Over the last two years, a cheerful blonde woman with a tool belt slung around her hips and a tame squirrel perched on her shoulder spent her days transforming a dilapidated house on Wight Street in Belfast into something wonderful.
It was a project jointly undertaken by Kristen McKellar, 32, and her mother, Molly McKellar of Lincolnville. But it was Kristen McKellar who did the work. A graphic designer and website builder by trade, she threw herself into gutting the small, blue home and rebuilding it, constructing a wrap-around porch, rebuilding the roof and covered it with golden cedar shingles. She lowered the ceiling, moved the stairs, modernized the kitchen, installed a new electrical system, cut and fitted the tile and much more, always adding special touches from the endless ideas that seemed to fizz out of her head. Kristen McKellar was an inveterate salvager, using driftwood she collected from a Knox County beach as interior design elements and an antique barn door, still with its original hardware, as a sliding door for the downstairs bathroom.
The Belfast house, as the family calls it, slowly but surely took on the indomitable personality of its builder, who taught herself a lot of the carpentry skills she used by watching how-to videos on YouTube and by reading books. Kristen McKellar filled the house with laughter and the hijinks of the rescue animals she surrounded herself with, including Paul, the squirrel, and Diego, a pitbull she saved from a high-kill animal shelter in New York City. As soon as it was possible to do so, she moved in, cooking on a hot plate in the gutted kitchen, and worked on it as she was living there. She didn’t mind a good challenge.
“She kind of dwelled a little bit in the mentality of a superhero,” her sister, Alison McKellar, who sits on the Camden Select Board, said last week. “She was always about finding solutions to things.”
Although the house was a home and a labor of love for Kristen McKellar, she knew she couldn’t stay forever. Molly McKellar, a real estate agent, had invested her whole retirement in purchasing and renovating the house, with the ultimate goal of selling it and making her investment back and hopefully a little more. By the end of July, Kristen McKellar was so close to finishing the house that she was starting to look for apartments to rent in Belfast.
Then August came and everything changed.
On Thursday, Aug. 2, a hot day in a hot summer, Kristen McKellar decided to head to Jefferson after work. She joined a family friend at his camp on Damariscotta Lake, and they were enjoying a swim around dusk in the cool water when a motor boat approached them. It was close, and coming fast, and Kristen McKellar pulled off a yellow flipper she was wearing and waved it frantically above her head. Her friend told Alison McKellar later they both were screaming.
“The boat passed in between them super fast,” Alison McKellar said. “It was one of those things, when he thought it would be like, ‘Whoa, that was a close call.’ He swam over to her and asked if she was OK. She said, ‘It’s not good.’”
The boat, driven by a man from Massachusetts, eventually turned around, Alison McKellar said, and they helped bring Kristen McKellar to shore. It’s hard to piece together exactly what happened and when, but McKellar thinks now that her sister was not alive very long after being hit by the boat.
“It was such a blur. You go into crisis mode, and it doesn’t seem real,” Alison McKellar said of the events of that day. “There were all these times I would have thought she would have died on the roof, with the squirrel on her head, or riding her motorcycle with the dog. It didn’t seem like a dangerous thing, being out on the lake.”
What happened to Kristen McKellar on the lake is still under investigation, her sister said. She was swimming perhaps 150 feet from shore, which is within the 200-foot “no wake,” or water safety zone that has been delineated by Maine law. Within this zone, it’s illegal to operate any watercraft in such a way as to recklessly create a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to another person. Additionally, it is illegal to operate any watercraft in a way that recklessly creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to another person. Alison McKellar hopes that what happened to Kristen McKellar will not be taken lightly.
“Kristen wasn’t about revenge, but she did really want the lakes to be safe for swimmers,” Alison McKellar said. “I see so many people on the lake, and they’re not looking. If you can’t see in front of you, you need to slow down. Driving a boat has to be taken more seriously.”
Picking up the pieces
It can be hard to ease back into something akin to a normal life after the sudden death of a loved one. Tasks, large and small, consume grieving friends and family, from working on the obituary they never thought they’d write to arranging the memorial service they never wanted to hold. But Kristen McKellar’s family took some solace from the fact that she had not wasted a minute of her 32 years.
“She was so passionate, and very fun, too,” Alison McKellar said, adding that her two boys adored the aunt they thought of as a superhero, too. “The worst thing is when somebody dies and they haven’t really started to live yet. They think their real life is going to come later. Kristen wasn’t like that. She was doing what she wanted to do. She was definitely living her life.”
After McKellar’s death, her family decided to honor her wishes and make sure they took care of the rescue animals that had been on her mind. Alison and her family had signed up, at Kristen McKellar’s urging, to foster a puppy with Maine Coast Animal Rescue.
“OK,” Alison McKellar told her sons. “We’re still going to do that.”
They also tracked down a bunny that her sister had been worrying about and gave it a new home. Suddenly, her house was a lot busier and more full of animals than it had been, but that was all right, she figured.
“There are things you have control over and things you don’t have control over. The things you have control over are very few things. How long would Kristen be OK with me just dwelling in despair? Not that long, I don’t think,” Alison McKellar said. “So we’re going to embrace the chaos. We’re going to be more like Kristen, if Kristen can’t be here. The only thing that took any of the grief away was doing things that Kristen would have wanted me to do.”
Which brings her back to Belfast and the house that was so full of her sister’s spirit that she dreaded going there after the accident. She thought that it would hurt to be there and that if there were ghosts around, they would be sad ones.
It didn’t turn out that way.
“I thought it was going to be worse than it was. It doesn’t make me sad and depressed,” Alison McKellar said. “The kids say, ‘Can we live there? Can we live in Kristen’s house?’ … She had created a happy place here. It still is. It hasn’t been too much of a fight to feel that way.”
‘A happy house’
On a tour through the house, with Diego padding along behind her like a faithful shadow, Alison McKellar points out the secret compartment under the stairs that her sister had built for her nephews and the scrolled details on the roof trim she had done herself. Even on an overcast day, the house seems bright and spacious, and is a far cry from the home Molly McKellar bought in 2016 for $70,000. Back then, the furnace was placed in an upstairs room and the house generally was in disrepair.
“It was not the kind of place you’d want to spend the night,” Alison McKellar said.
But Molly and Kristen McKellar saw its potential. They had looked at a lot of houses that were either in the wrong location or were for sale for the wrong price, Molly McKellar said, but the Wight Street house was different. The home is roughly 1,400 square feet and has about an acre of land, and they dreamed of renovating it so it would be a good home for a family with a couple of kids or for a retired couple. That’s what Kristen did.
“She loved it,” Molly McKellar said. “She ended up doing most of it by herself. We’d talk or text [about the house] every day. It was great. She almost had it done. She was so excited.”
Now she is hoping someone else will look at the house and see the beauty and possibility there. Molly McKellar said she is planning to list it at $250,000 and see what happens.
“I feel overwhelmed,” she said. “I play the lottery four times a week. I would love to make it into a house for abused women or teens, but I haven’t won yet.”
And whoever lives next in the house, she hopes that they, too, will feel the happiness she thinks her daughter left behind as surely as the nails she hammered into the walls.
“After she died, I would just go up there and sleep in her bed. That was the only place I wouldn’t cry,” Molly McKellar said. “It’s a happy house, and both of us really loved it.”
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