When a Writing Piece Becomes a Painting

Suffield Town Center, by Peggy MacKinnon

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

One of the things I love about writing is not knowing where it’s going. Whether casting off or plunging into one’s internal well, writing is a fishing expedition. When asked what makes a great poem, W.S. Merwin replied, “Following what you don’t know.”

Writing about a recent fire in Friday Harbor, Washington led me to this piece. In the process of writing “What We Lost” (https://alittleelbowroom.com/2022/04/26/what-we-lost/ ) I fell in love all over again, with my old town center in Suffield, Connecticut. Which is like falling in love with a ghost town for the center isn’t there anymore, except in my head. And now in this watercolor painting by Peggy MacKinnon that sits upon my writing table looking out to the bay. 

Peggy MacKinnon is ninety-six years old and still resides in Suffield. At one time my cousin lived just a few doors from The MacKinnon’s home on South Main Street. Best friends with her son Ian, I asked Gil about his time there, growing up.

“Ian was the youngest of six boys, all at least 6’1, and Peggy, their mom, so little. Likewise, all the boys and her husband, Dan, had a wild sense of humor,” Gil recalls. “But Peggy, so quiet … perhaps noticing other things.” The slant of light, the saturation of color. Even as a child Gil knew to detect an artist’s mind in Peggy.  

Peggy had met Dan in high school on a tennis court in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Years later they were a family of eight living in Suffield, and as a couple, frequently played tennis with my folks. In my memory of home my mother is often in her nightgown hanging onto the kitchen wall phone in the morning, and the friend on the other end was very often Peggy. Peggy MacKinnon.

Peggy painted. She painted while Dan was the Director of Prison Industries at a state prison, and when he founded the Maverick Corporation, a work program for ex-convicts and juvenile offenders. She painted as Dan served as Commissioner of Administration under Governor Grasso in Connecticut. She painted when Dan ran for Congress. And she painted for the twelve years he was at Merrill Lynch in Hartford, while at the same time running a small sheep farm in Suffield. She raised six sons, helped in birthing the sheep, and she painted. Peggy never lost who she was.

I don’t think I appreciated any of this at the time, but now I can see why my folks found them so interesting. And over the years I’ve grown to love her work, the delicacy of hand, always working in watercolors. Maybe it was my generation, maybe it was me, but we were anything but consistent. So I’m in awe of Peggy always knowing what it was she did and doing it.

2,444 miles away, I am writing to the painting today. In writing we speak of finding a “voice.” In painting it’s the artist’s “hand,” and I’ve found hers here. 

This is the center of town we all lost in Suffield. There was a sense of importance to the town then that is in none of the new-brick outlying buildings, or the building they refer to as “Suffield Village.” My friend Jane Clarke writes, “I too go back to Suffield to capture something that is so deep in my neural fiber… If I stand on the village green and look out over what the town is now, it seems to quiet my memories and I don’t see myself.”

A disappeared town center, there is no getting it back except in memories, stories, art and writing. And what started out as another cry from me lamenting the loss of old buildings, grew into an ode to a gracious lady and her paintings.

6 Comments

Filed under loss, painting, Writing

6 responses to “When a Writing Piece Becomes a Painting

  1. Val Gauthier

    The raw emotion you have invoked in this piece is so telling of both loss and memories. Peggy’s painting beautifully captures the essence and the soft colors bring to mind a gentler time and childhood memories that you describe so beautifully. Love this Kim❤️🥰

  2. Tug Yourgrau

    Kim, a really lovely piece. You bring the memories alive and make clear what a special person Peggy was. I wish I’d been able to see the old town center. It was gone by the time I joined the family.

    • Crazy how the loss of Suffield’s town center affected me after the recent fire in Friday Harbor. A friend here told me, “My hometown was devastated by ‘urban renewal’ and (decades later) I’m still suffering from its demise.” I’m not sure what can be done, but for a glorious moment while writing about it, it was restored.

  3. Jane

    A little late in registering my comments but what a wonderful tribute to Peggy who brought color to memories of our old town. James Baldwin remarked that we are ‘cosmic castaways living with the perennial burden of figuring forward in an uncertain universe, discovering again and again in this burden the greatest blessings of beauty and meaning — the object of every theorem and the subject of every work of art,.’ I love the visual of Peggy’s blessed painting and the meaning behind a sliver of her life. Meeting on a tennis court (being an afficionado), the winding road of professional work, six sons, and a household teeming with laughter. Somehow knowing that Peggy and family co-existed in our town brings me great pleasure. Maurice Sendak knew that the highest achievement of adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.” Somehow, I too can now let this subject rest knowing that my dear friend has left my young self enriched, and created images in my mind that will go forward despite the uncertainty.

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