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