invariably stopped or redirected any conversation that stayed on the topic for long.

Nevertheless, Maloof called me to talk about my letter. He wanted to know if there was any way his elderly client could make money from an interview. She had a pension from her job as a clerk at the State Mutual Insurance Co. in Worcester, and a small bank account. They were enough to pay living expenses and the wages of helpers, which allowed her to stay in her house. But Maloof wasn't sure how long the money would last. He wanted to supplement it.

I told him journalists didn't usually pay people for interviews -- The Washington Post and I wouldn't -- but that documentary filmmakers might feel differently. That assumed she had a story worth paying for, which of course nobody would know until she told it, which she wasn't willing to do. We had several phone conversations, and I suggested possible avenues Maloof might pursue. At the end of one call he said it would be fine for me to come by and meet Miss Asplund as long as I didn't bring up the Titanic. I eventually agreed to this condition. Several months later, while visiting my parents, I went to see her, taking my son Will, then 13, with me.

Her wood-frame, brown-shuttered house was easy to find. She had lived in it since the 1950s, originally with her mother and brother. The three never separated after arriving in Worcester on April 20, 1912, five days after the ship sank. Lillian Asplund never married, her brother never married, and their mother never re-married. Selma Asplund died at age 90 on April 15, 1964, the 52nd anniversary of the Titanic's sinking.

The living room was rather dark, with a few mass-produced pictures of landscapes and European street scenes on the wall. In a corner alcove, under a window, was a hospital bed with the head slightly raised. An aide and housekeeper, a woman in her thirties, appeared briefly and then withdrew. Will and I approached and saw a small woman lying in the bed. Her white hair was gathered in a ponytail that was visible the few times she lifted her head. She wore a nightgown with pink flowers, and over it a housecoat. She was under the covers. My son carried an Easter lily, which he presented by placing it on a red stool beside her. She immediately began to rave about it, identifying it by name, counting the three open blossoms and remarking on its beauty.

"Lillian was quite a gardener in her day," Philip Maloof said. He added in a stage whisper: "Her brother Felix was the indoor person, and Lillian was the outdoor person."

"I'm hoping to get up and do a little gardening this summer," she said. "I love to garden."

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