Dorothy E. McGill McKinnon
1930 – 2006
This is the story of our mother Dorothy and how she (and a lot more people) came to be in this beautiful town of Little Compton. It’s the story of her love for her family and her love for her faith and her roots. Mom passed away on September 23, 2006, but remembering her yesterday, nearly fourteen years later, with my brothers and sisters each contributing their thoughts of her, we helped one another bring her memory “back to life”. It’s funny how, depending upon where we fell in the birth order, each of us have our own memories to share. This story is written by me, but it came from the hearts of all seven of her children, including Mary Nicole, Patricia Goulart, John McKinnon, Kevin McKinnon, Brendan McKinnon, and Kathryn Madden. Special thanks to our aunt, Dorothy’s youngest sister, Patricia Gagnon who was a source for fact-checking.
Dorothy Ellen McGill was born at home on November 25,1930, (though her birthdate was officially recorded on two different documents, which she only discovered when she was filling out information for her marriage certificate, as Nov. 24th and Nov. 26th. When she asked her father as a young woman about the true date, she told us that his reply was “Well, what difference does it make!”). She was the fourth of six children born to Francis J. McGill and (Bridget) Agnes V. (O’Connor) McGill. The family lived at 253 Glenwood Avenue in Pawtucket, RI, on the first floor of a two family home that was owned by Francis (Frank) and Agnes. They rented out the top floor to other families. My aunt recalls that one family paid $27.00/month for rent. Dorothy would live in this house until the day she was married. Dorothy’s siblings were James, Madeleine, Francis, Thomas and Patricia.
Both Agnes and Frank were from Ireland and only met one another in Rhode Island, having come to the United States at different times. Agnes’ birth name was Bridget, but it is thought that she changed her name to Agnes when she entered the US to be better able to find employment. It was their Irish heritage that became the fabric of their family’s life and certainly that fabric was interwoven into the life of Dorothy.
Over the years, Mom would recall the same childhood memories to us and they usually consisted of the following stories:
She would recall those folks that would come to visit the house, either deliverymen or neighbors or recently arrived relatives and immigrants, usually Irish. We were privy to these stories whenever Mom reminisced with her own sisters and brothers. Her mother would have a pot of tea on the table in no time and whatever else they might have for their guests. Our Aunt Pat, mom’s sister, remembers that her mother Agnes was always looking to get things over to the Dominican nuns in the convent at St. Raymond’s parish. Agnes would send fruit or baked goods to them and remembered them at Thanksgiving or Christmas with fruit baskets.
Mom would always include in her storytelling the story of her childhood nickname which was “Split the Wind”. She would proudly recall that she was a fast runner in her neighborhood and the playmates coined that name for her.
Mom’s stories would eventually lead her to (probably) her most memorable childhood event which may have been one of the saddest days of her childhood and that was the day that her young mother died in their Glenwood Avenue home. As her mother lay dying in her bed she instructed thirteen year old Dorothy to be sure to make some soft boiled eggs for her younger brother Tommy and younger sister, Patsy. My mother would recall that story to us, never with much more detail but with the sadness of a young teenaged girl, who was suddenly asked to help assume the role of her mother for her family. She never, ever complained to us about the household work that she may have had to perform as I imagine that there were plenty of meals to prepare, and other household chores. She did recall stories of her own father who worked for 46 years at the Valley Gas Company, who would come home to his house at the end of his day, sooted, hungry and tired. Because her father Frank worked for a utility company, he was never without work and a paycheck, even during The Great Depression. My mom never spoke of her family in terms of being poor, but there was a frugal, “scrimp and save” side to my mother that she must have learned from her childhood. She had a “make do” attitude that was instilled in her.
Mom attended St. Raymond’s School and graduated from St. Xavier Academy in 1948. The young women that were graduates of that academy were very good about attending reunions in their years after graduating, and Mom attended a few of those reunions, always happy to catch up with old friends. Upon graduation, Dorothy worked at Hospital Trust National Bank in customer relations in “Downtown” Providence for several years. Later, she would bring us to her favorite luncheon spot called Mee Hong where she would pick up her favorite chowmein and tell us stories of all the young ladies she would meet there for lunch during her days downtown.
Dorothy and my Dad used to ride a bus together, and it was there that they first caught each other’s eye. Their very first date may have been to the Polish Club in Pawtucket, for a dance, where they may have met up. The story goes that on one of their early dates, while my Mom anxiously awaited Jack’s arrival in his car (not sure it was his) to Glenwood Ave., her younger sister Patsy, about age fourteen or so, sat on their back steps with her friend Judy Silva. Jack arrived in a Mercury Coupe. He couldn’t resist the young girls giggling about the boy coming for Dorothy, so he invited them to jump in the back seat. He didn’t have to ask twice. Jack brought them all to the roller coaster at Crescent Park. It was young Patsy’s first trip to that roller coaster.
