Sisters Kim Clifford and Rebecca Clifford Pride — known to family as Brynn — have each left an indelible handprint on the heart of Maine, and they’ll tell you Maine has done the same for them.
Brynn is a lifetime educator, who taught English for 35 years at Yarmouth High School. Kim worked and wrote for Portland newspapers for just as long. But there’s more to these sisters than decades of good work in their communities. The few hours I spent with these bright, funny women worked like an infusion of springtime on the psyche, and I took more than a professional interest in finding the source of their uplifting nature and their unusually close-knit relationship.
Brynn and Kim are family to me, even though I’m only just getting to know them. The three of us share a great-grandmother, Cora Graham Knight Clifford, which makes us second cousins. For some reason, though — perhaps because of an overabundance of family closer to where I grew up in New York — I never got to know my Maine family. In the last year or so, I’ve begun to rectify that oversight at last. What a treat to discover not only that I have Maine cousins but also that they are wonderful.
Finding a writer in my family tree was a treat for me. In addition to working as a police reporter, a feature writer, a gerontology specialist, a letters editor and as a leader of the community council for the paper, Kim wrote a column in the Portland Press Herald for 10 years, until she retired in 2005. Her humorous and heartfelt stories tell of encounters with people around town, growing up in Falmouth, her sister Brynn, the love of an old car and getting a handwritten letter from her crush, Barry Manilow.
Kim lived out of state a couple of times — as a college student in Massachusetts and as a reporter in Florida. In both cases, she came home because of a sick parent. Kim’s mother died in 1968, while her daughters were in college. Kim, a senior at Simmons College in Boston at the time, withdrew her applications to newspaper jobs in other parts of the country and took a job at the Portland Press Herald.
“My mother’s death changed everything,” Kim said.
The second time Kim lived out of state was in 1992, when she worked for the Herald Tribune in Sarasota, Florida, for about 10 months. But her dad became ill, and she returned to Maine — her home base ever since.
“I loved Florida, but I realized when I came back how much I missed Maine,” she said.
Some people might dwell on the unfortunate workings of fate, but Kim’s unsinkable optimism puts a positive spin on whatever comes her way. Brynn felt compelled to chime in with praise for her sister.
“She’s one of the most enthusiastic people I know,” Brynn said.
“I’ve always loved wherever I am, but Maine is rooted in me,” Kim said. “It took being away to make me realize it. I think of Maine as running through my bloodstream. I feel like ‘made in Maine’ is imprinted on my bones.”
Brynn has an equally deep-rooted attachment to Maine but expressed it differently.
“I was born and bred in Maine, so I only applied to Maine (University of Maine in Orono). I wanted to be near sheep and cows.” With a laugh she added, “I actually had a room over the sheep pen, just by chance!”
Brynn taught grammar, Greek mythology, biblical literature, journalism, speech and Shakespeare at Yarmouth High School, four miles from her childhood home. She also did a lot of post-graduate work, which included completing a master’s degree in religion.
Once again, I got additional input from the sister counterpart.
“She’s not even skimming the surface of what she does,” Kim said. “She’s amazing. She’s loved by hundreds, including all the kids she has taught. She works at soup kitchens, brings meals to ill people all the time, has stood at the bedside of dying people.”
Devotion to parents is prominent in both sisters, which gave me a hint about their closeness. Their conversation is peppered with references to one or the other parent.
“Did Daddy ever do that?”
“Remember when Mummy made that Three Bears costume?”
“Brynn is just like my mother,” Kim said. “She’s a nurturer, a caregiver — plus, she’s a hoot! So funny and joyful.”
Brynn admitted her ambition in high school was to lead a life that would make her parents proud.
Neither Kim nor Brynn has children, but they are married and have wonderfully full lives. I wondered whether there were periods when they drifted apart.
“Never,” Kim said. “Well, maybe for a period of about three days.”
“We’re not all nice,” Brynn said. “We’ve had some knock-down, drag-outs, but we always get over it. We’re not the same when we argue.”
“My father hated us not to get along,” Kim said. “My husband can tell when I’m in a fight with my sister.”
“I’m passionate by nature,” Brynn said. “It’s usually all love, but I can be a tiger.”
“I’m more of a brooder,” Kim said. “Brynn lets things go.”
Our visit ended when Brynn and Kim needed to go do some SAT prep tutoring together. These best friend sisters, now in their 60s, have hardly slowed down. A lot of that may be because they keep the light of childhood joy and family closeness so near to the surface for each other. That and the fact that, in a life full of trials and triumphs, they choose to see the good.
“Whatever comes our way is a gift,” Brynn said.
That attitude is a gift to me, from my newfound cousins, to take along in my pocket.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org