As she pictured dying in Eastport — the Maine island village of her birth that lies across Passamaquoddy Bay from Canada — Margaret Campbell Kay imagined hearing a long-ago sound lament her last moments.
I will die in Eastport in a fog.
On a day when the mist is peasoup thick
And the horn out on Cherry Island mourns and groans,
On a day when the fog creeps into my heart and house
Though she wrote most of her life when time permitted, her early years were given over to three marriages and raising three children. She didn’t focus fully on poetry, fiction, and articles until later on, when she finished college at 71, began collecting writing awards, and kept publishing until she was 94.
Ms. Kay died July 8 — not in Eastport, Maine, but in a Malden nursing home. She was 98 and had detailed her declining health several years ago in an article on her website: “Here I am practically a prisoner in my own home. With great difficulty and the aid of a walking stick, I can walk to the store next door. It has been a long time since I have attempted a trip to the public library. But what can I expect? After all I am 92 years old.”
. . . .
The opening of “Forever” seems taken from that moment in the 1940s when she was a single mother with two sons in Mission Hill.
“When my marriage was finally over, I destroyed all the remaining fragments, all surviving parts,” she wrote. “I did not want, many years later, to come across some faded and crumbling relic of that time. All that was left to do was to sweep clean the waste. And although I really was scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to me or how I was going to support the little boys, the first thing to go was the furniture.”
Ms. Kay “was a very independent woman to say the least,” said her oldest child, Michael Elwell of Eastport, Maine. “She didn’t have much most of her life. She did have three husbands, but she didn’t have much in the way of resources at all.”
The oldest of three sisters, Margaret Campbell Kay was born March 2, 1918, in Eastport. Her father, Fred Kay, was from across the bay in New Brunswick, Canada. Her mother, the former Frances Beckett, was from Eastport.
When Ms. Kay was young her family moved to Portland, Maine. She was still in high school when she secretly married John Elwell, who was in the Army and lived in a rented room next to the high school while awaiting his discharge papers. In her sonnet “Memory,” written during that teenage marriage, she said she:
crept along the icy sidewalk to his door.
Inside his room, radiators hissed and the snow,
descending in soft flakes, piled in high heaps
halfway up his windowpane and seeped
under his door. We heard the bleak wind blow.
Although their marriage lasted only a handful of years, “in the end, he was the one she always talked about, in spite of having three husbands,” their son Michael said. “Her true love, it seemed, was her first husband. A lot of things she wrote were about him.”
. . . .
“I was always interested in writing, but I never had much chance with three children to bring up,” she told the Globe in 1989, when she graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston at 71 with a bachelor’s degree. “Life got in the way of writing because I had to put food on the table, but I don’t want to talk about my marriages.”
At the honors convocation, she received five awards for poems and fiction. She also had been awarded a fellowship for older writers embarking on serious writing careers. “I go slow and work twice as hard as the 18-year-olds,” she said of returning to college at that age. “I still ask myself, ‘Do I have the right to do this?’ But I was surprised that the kids were really interested in me.”
Her son Michael recalled that “her biggest struggle was passing basic algebra. She got tutors to get through that. She was, of course, superior in English and literature.”