This young man from Pawtucket had captured Dorothy’s heart. He graduated from LaSalle Academy in 1949 and was a student at Boston College, playing both football and baseball, when they started to date. As a pitcher for the Eagles, Jack was recruited into the Brooklyn Dodges organization, and signed with them in 1953 upon graduation. His time with their Single-A Pueblo Dodgers in Colorado was shortened by his enlistment into the Army, serving with the Special Troops command at Fort Benning, Georgia, where they spent their honeymoon.
My Mom would tell the story of her engagement in this way: Dad asked me to marry him, while we were driving. He asked her to reach into his sweater pocket for some gum. (It may have been his Varsity sweater, which I can remember was in our house for some time and was maroon with white stripes on the sleeve and had deep pockets). Dorothy reached in for the gum, but found a small box instead, which contained a diamond engagement ring. Our Aunt Pat has shared that she believes he purchased the ring with the money that he received when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and she thinks that he proposed to Dorothy only after speaking to her father Frank.
They were married on May 15, 1954 in St. Raymond’s and held their reception at Lyndsey’s Tavern in Lincoln, RI. Their wedding photos were never able to be developed. So they arranged, months after their wedding day, to take pictures again with another rented tuxedo and mom in her wedding dress. While they were posing for their post wedding portraits, someone may have driven by them, and yelled “You’ll be sorry!”
How wrong that passerby was! Mom and Dad were a very loving and devoted couple and were happily married for over 50 years. We used to see our parents get out on the dance floor and dance at different functions. It will always be one of my favorite memories of them as a couple. I loved to watch them move across the dance floor with great ease. They shared a rhythm that was unto themselves.
There is a saying that goes “Behind every good man is a good woman” and this was definitely the case in their marriage. Mom was Dad’s helpmate. I can remember her typing his papers as he went on in his schooling for his Masters. She helped him in his organization of any of the many leadership/coaching capacities he held in different associations, clubs, orders, societies, and advisories. When Dad was at work, it was Mom who “held down the fort”. I can remember a time when my Mom and Dad were going out for the night. Our babysitter, Susan Kavanaugh came over that day to help my Mom curl her hair and apply some makeup. She must have needed the “salon treatment” after a long time left at home with her children.
Dorothy’s attention-to-detail was impeccable. Her penmanship was gorgeous and unique. She knew shorthand, was an excellent typist, a great speller and was multi-talented. At one time, she would do the tax returns for multiple family members. After raising most of her children, she sat on various committees as well. Whenever I glance at the beautiful stained glass windows in our parish of St. Catherine of Siena in Little Compton, I remember her work in bringing those windows to our country church.
In the summer of 1973, Dorothy McKinnon, her husband John McKinnon and their seven children moved from 28 Perrin Ave., Pawtucket, RI to their new house on 6 Westport Harbor Rd. in the village of Adamsville in the town of Little Compton, RI. The house was a child’s dream with a built-in swimming pool in our backyard, a yard that was big enough to accomodate an old henhouse, a garden, a closeline and a horse and small barn (eventually) for their youngest child, a ballfield directly across the street and plenty of neighborhood children to play pick up games with throughout any given day, two penny candy stores within a one minute walk in either direction, a mill pond that allowed us to fish for catfish or ice skate in the winter, a town landing down the road to launch a rowboat, a beautiful Atlantic Ocean beach at the end of our road, wonderful and interesting neighbors and a view from our formal living room or side yard that allowed us to sit and watch the world go by.
The house also had a Carriage House apartment and a Studio apartment attached to our old original barn. Like her own parents, Mom became a landlord (lady) herself, and managed to have those two rentals filled at all times.
But the most memorable part about this house that they purchased in Adamsville is that people knew that Mom and Dad’s door was always open. And it was! Folks would be out for a Sunday drive from another part of RI, or an old friend, or player, or fellow coach would be thinking about them and take a drive to Adamsville, and whenever folks came my Mom would always welcome them with open arms. She welcomed distant relatives from Ireland or England and would work hard to turn one of our bedrooms into a comfortable sleeping room for them. She had the gift of gab and hospitality! She could manage to feed an army with the food that was in her refrigerator and cupboard. People would relax and enjoy themselves, and if they brought their children and it was summer, then the pool was especially used. We swam in that pool non-stop, from sun up to sun down.
There were a few things that my Mom especially loved. She loved God and her Catholic faith. She loved her husband and each of her seven children and each of her thirty-two grandchildren. She loved to gather us all in. She loved her family, her mother and father and sisters and brothers and their children. She loved her relatives, her aunts and uncles and distant relatives. And she loved Ireland and most things Irish!
Dorothy was the most practical person that we knew, and that practicality was woven into her fabric. As young children, we often received a new pair of pj’s on Christmas Eve. We have old films of us all going off to bed in our new pajamas. Most of us were in a size too big. We’d be tripping in our pajamas, especially if they were feet pajamas, for months to come.
Mom had her favorite songs that she would usually sing to one of her young babies. Because I was the second born in our own family, I remember the songs well and sang them to my own children and sing them to my own grandchildren. We all remember the time when Mom was teaching herself to play the piano. She eventually mastered the song, “When The Saints Go Marching In”. We would politely close the door between the piano room and our TV room as she played the song over and over again.
