Naomi’s father: John Augustus Kimball

John Sr.
Naomi’s Father: John Augustus Kimball, Sr.

Since John, Sr. left his family when Naomi was about four years old, she doesn’t know as much about his background as she does about her mother’s. She knows that he was born in Cripple Creek, Colorado, but she’s not sure of the year. Her knowledge of his story picks up when he met her mother, Mattie, when Mattie was working as a nurse at a hospital; he was a landscaper there. What their love story must have been like is an intriguing unknown: He was a workman, probably fairly low on the social ladder, while she was a semi-invalid Southern belle from a tobacco farm in Virginia. (Although her family must have been fairly affluent, she’d spent a large part of her youth in New York sanatoriums due to her tuberculosis. I’m not sure if her own battle with illness inspired her to become a nurse or if finances obliged her to find work. Either way, though, she met and fell in love with John Augustus Kimball, whom she called “Jack.”)

The couple married and must have been doing at least fairly well in the early years of their life together. The few existing photos from that period show them and their two oldest children, Marian and John, Jr., posing for portraits in fashionable clothing and looking well-fed. In one photo, the two children pose with three Boston bull terriers; Naomi recalls that Jack bred them at that time. Jack was working as a railroad foreman, and he moved his family into a railroad-owned house in Sewarren, New Jersey. (He must have scored points with his employers when he named his youngest son, James Jones Brown Kimball, after his supervisors.)

Things went downhill, though. After having six children together (Marian, John, Jr., Paul, the twins Ruth and Naomi, and Jimmy), the couple began to fight frequently. Naomi remembers her mother standing in the doorway one night and yelling, “Jack, Jack, come back!” Naomi isn’t clear on what sparked most of the fights, but her older sister Marian told her later that at one point, Mattie was disappointed that he bought her a washing machine for their anniversary. The gift lacked all romance, but Naomi points out now that since Mattie had six children’s worth of laundry to do, the machine was probably one of the most useful gifts he could have given her.

Things came to a head when Jack got his Italian secretary pregnant. Since his employers were embarrassed by his behavior, and since the secretary’s father was making threats against him, Jack was obliged to move. He must have been quite charismatic because, as Naomi recalls, he was fired from his job in Sewarren but re-hired in Philadelphia by the same company. The company wanted his family to move with him, but Mattie refused. Instead, she remained with her children in the railroad-owned house in Sewarren. Her oldest daughter, Marian, soon followed her father to Philadelphia to find work. Although she didn’t move in with him—she boarded with a cousin, and Jack probably lived in other boarding houses—she remained loyal to her father.

Jack returned home occasionally and apparently charmed his way into Mattie’s bed; Naomi recalls her having to obtain illegal abortions in the aftermaths of his visits. His charm also worked on Naomi’s twin sister Ruth, but Naomi herself remained suspicious of him. He did nothing to win her over when, on the twins’ birthday, he appeared with a cake and tried to get the twins to lick frosting off his finger. Ruth did, but Naomi thought it was disgusting. He also brought them a gift: one doll for two girls. Fortunately, this didn’t create a conflict because Naomi refused to play with it, although Ruth had no such reservations.

Despite the thoughtlessness of his gift, Jack must have cared at least somewhat for his children. He, Marian, and Marian’s cousin banded together to try to obtain custody of the younger siblings. They threatened to have Mattie committed to an institution, and at one point, they drove to Naomi’s school and tried to take the children away in their car. Somebody told Mattie what was going on, though, and Naomi remembers her running down the street and taking her children back.

Eventually, Jack must have lost his job in Philadelphia—Naomi thinks he was fired because of Mattie’s continued refusal to return to him—because he disappeared. Nobody in the family knew what became of him, not even Marian. They speculated that he’d gone to the Philippines because he sent a box of oranges and grapefruits from there. He did come home for Ruth’s funeral (she died of diphtheria at age eight), but this marked the last time Naomi ever saw him. When the last of the fruit was gone, so was he.

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