MOUNT DESERT ISLAND
Elizabeth Ann Kirby passed away on the morning of May 18, 2018. She was 85 years old and had been a resident of Mount Desert Island since the summer of 2016, when she moved here to join her elder daughter and her daughter’s partner.
Elizabeth was born in England, and grew up in Kent, the first landfall across the English Channel, which made it vulnerable to German bombers during the war. At the age of 6, she was evacuated to her mother’s family farm in Ireland, a place she came to love and to which she returned throughout her life. After six months, as events seemed calm, she was brought back to England, just in time to experience the Blitz. The sounds of the war — the air raid warning alarm, the German bomber engines, the distinctive sounds of the “Doodle-bug” bombs and V-2 missiles — stayed with her through her life. Her convent school stood near Woolwich Arsenal, a major ammunition center, and children like her cycled to school every day alert to the possibility of air attack. During raids, she would sit under the stairs with her dog Zilla.
A natural athlete, she was Kent County swimming champion and team captain; in later life she competed in U.S. Masters Swimming events, winning many medals and setting national records in back-stroke. It was through swimming she met her future husband, an Oxford-educated physicist. They married in 1953 and shortly after came to the United States, for her husband’s job teaching at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Rationing was still a daily fact of life in England, and the bounty of goods found in America both amazed and sometimes appalled them. Following the birth of their eldest daughter, the family moved briefly back to Oxford, England, and then on to Kingston, Jamaica, where Elizabeth’s husband taught at the University of the West Indies. Here, her second daughter was born and a year later they moved again, this time to Tallahassee, Fla., which was to be Elizabeth’s home for the next 50 years.
Elizabeth and her husband divorced, a fact that was considered shocking in the Deep South in the 1960s. A British subject, Elizabeth had come to the U.S. on her British husband’s visa, and had no legal immigration status of her own. Her solution was to enroll at Florida State University as a foreign student; and so, in her 30s, she embarked upon an academic career, studying, raising her two children, and reading for the blind for a dollar an hour to support them. Eventually she obtained her doctorate in humanities and art history. She was an inspiring teacher, and many former students contacted her to tell her how she had changed their lives. One told her he had joined the Army specifically as a way to travel and see the art she had described. Her areas of interest were early medieval and early Celtic art, subjects that she followed to different countries. Taking her children with her, she lived in Florence, Italy, The Netherlands and Ireland.
Elizabeth traveled widely, in later years visiting Heidelberg, Germany, where her daughter Joanna was working at the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics; and to Malawi, Africa, where her daughter Caroline was working at the university. She accompanied Caroline on several writing assignments, driving throughout Greece and the British Isles, and traveling through Egypt. Her ability to enjoy the moment, to focus on what was at hand, and her ease in making conversation with strangers made her a gifted traveler. Most years she took a trip abroad, traveling on her own throughout Turkey and Italy, and visiting old friends in Ireland, England and Holland; she took one organized group tour in her life, to Russia. Her last big trip was to the Preseli Hills, in Wales, to see the site from which the famous bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried.
Elizabeth, together with her beloved cats Mew Mew and Nutkin, moved to Mount Desert Island in 2016, to be with her daughter Caroline and Caroline’s partner, Frank Blair, whose kindness and gallant support she greatly enjoyed. Mac, Frank’s patient dog, was a trusted companion. She was a frequent swimmer at the YMCA, and enjoyed road trips around the island. In November 2017, she made it clear she wanted a place of her own and moved to Safe Harbor in Birch Bay Village, where she had been attending a day program and already had many friends. She instantly took to her new home, telling her daughter, with a nod of regal satisfaction, “they do things well here.”
Elizabeth’s elegant beauty, breezy manner and rapier-like wit made her a singularly striking personality. Her navigation of life followed no conventional map, but was directed by intelligent instinct. She made friends easily but could be prickly, having no patience for pomposity or pretension. She loved the natural world — the English and Irish countryside, the wild wisteria and azaleas of North Florida — and was a gifted gardener. She loved all animals, and especially cats. To the end, she was remarking on the bird life and spring flowers outside her window.
She died unexpectedly and peacefully following a heart attack, with her daughter Caroline by her side, leaving in the early morning with the turning of the tide. She is survived by her two daughters, Joanna Rosamund Alexander of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Caroline Elizabeth Alexander of Northeast Harbor. She will be buried with her mother in the family grave in Ireland.
The family request that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the SPCA of Hancock County, 141 Bar Harbor Road, Trenton, ME 04605 in her memory.