She learned to sew as a young girl and I remember that she made her three oldest children, all daughters, their Easter capes one year. Our lined capes were stylish and sweet. Mine was a navy blue and white houndstooth pattern. I remember that she was pretty proud of her sewing accomplishment that Easter. There were dresses that were sewn for us too.
She and my Dad wallpapered rooms together, which usually entailed stripping the old wallpaper off of the walls. Lots of vinegar and hot water. And plenty of patience. They chose a really mod ’60’s wallpaper for the girls shared bedroom in Pawtucket. I kept a swatch in my diary.
It wasn’t that Dorothy didn’t like the finer things in life, but for my mom, her finer things were often related to setting a fine table. She had china and silverware and some Irish crystal to set beautiful tables and banquets. Our Thanksgiving tables had neatly pressed Irish linen tablecloths and napkins, and polished silver candlesticks, and the finest serving pieces. She always spread a table with a huge assortment of colorful vegetables and several different homemade pies, always including mincemeat pie (which none of us ate!). Our Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter gatherings were always very special for us and we would all linger at the table for hours afterwards.
She didn’t take lavish vacations, though she and my Dad did manage to visit Ireland, Scotland, England, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, Japan, and China, as well as some travels in our own great country. As a child, she remembered driving to Ocean Grove in Swansea for a family outing, and on the way home they would stop to pick blueberries. She absolutely loved blueberry pie made with wild blueberries. Mom’s pies were delicious. My Dad would tell her that he would open a pie shop for her and he would call the shop, “Dot’s Pies”. Mom was just as happy being at the beaches in our area in the summertime. She would often take us to Salty Brine beach in our early days and then became a member of Elephant Rock beach in Westport, MA., once they moved to Adamsville. She camped with her family in a big, old, musty smelling, canvas tent on the Cape.
Dorothy worked at different jobs toward the middle and end of her child rearing responsibilities, and eventually found her passion for selling real estate. She worked as a real estate agent with Rosemary Bowen and Spinnaker Realtors for nearly 30 years. At our mom’s wake, there were so many folks in the receiving line who shared with us that it was our Mom who helped them find their own home in the town of Little Compton.
Our mom was a warm and genuine person who had a real ability to talk with others. She had a good word for those around her and would remind us often of a household rule, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about the other, don’t say anything at all”. She was honest as the day is long and not one to mince her words. She would call it as she saw it. She had a way of telling you something you did or didn’t do, without making you feel too badly. She was subtle and precise in a delicate way. If an opportunity arose where you found yourself alone with my mom, she would open up to us in a special way, one-on-one.
Mom taught us what it means to sacrifice. She took her Godmother, Mary Ellen Ortelt into her home when her aunt was close to 100 yrs old and thought near death. She gave up her bedroom for her widowed and childless aunt for a few years, thinking that “she didn’t have long.” When the day finally came that my mom was sure that she could do no more, she arranged to have Mary Ellen moved to a nursing home. Mary Ellen lived for a few more years, with frequent visits from many of her family members. Soon after, mom cared for my dad, who’s Alzheimer’s disease was progressing. With the help of her children, she sought relief from that duty, by going to work for a few hours , one or two days per week. It was her outlet and she was wise to ask for help. She came home to the love of her life, renewed! And ready to face another day. One morning, December 6, 2004 she woke to find that my Dad had passed away in the night. She called each one of us to her. And we laughed and we cried and we remembered together. She would miss her husband in days to come and she would try her best to hide her longing to be with him again.
Mom often heard the little pitter patter of grandchildren’s feet running through her long house ‘till they finally found her sitting at her kitchen table at the far end her house. A day or two before her own death she turned to us and thought that she heard those feet again. If Heaven is everything and more of all things good, then there will be “pitter patter of feet” of running children there.
Dorothy was diagnosed with cancer and underwent her radiation and chemotherapy treatments and worked at getting her “ducks in order”. She had no idea how much time she had to live, but she knew that she would be ready when it was time! She took in visitors to her house and sipped tea with her guests, and she faced her eventual death with great dignity. She thought of all the people in her life whom she had loved and lost, and she knew that she would be with them again in Heaven. She told my sister Pat, who had moved into Mom’s house with her family too to help take care of Mom in her final days, that she missed Dad very much.
Our mother, too, passed away in her own bedroom. God is good! It was a Saturday in September. She had been very quiet, and spoke very little, if at all on Friday. Many of her children were able to be with her by her side and others were en route to be with her. Our parish priest, Fr. Gerald Hussey had already come that early morning unannounced, to give her her final Holy Eucharist, Viaticum, or “Food for the Journey”. Father knew that she was dying and came on his own, without a call from our family. He told us later that it was his Irish intuition that sensed that she was needing him to visit.
There is something about death that can be so natural and so beautiful, that it reminded a few of us of natural childbirth. There was almost a labor involved in dying, in drawing that last breath. Mom took her last breath and with that said her good byes to us all. Tears of joy and tears of sorrow flowed from our eyes. We cranked up “The Irish Rovers” cassette tape that Mom had marked “VG” or very good.
May 1, 2020