Story and photo by Kerry Phelps Dale
Helen MacMahon is arguably one of the busiest real estate agents in Middleburg, if not the busiest. After a long day of showing properties, presenting contracts and meeting with contractors, the broker/agent sits in her office leaning back with boots on her desk. A nearby table is covered with 10 or 11 piles of various heft, each representing a property under contract.
“Spring came early this year,” Helen says of the abundance. Helen and two of her six siblings and her mother Ann, who started the powerhouse firm, work side by side and hand in hand at Sheridan-MacMahon Real Estate on Washington Street, Middleburg.
“People ask me when my dad started the business,” says Helen. “It was my mom,” she tells them. And the answer is 1980. Her dad Dr. Edward MacMahon, by the way, is a non-practicing orthopedic surgeon. “He doesn’t like to call it retirement.”
This close-knit family moved to Middleburg in 1972 when Helen was just a youngster. She began attending Hill School in first grade, went from there to a couple of different high schools and graduated from Foxcroft School. At Washington College in Maryland, Helen received a degree in American Studies and met her future husband, Mugsy Mickum.
She’s lived in a few places, dabbled in a couple of careers, but it is in Middleburg and real estate that Helen chose to settle. She and Mugsy built a house on her parent’s property in Fauquier County and raised their daughter Annie in the shadow of loving grandparents. “I’m so glad Annie grew up next to my parents,” Helen says. “They adore each other and are so close.”
Helen and Annie, due in part to Annie being the only child, share a rare affinity: They know each other well and have a bond akin to sisters. Annie attends The New School in NYC and interns with the celebrated photographer, Annie Liebowitz, but the distance doesn’t deter the relationship. “We talk every day,” says Helen.
Though she says she doesn’t have any real hobbies, “I work all of the time,” Helen says proudly that her family, all of it, are what she tends to nurture and value most. She hijacks the conversation to work and friends. She shoots over to what a talented gardener her husband is, and how much our little Middleburg is changing. She tells of a shiny and suggestive sculpture that marks the entrance to her farm. It is apparent—Helen doesn’t like to talk about herself.
In one of her tangents, she shares an insight into herself. “I love art.” Original oil paintings hang on the walls, are tucked in bookcases and sit on window ledges of her office building. One, her sister, Margaret, painted, another is from the Aldie Art at the Mill show, and one is from a local high school student.
There was this one painting Helen saw in California. She fell in love with the 5 x 4 foot oil of two young Haitian girls jumping rope. Everything about it appealed to her—the thick paint applied with pallet knife, the nearly monochromatic colors, but mostly the girls and the happiness the painting conveyed. It haunted her, and she thought about it often. After two years of pining for the painting, Helen tracked it down and bought it. Today, the painting, called “Joy”, now hangs in her kitchen.
Although she works a lot, doesn’t seem to have hobbies due to little spare time, Helen gets all the important stuff. Her family comes first. Middleburg is a treasure to be preserved. She cherishes her longtime friends. A close friend once told her that she is unaware of the people who don’t like her. At first, she was offended. “No, no,” he told her. “That’s a compliment.” She came to understand that it really was praise for her conviction to be herself and speak her mind— “A perk of growing older.” Authenticity delivered with kindness. “It’s not hard to be kind.”
Actually, though, it’s more accurate to say Helen is unaware of how many people do like her. Same reason, just different perspective.
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.