What My Grandmother Did For Me

Mary Towle Kimball
of Fort Fairfield, Maine
1984 (76 yrs old)

As I grow older, I find myself becoming more reflective and sentimental. I reckon that’s because age allows us a better perspective— I can now see more clearly how God, the omnipotent and omniscient orchestrator that He is, used different people in my life to shape my character, bless me, and lead me into a closer relationship with Him. My grandmother Kimball was one of those people and I feel compelled to tell you the story of what she did for me.

She was born Mary Louise, in Fort Fairfield, Maine, the first child of Hiram and Kate Towle. Ten more children followed. It was typical for farm families to be big like that in those days. All the children were needed to help on the farm. As the oldest child, my grandmother had her work cut out for her. From what I’ve heard, I believe she had a good childhood on the farm. One thing is for certain, the Towle siblings were a close-knit bunch.

After graduating from high school in 1928, my grandmother went for a time to Simmons College in Boston. Near as I’ve been able to determine, she studied home economics. After that, she returned to Fort Fairfield, and met Herrick Kimball. He was a hometown boy from a humble farming background who left the area in 1918 for college and medical school. He had recently returned to open up his medical practice. They dated and married, but not until Herrick paid off all his school loans. I mention that because my grandmother told it to me on more than one occassion.

They purchased a large and appropriate home on Presque Isle Street. The marriage produced two children, a boy and a girl. Philip, the oldest, grew up and married my mother, Mary Philbrick, when he was a student at Bowdoin College. Shortly thereafter, I made my way onto the scene (1958). Somewhere, packed away, I have a tiny black sweatshirt I once wore with the Bowdoin mascot (a polar bear) on it and the wording: “Bowdoin Class of 19??”

Before long, my parents divorced. Philip went on to remarry and become an orthopedic surgeon. My mother and I went on to stay with her brother in California for awhile, then to Massachusetts, where she remarried, and finally we settled here in upstate New York. I have told you all of this because it sets the stage. It gives you the background you need in order to better understand what my grandmother Kimball did for me.

The divorce and relocation separated me from my father. I did not talk to him. I did not see him. I remember getting Christmas gifts for a few years. But my father had a new family and his medical career to concern himself with. Out of sight and out of mind applies. But it did not apply to my grandmother. She stood in the gap.

I think my grandmother made it her mission in life to make sure that I remained connected to the Kimball and Towle side of my family. With that in mind, she sent cards and letters on a regular basis. In the letters she would write about herself, my father, my aunt, and all her brothers & sisters and nieces and nephews. She often sent photographs of herself and others with writing on the back to explain who people were. She sent pertinent newspaper clippings, and for major holidays and my birthday, she always sent me some spending money. She did this as long as she lived.

 My grandmother let me use her camera to take this picture 
of her in 1965 when I was seven years old

At Christmas, when I was young, she sent BIG boxes packed with carefully wrapped presents and holiday decorations. When I started collecting stamps in 6th grade, she sent me a plate block of every new stanp the Post Office issued. She did this for many years.

The point is, my grandmother never missed an opportunity to reach out and connect with me. By doing this, she made me feel like I was very special to her. I had no extended family members living anywhere around me, but my grandmother made it clear that I was part of a big family up there in Maine.

You can only connect so much by mail and an occasional phone call with someone 900 miles away. It’s not the same as spending time with that person. So my grandmother invited and enabled me to come visit with her, and for many summers of my youth (up until 8th grade) I went to Fort Fairfield. Part of those summers were spent with my mother’s parents at their farm outside of town, but most of the time I was with my grandmother Kimball.

My grandmother Kimball's house in Fort Fairfield, Maine.
A very special place for me.

My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I have some recollections of him. I remember going to his office and accompanying him to the hospital one day. I remember going to the Rexall drug store he owned on Main Street. I remember sitting at the lunch counter in the front and being treated to anything I wanted. My grandfather was a prominent and respected man in the town and I was his first grandson, his namesake. It seemed that everywhere we went, people were delighted to see me and that made me feel pretty special.

