Four Years On

Dear Mackenzie,

Exactly four years ago this morning, I kissed that glorious giant freckle on your left cheek and watched you pass through the airport security line and disappear through the gates. I was bursting with happiness for you on that pre-dawn Sunday, as I watched you leave for Spain. You were so bright and so brave, even with the tiny twitch of nerves you revealed as you tried to calm my own by telling me you’d be alright. Because you knew “hola” and “cerveza” and probably wouldn’t need to learn too many more words beyond those. Liar. I could never have imaged the extra tight big-Mack hug you gave me at the last minute would be the last. We could never have known you only had one month in front of you. Four years ago that was. Four years. Four long years without you, after twenty too-short years with you.

Today is a really bad day, honey. I know you would not like it, but these milestones practically undo me every time. Sometimes the pain of your absence feels like a freight train coming on fast, the panicky whistle growing ever more shrill, and I am paralyzed on the tracks with no power to get out of its way. I am still, and always will be, profoundly sad without you. And, whoa, some of the days along the way are as painful as the first day without you. It’s just the way it is. We all miss you. Even Pepper, who, by the way, went to the puppy spa yesterday (she got her hair did, as you would’ve said). Did you have something to do with the groomer choosing for her a deep purple bandana? Anyway, she is delightfully fluffy you’d be happy to know, and she knows I need extra cuddles right now. You told her to take care of me when you left, and she does a pretty good job of it.

Tomorrow will be better, I promise. I’ll be in Chicago with Sissy and my dear friend Bridgett. We are going to take a yoga class with pygmy goats. Can you believe yoga with pygmy goats is a thing? You’d even do yoga with me if there pygmy goats, wouldn’t you? We will also visit the new American Writer’s Museum, and you know we will eat some amazing food and enjoy overpriced drinks in the windy city, too. How about I promise to find happiness tomorrow and you check in to make sure? At the end of what I know will be a good day, we will settle in for drinks at a cozy bar, and I will offer four toasts to you: The first to Mack the animal lover. The second to Mack the writer. The third to Mack the bratty baby sister (that one for Savannah’s sake, of course). And the fourth to Mack the bright spirit who continues to shine a light upon my life, four years on.

Pep Dog

Mack’s Back to School

The milestones faced on the journey of grief generate profound feelings of loss and longing. Emotionally and physically painful are holidays, Mack’s birthdays, and the anniversaries marking the last day I saw her and the terrible day that I lost her. But as parents across the country are celebrating the First Day of School and marking important academic milestones in their children’s lives, I am celebrating the First Day of School, too. August back-to-school season stirs in me more joy and gratitude than sadness, because it marks the beginning of a new academic year for another talented recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship at Truman State University.

As fragile mortal beings, our time on the planet is limited, and there is so little time to make an imprint on the world. The best that most human beings can do over the course of a lifetime is be true to themselves, be kind to others, and apply their particular talents for some sort of greater good. In just twenty short years, Mack accomplished what it takes most of us sixty years or more to understand and to achieve. She was always true to herself, comfortable in her freckled skin and confident in her definition of herself as an athletic, nail-polish wearing, goofy intellectual. She was never mean-spirited, judgmental, or unkind. She used her talents of humor, charm, and unconditional love to make a significant and lasting impression on the lives of her family members and friends. And because of the impact Mack made on the people who had the good fortune to know her or to make her unforgettable acquaintance, an endowed scholarship in her name at her alma mater perpetuates her beautiful spirit. Therefore, every August, Mack goes back to school, too, making a difference in the life of another special young person who is preparing to share their talents with the world.

Laurie Shipley, a senior from Kansas City, Missouri, is this year’s scholarship recipient. Laurie, who will earn a BFA in the spring, is a creative writing major, a Spanish minor, and a member of the Truman State Color Guard. Her Spanish minor led her to a study-abroad term last summer in Costa Rica, where she took classes in Alajuela. After graduation, Laurie will be staying on at Truman to earn a Master’s degree in education. She plans to become an elementary school teacher and is anxious to share her love of literature and writing with students.

The reason why back-to-school season is special for me should be abundantly clear, and I am sending big-Mack hugs to everyone who is celebrating a milestone First Day of School this August. For me, the season will always be a time to celebrate Mack’s beautiful life, to rejoice in her spirit alive in the world, and to feel gratitude for all of the people who have contributed to the scholarship these past four years (a special shout-out to the Sunrise Rotary Club in Springfield, Illinois, for their renewed annual contribution). Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for loving Mack. And thank you for helping us to immortalize the impact of Mack’s beautiful life, one beautiful student at a time.

The Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship Fund
Truman State University Foundation
205 McClain Hall, Kirksville, MO 63501
800-452-6678
http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/

Laura Shipley

Mackenzie’s Rainbow

I find myself standing in a curious landscape. My travels through grief have brought me here. For much of the journey, the weather was foggy and misty and so much of the traveling progressed during the darkest of nights. A return to wherever it is I was before is impracticable; and besides, to this unexpected new topography I find myself profoundly drawn. The contours of the land are as yet unknown to me, and the lightness of the atmosphere in this new country unfamiliar. Yet I recognize the historical landmarks and the precious human faces of this peculiar place. The breeze here rings bells in my memories. The sunlight stirs in me warming hope. The fresh air gives buoyancy to aspirations I now feel strong enough to embrace. And, strangely, I am not a stranger here. I am home.

