The Universal Notebook: Still kickin'

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Last Thursday, some 100 hardy souls braved the deep freeze to attend the funeral of Mary Estelle Blake, a pillar of the Yarmouth community who passed away at the great age of 97.

Mary Estelle was a cranky old Yankee with some hard bark on her protecting a tender soul and a good heart. Her bark was worse than her bite, but her bark was usually enough to fool the unwary.

When I first met Mary Estelle she was already retired from the phone company and working as the crossing guard at the corner of Elm and Main. She scared the bejesus out of the school kids, barking orders to “Walk, don’t run!” and “Walk that bike!” with all the no-nonsense authority of a drill sergeant. Her nickname, btw, was Sarge.

Asked how she was, Mary Estelle invariably shot back, “Still kickin’.” She wanted you to think she was tough and mean.

She wasn’t.

When I joined the Yarmouth School Committee in 1995, I got to know Mary Estelle a little better. She showed up at most budget hearings to complain that we were spoiling the children with amenities they didn’t need and that we were taxing the old folks out of their homes to do it.

The first time she so testified, I was so concerned that I stopped by the town office a few days later to ask Town Manager Nat Tupper what kind of property tax relief might be available to someone in Mary Estelle’s circumstances. Nat and Mary Estelle were very close. He spoke at her funeral.

“Don’t worry about Mary Estelle,” Nat told me. “She could buy and sell you.”

Mary Estelle lived on a 55-acre family homestead down at the water end of Bayview Street, where she had grown up. It was some of the most valuable property in town.

I got to know Mary Estelle even better through First Parish Congregational Church, where she was an active member longer than I’ve been alive. During the Christmas Fair, she dressed as Mrs. Santa and dispensed hot mulled cider. At Clam Festival, she was in charge of the Crabmeat Kitchen and woe to anyone who committed the cardinal sin of using a hot bowl to mix crabmeat or lobster with mayonnaise. That could get you banned for life.

What I remember most vividly, however, is the night Mary Estelle sat in on a church council meeting at which we were discussing capital improvement needs. When we began discussing the need to restore and repair the stenciled sanctuary windows, Mary Estelle barked, “I want those windows fixed, I want them fixed now, and I want it done right, so I’m going to pay for it.”

She made her charitable gift sound more like a threat than an offer to help. It may even have contained some profanity. But right then and there she wrote a check for $40,000.

After the council got done thanking her profusely, I risked the wrath of Sarge by cracking wise, “I guess we didn’t tax you out of your home after all, Mary Estelle.”

Like a lot of thrifty old Mainers, Mary Estelle preferred to be generous in her own way. She just didn’t like being forced to pay for things she didn’t value.

In 2008, when fire destroyed the kitchen ell of Mary Estelle’s ancestral home, a small army of volunteers showed up at the end of Bayview Street to help with the salvage and clean up. It seemed to me that nothing that had entered that old house, now filled with wet ashes, charred wood and smoke stains, had ever left. Yarmouth’s copy of the Declaration of Independence even turned up in the ruins.

But mostly there was money, handfuls of coins, as though generations of Blakes had simply emptied their pockets in the kitchen at the end of the day. We must have sifted a thousand dollars in loose change out of the debris.

Mary Estelle asked us to keep an eye out for her wallet. I thought I’d be hailed as a hero when I unearthed a charred billfold containing several hundred dollars. I took it out to Mary Estelle and presented it to her like a proud, excited puppy. She looked it over and rejected it.

“Nope, that’s not the one,” she informed me.

Mary Estelle Blake was the last of her line. She never married and left no blood relatives. But she was an honorary Aunt Mary to the Wood family and an adopted member of the Tupper family. As I sat at her funeral listening to their remembrances, Mary Estelle’s long life spoke to me of the loneliness, the love, and the sense of community that define our common humanity.

Bless her soul.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.