After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother was able to focus her attention more on me when I visited. She bought me clothes and comic books and various playthings. We went to the library. We went to museums. We went to the fair, and to horse races, and out to eat. And when we weren’t eating out, she was cooking for me. She was an exceptional cook.

My grandmother was also a creative person and she involved me in her creative activities. When she did ceramics, I did ceramics. When she painted, I painted. When she did decoupage, I did decoupage. When she went tramping out in the woods, looking for a particular plant to pick and dry for her craft projects, I followed right along and helped. She was an excellent seamstress, but I never did sew, or knit, which was what she often did in the evenings when we watched television together. Reruns of Bonanza now remind me of watching tv with my grandmother.

This is me in 1965 while visiting my grandmother for the summer

She loved flowers and was active in the garden club. I recall her making flower arrangements for inside her house and for the family headstones in Riverside Cemetery. In my mind’s eye I can see my grandmother, all dressed up (she always dressed so well), with a pearl necklace, high heels, and white gloves, spading the earth around one of her flower beds.

I knew her as an active person. She got up early in the morning and was busy with cooking or cleaning. It seemed that she was always working at something. Later in life she took up golf. She kept a cart at the Aroostook Valley Country Club and we went golfing there many times. I think I enjoyed driving the cart more than hitting the ball!

Every summer I would see the same family members and friends. They stopped by to visit, and we often went to Towle family get-togethers at Aunt Ruth and Uncle Gib’s camp on Munson Pond, just outside of town. The Potato Blossom Festival was a major event in Fort Fairfield each summer and the big parade went right down Presque Isle Street, so the Towles and Kimballs would gather in large numbers on my grandmother’s lawn to watch it go by. In time, I actually figured out who most of those friends and relatives were!

My grandmother had a camp on Cross Lake, an hour or so north of her home. It is a place I have such wonderful memories of. Sometimes just she and I would go there, but often there were others that came. I remember stopping to get my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Helen, who had gone blind and lived alone in town, and taking her to the camp with us for the weekend. I saw my grandmother give of her time and talents to help others in many different ways.

This is me at my grandmother's camp.
The sign says, "Chateau Kimball."

She attended the Baptist church across the street from her house. My earliest recollection of going to church is going with my grandmother. She was not outwardly “religious” but I got the impression at a young age that her faith was important to her.

Looking back, I suspect that some people looked at how my grandmother doted on me and gave me so much, and they figured she was spoiling her grandson. Perhaps that thought even crossed your mind as you’ve read this. Well, I do not think she did that. I sure did enjoy getting the royal treatment when I was with my grandmother, but it was more than balanced out by the reality of my life back in the scrappy, working-class, housing development where I grew up the rest of the years.

No, my grandmother did not spoil me. Instead, she helped me, like no one else, to understand who I was. She helped to shape my identity. It was something that I very much needed as a little boy. And she modeled for me important character qualities.

I am particularly mindful of all this today because it was one year ago on this day that my wife, The Lovely Marlene, called me at work and told me that my grandmother Kimball had suddenly died. She was 97 years old. She had outlived all but one of her siblings. She was in remarkably good health for her age, but she was fragile and her time had come. The moment I had so dreaded for years was upon me.

I immediately went home and prepared to go to Maine. Marlene and I and our three boys headed out in the SUV the next morning. The trip went well and we were there two days later, in time for the funeral.

It was a wonderful funeral service. My father was, of course, there. My sons had a chance to meet a grandfather they have never known. There were family members there that I had not seen for many years. They were all so much older. But I knew them. They were my family and I knew them. One cousin shook my hand and said “Welcome home.” Indeed, though I have never lived there more than a few months in the summers of my youth, I have always felt like I was home when I was in Aroostook County Maine.

I am a person who does not show emotion in public. It is a different story when I am alone with my emotions, but in public, I’m a cool cucumber. And I was that way through the funeral. The closest I came to loosing it was when Pastor Beals, who led a bible study at the retirement home where my grandmother had an apartment for her last years, spoke of my grandmother’s faith. He made some sort of comment about how she knew the scriptures better than he did and how she knew Jesus as her savior. That was such a blessing for me and my family to hear.

