A Life: Kendall Ankeny Mix, 1927 - 2014; ‘Becoming a Twin Cities Matron Was Clearly Not What She Wanted’
Strafford — In her last eight years, dementia changed Kendall Mix, turning her into a sweet old lady, but the objects that lay around her house in South Strafford spoke to a rich and cosmopolitan life.
As her caretakers cleaned out her home after she died there on June 3 at 86, Mix’s many possessions formed a catalog of her adventures. There were vintage clothes. There was African art. There was skiing gear, photographs, old cameras and thousands of books.
“She had all these abilities that I didn’t see, but I saw the results. She was pretty Renaissance,” her caretaker Kilda McKeever said.
Whatever interest Mix pursued, she did so in earnest: The photographic slides took up four 6-foot high stacks of boxes in the basement, and the art collection that she and her husband Robin amassed filled a 400-square-foot room to the brim. The art came from West Africa, but the photographs were taken all around the world. Phoebe Mix, her oldest daughter, said it was almost easier to think of the places Mix hadn’t been to: Korea, Libya, Australia and Antarctica.
Mix was born the oldest child of DeWalt and Marie Ankeny, in Minneapolis, Minn. on June 21, 1927. She attended the Ethel Walker School and Bryn Mawr College.
She began her travels by fleeing her native Minnesota, which her family, owners of the well-known Hamm Brewery, had called home for generations. Robin Mix, whom she married in 1949, used to call it “the land of the lotus-eaters,” referring to the island in Homer’s Odyssey whose inhabitants pass their time in opiate inactivity. Mix felt the same way.
“Becoming a Twin Cities matron was clearly not what she wanted to do or be,” Phoebe Mix said.
Before they left for good, Mix and her husband went on a world trip in 1963. The war in Vietnam had started to escalate, and borders were closing as they went into Burma, Laos and Cambodia. After that, Minnesota couldn’t keep them.
In 1967, Mix’s husband joined the United States Information Service, which distributed pro-American information abroad, and the family moved to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Of their five children, Mix brought along the three youngest, sending Phoebe and her brother, also named Robin, to boarding school.
Mix’s younger children, Peter, James and Kendall, who goes by “Kammie,” now live in Waterville, Colchester and Waterbury, respectively.
“It (the move) will do our children good whether they like it or not,” Robin Mix, now a glassblower in Tunbridge, imagined his parents saying.
They were right. On school breaks, Mix’s children joined her on her adventures in West Africa, watching as she took beautiful photographs and combed through open air markets all over the region. She developed a keen eye for textiles, while her husband became an African art expert. Later, in Strafford, they were art dealers.
When it came time to return to the United States in 1969, Mix and her husband had decided they wanted to live in New England. Where, exactly, they weren’t sure, so they identified all the towns that had colleges in them, figuring that they would have the best libraries. Next, they wrote to the towns and asked to reach a realtor. Only Hanover responded.
“Talk about just drawing a circle on a map without knowing much about it: That’s what they did,” Phoebe Mix said.
Soon after the family settled in South Strafford, Mix discovered that Dartmouth College had more to offer than just a library. For the price of a library card, she could audit classes, too. Throughout the early 1970s, when the college had just begun to enroll women, Mix attended African history and political science classes as a middle-aged mother of five. Her professors, Nelson Kasfir and Leo Spitzer, remember Mix as a quiet but voracious student. After she took every course they had to offer, they remained friends — and customers. Each man bought several pieces from the Mix art shop.
Skiing was one of Mix’s many passions; she taught at the Newton Ski School for about 30 years. While she was what her son Robin called “a fanatic skier,” she insisted on wearing old-fashioned equipment, including lace-up boots and elegant fur hats. On one occasion, her attire misled some teenagers who had traveled too far up the mountain for their skiing ability. Seeing her clothes, one of them pointed to Mix and said, “Let’s follow her; she’ll probably be going down the bunny slope!”
Yet in downhill skiing, Mix was a daredevil.
“She would have taken you off a cliff,” Phoebe Mix said.
Mix was so attached to her downhill gear that when Delta Airlines lost her luggage, she refused to buy new boots — they didn’t make the kind she liked anymore. After that, she switched over to cross-country skiing. With her late friend Gina Steele, she skiied deep into then-unoccupied Taylor Valley. After Steele died, Mix went alone with her dog, well into her 70s.
Mix was independent, traveling and skiing alone late in life and only stopping when dementia made her lose her bearings. Yet if she held herself apart, it wasn’t out of snobbery.
“She could be shy to the point of people thinking she was aloof. I think she found her way in a little town like Strafford socially by pitching in and volunteering and doing things other people didn’t want to,” Robin Mix said.
Before her near 20-year run as a member of the Strafford Selectboard, Mix served as an auditor for six years.
She preferred the term “selectman” for her job, which taught her much about her community.
In a letter to Phoebe, she wrote, “Now I am a Selectman and learn anew every day how much I do not know about local politics and people, state statutes, truck repairs, grades of gravel and accrual accounting. Vermont has a female governor in her second term (Madeleine Kunin) who is too busy to beat the feminist drum but she has brought many women into state government in responsible and visible positions, most of them capable. She objected mildly to my insisting on being called a Selectman instead of a Selectperson or Selectwoman (But she is not a governess). Perhaps someday we will talk about the importance, or as I see it, the lack thereof, of a name.”
Phoebe Mix recently was surprised to learn that her mother had toyed with being a writer in high school, though she kept it up as a hobby later on. Mix wrote many letters during her travels, and in the house she wrote on everything.
“There are just piles and piles of paper in the house. She kept writing diaries, and you’d find in them a couple paragraphs, and then a grocery list, and then some notes from a planning commission or something,” Phoebe Mix said.
Mix was also an avid reader. Somewhere, her daughter isn’t quite sure where, there is a photo of her with an infant child in one hand and a book in the other. Her family always knew the waterlogged library books were hers because she would often fall asleep reading in the tub.
Anyone who knew Mix remembered a dry wit that stood in contrast to the boisterousness of her husband, who died in 1986.
“She could pop your balloon,” Robin Mix, her son, said.
“There are some people who are very funny but their humor is cruel,” Phoebe Mix said. “I never thought she was cruel but she was certainly...”
She paused. “Pithy.”
Dementia took away Mix’s wry humor, making her sweet and agreeable. It was one of the things her daughter regretted the most.
“From the time she got sick, there was this little old lady occupying her body,” Phoebe Mix said.
Yet from time to time, the old Kendall Mix would peek through. Once, in recent years, Phoebe Mix went out for a joyride with her own son, a caregiver and Mix. They were having a wonderful time, all laughing together about something or other — all except Mix, who just looked up at them and said, “Oh, children.”
Rob Wolfe can be reached at 603-727-3242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.