But the most memorable thing that happened to me that day was near the end. Most everyone had gone. It was over. My Aunt Ruth was leaving. I had not spoken to her yet. She came over to say good bye. She held out her hand and I took it. She looked intently into my eyes and said, with deliberation and deep emotion, three simple words that I will never forget; three simple words that bring me to tears every time I think of them, because they are three simple words that made all the difference in my life:

“Sheeee loved you!”

I’m sure my face went red and my expression changed instantly. I could barely talk, I managed to nod my head and say “I know.” Then she said, “See ya.” and walked away with one of her sons at her side.

My grandmother did love me. I always knew that. And I loved her dearly because of it. I am the person I am today, in large part, because of her love for me. I thank God for my grandmother.

I thank Him for loving me in such a special way through such a special person.

Mary T. Kimball, 1967
with Hollywood, California, in the background

20 comments:

R.G. said...

Herrick,

Please except my sincere condolences. I can identify with this, your beautiful eulogy post, as my grandfather recently passed away and he is similarly loved and missed. Well done, sir.

R.G.

R.G. said...

Oops, I meant 'accept' not 'except'; doh!

larswife said...

A beautiful tribute, Herrick; thank you for sharing.

Missouri Rev said...

Herrick, thank you for sharing your heritage. The legacy of your faithful grandmother has real substance, something lacking in these days of shallow hype and generational estrangement. May your children and grandchildren have the same testimony of you and your wife.

HomesteadHerbs said...

You made me cry!! What a lovely tribute to your grandmother. It brings to mind my grandmother, who also made sure I was kept involved in my father's family after my parent's divorce.

Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Dear Herrick, my name is Terry Shaw and I live in Perth-Andover, N.B. Your grandfather delivered me in 47 as there was no hospital in town then. My two brothers as well and many others on this side of the border. Your grandmother was a truly classy lady. I married into the Towle clan for 10 tears (72-81) as Carmen and I shared our lives. I am happy to report we are still good friends and see each other several times a year at family gatherings etc. I have many memories fo Mary as the Matriarch of the family at social gatherings. She was the conscience of the family in many ways as I'm sure most wondered what would Mary think when some decision had to be made about life. She was a dental patient of mine the last 15 years or so of her life and took excellent care of her teeth. I read your excellent tribute of her a few minutes ago and it bought tears to my eyes as the memories flowed. Thank you and warmest wishes to you and your family, Sincerely Terry Shaw. Carolyn sent me this web message.

wayne said...

Dear Herrick,, My name is Wayne Thibeau and wifes name is Marilyn . I went to school with both your Dad and aunt Carolyn as I was in the class of 55. What a great tribute to wonderful lady!!! Thank you and believing for the best for your family .. Wayne Thibeau Carolyn sent us the message

Christy Towle Fuller said...

Dear Herrick,
I am your cousin, Christy Towle Fuller, your great uncle Everett's(Towle) youngest daughter from his first marriage. I always knew that about Aunt Mary and I applauded her for giving you attention that you so richly deserved. She was an awesome woman, I always looked up to her. She headed the Towle clan in many ways and she was an honorable person. I too have many memories of sitting on the lawn during the parade, trying to figure out who all the relatives were. She gave us a gathering place so we could at least make contact once a year (for those of us who are from "away") Keep up the good work.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Terry,

I remember you. My wife, Marlene, and I went to Fort Fairfield for our honeymoon in 1980. I met you at Carmon's parent's house where we went for a little get-together one evening.

Thank you for your comments about my grandmother. I recall her taking me to a dentist (not you) a couple times during those summers I visited her. I can see her smiling to show me her teeth and telling me how she still had all of them and that I should take good care of my teeth. I don't suppose there are too many 97 year old people with all their teeth.

And it's neat to know that my grandfather delivered babies over the border, including you. I believe he delivered hundreds of babies. I recall seeing, after he died, file boxes full of index cards, each card was a baby he delivered.

Best wishes to you

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Wayne,

Did we meet at my grandmother's funeral, or maybe I have you confused with someone else? Well, in any event, I sure do appreciate your comments here. Give my regards to Marilyn.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Christy,

Oh my—I don't remember you. Or maybe I do... Did we meet at the last Towle family reunion?

But I do remember your father, Everett. He was a potato farmer, yes? Did you grow up on the farm? And I certainly remember Mavis who, I suppose, would be your step mother.

My middle son's name is Robert Everett Lee Kimball.

Best wishes to you, Christy.

angela johnston thibeau said...

I just returned from the Potato Blossom Festival, while there visited my friend Everett Towle (his dad was Himie's brother and his mom is Mavis) and his wife Linda and kids....and saw my old grade school chum Kim Campbell, daughter of Carmen Towle...then while messing around on my computer came across this, it is a small world

Angela Johnston Thibeau said...

oh, and also ate breakfast with Wayne and Marilyn Thibeau, also mentioned in the guestbook

wally said...

Hi Herrick, Wally Johnston here. I have been reading some of your bloggings in response to an email that Carolyn sent out a couple days ago. I hope you and the family are well.

I love the piece you have written about Aunt Mary. I have so many of those same memories, the lawn for the parade ( both watching and participating in the parade), Ruth and Gib's camp at Munson Pond and those pecan rolls!! Nothing like a Towle party feast! Aunt Ruth with her three word comment - a common occurance whether for scolding (often) or praise (held only for worthy cause)

My grandmother is Helen Towle Bubar of whom you speak in your piece. Her life was much better as a result of the care and companionship of Aunt Mary. Betty, my mother, can never say enough good about your Grandmother and Grandfather (he was the Doc who saw may way into the world too).

Great stuff you are doing here. Keep it up. I too think of you as a County Boy, you can't take that away from us.

All the best, Wally

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Wally,

What a nice surprise to have you stop by and comment here.

I remember your grandmother Bubar very well.

And since we are about the same age, my grandmother would often keep me informed about what you were up to. And, of course, your mother too.

Best wishes to you and your family.

Herrick

watershed said...

Hi Herrick,

I found this by googling "munson pond" as I have family who live there (the Fosters) and my dad grew up in Fort Fairfield (his last name is Christensen). Maybe our families know each other.

Anyway, I wanted to say hi, thank you for this beautiful post, and express my condolences about your loss.

-Wendy

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Wendy,

My maternal grandparents, Percy and Gertrude Philbrick lived on Forest Avenue Road. One of my grandmothers good friends was Marie Christensen. Is it possible that Marie was your father's mother?

Thanks for posting here.

Best wishes,

Herrick Kimball

Susan Schutzman said...

Hi Herrick, I am your cousin Susan Towle Schutzman. My father was Arthur Towle, your grandmother's brother. I remember going to the family reunions and such when I was young. I loved going to your grandmother's house! Mostly I stayed either at the farm with my uncle Everett's family or with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Gib, at home or Munson Pond. One year my dad took Aunt Mary one of our Siamese kittens, she named him Sammy I believe. Do you remember Sammy?? I recently reconnected with Carolyn and our cousin Linda Towle. It is nice to hear about other members of the family.
Thanks for the tribute to Aunt Mary.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Susan,

It was a nice surprise to read your comment here. I have discovered that my grandmother's house was a special place to others besides me. If I were rich, I would build a replica. But, of course, it just wouldn't be the same.

I remember Sammy the Siamese cat very well. I particularly remember dragging a string with a catnip mouse on the end through the house with Sammy chasing right behind. And we usually took him to the camp with us. Grammie had a little harness with a leash for him when he went outside.

Best wishes,

Cousin Herrick

kimberly said...

I cried and cried reading this post. I can so relate to what you wrote! In my case it was my grandfather, the only father figure in my life. I miss him so much sometimes, that just the mere thought of him can bring me to instant tears - no matter where I am. In this disposable world - we don't understand God's great plan for our elderly family. They are a vital, intregal part of our existence. They may be the only ones who ever show us faith in the family. And that faith - leads to our own salvation. Thank you for writing this encouraging post!