I have finally, thankfully, perhaps evenly blessedly, arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

I am relatively certain that I have not been in this new place for very long, and I have only just noticed my arrival on this bold frontier. Last week at home after a therapeutic four-day weekend with old and dear friends in Minnesota, I cried. And cried. And cried. Every day the tears falling like rain in the springtime. I hadn’t cried like that in many weeks, and I had become very worried that my tears had dried up forever. I had been feeling cracked and hardened by their absence, but now the clouds had opened up and these tears poured down, refreshingly different, less bitter, more cleansing. It was through these new tears that I first saw the beauty of the very different landscape in which I now find myself. What is most curious, and wonderfully unexpected, is that this fresh landscape of my life is a whole new place under the sun, created and settled by all of the people, living and dead, who are critical to my survival in this world. It is a landscape planted with all of my tangible and emotional needs for a livable, breathable environment that is not only healthy and whole but also full of possibilities I thought gone forever.

This place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow is not a paradise in which my pain and sorrow have vanished or where I possess total clarity and feel no fear. Instead, it is a place where I can walk hand-in-hand with grief and with happiness, in security and in uncertainty, and through all of the pain and the joy of being human. It is a place that allows me, simultaneously, to inhabit two separate pasts, to define a new and brave present focused only on the things that bring me peace, and to curate a future of my own making. Innumerable, varied, and terrifying uncertainties remain, but I have some pretty good ideas about what life here will look like and, most importantly, I know I have the strength to face whatever experiences life might bring me and to go wherever life might call me. Mack will continue to guide me and my sweet and sassy Savannah is here to keep my feet upon the earth, but as terrifying as life still is and as hard as I know it will continue to be, I feel like I have emerged from a fog.

In life somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow I have:

  1. Family members and friends who have traveled with me on this journey, people who knew and loved Mack, who each share with me the agony of her absence but also carry the light of her beautiful life within them. Last week while I was crying my eyes out I was reminded once again of how Mack’s spirit shines out into the world. Mack’s best friend Justice (with the help of another best friend Elyse) and Project Mack hosted an inspiring gathering of community in hometown Springfield, Illinois. The two-day Take Back the City event, featured a concert and all-star basketball game, raised awareness about gun violence, supported scholarships for city high school students, and directed a positive spotlight on local talent and an incredible group of young people making a difference in the world. In these people that Mack collected, I am incredibly proud, and I am so grateful that Mack brought them into my life. All of Mack’s best friends are as important in my world as my family and my cherished Springfield friends who helped me raise my daughters. All together, these people represent my past with Mack, they are of my life with her, and they are now and forever, collectively, my family.
  1. I can be the Stacy I was before Mack and the Stacy I was with Mack and the Stacy I am now without Mack. This might seem very obvious, but I assure you it escaped me, and I cannot express how liberating it is for me now to know that it is true. After Mack died, I could only conceive of life and memories with her; to my mind there was no past, no present, and no future without her. But six beautiful and beloved growing-up friends—three from high school and three from college—wrapped me up so tight that they have, finally, squeezed this ridiculous misconception out of me. It took me too long to get it, but I get it now, even if I only just figured it out last week in Minnesota with two of these friends at my side. None of these women knew Mack, but they reached out and were willing to bear witness to my grief, to be old friends who knew me happy, and to be new friends willing to know me sad and dramatically different. They turned out to be life preservers and guides—Bridgett, an immediate and enthusiastic cheerleader of my blog, encouraging my writing and helping me find my way back to reading; Kathy, a keen observer of what my intellect needed to stay alive during some very dark days; Carol, an earth mother who gave me her heart, her family, and a dog; Michelle, who always cheerfully offers unconditional love, no matter what; Julie, a delightful imp who dared me to laugh and lets me laugh through my tears if that is what is required; and Diane, who faced cancer at the precise moment I faced the loss of Mack and whose quietly brave, matter-of-fact, ass-kicking of the disease was an inspiration to me when I thought all inspiration was lost. These women represent my past before Mack, and vital as they were to my formative development, they are ever so more vital to me now.
  2. My life in the present is up to me to define and to narrate. A mother’s grief is bone-shattering, life-altering, and permanent. I am coming to grips with this reality, and I am learning, as well, that I can bear no people or circumstances that make me feel my grief must pass. Part of my recovery is wearing the badge of that truth on my forehead and refusing to apologize for it. As well, I need to do a much better job of surrounding myself with the people and the things that bring me peace. I deserve peace wherever I can claim it, and in this new landscape I can see more clearly the roads I need to take to claim some of that peace.
  3. I am strong, but that does not mean I don’t sometimes need a little help. During the past nearly four years of life without Mack, there have been countless days when I was the only person who made me get out of bed. I had Savannah and good work to draw my broken spirit out from under the covers sometimes, but I have come to rely mostly on own my stubbornness to live. Throughout my grief, my mom kept telling me that I was strong, and I’m sorry to say, it made me angry. I didn’t want to be strong. I wanted to curl up into the fetal position and let somebody or something else be strong for me, to bear the weight for me, to fix me. But now I understand that it is OK to be strong, because I am, actually, really strong. But mostly, I understand that being strong does not mean that Mack’s absence somehow matters less or is easier for me to bear. This realization in the learning curve of grief is, perhaps, the most significant lesson I have learned. Just because I get out of bed every morning and function and dare myself to be productive does not mean I don’t miss Mack and struggle to breathe without her. It simply means that I am strong enough to survive it with a little grace and enough of myself intact that Mack might still recognize me. In this weird and wonderful new place in which I now find myself, I no longer feel guilty for being strong. But I am also no longer afraid to lean a little bit on people who will prop me up if I need to renew my energy, to regain my own strength.
  4. My brain is still alive, thank goddess, although its resuscitation has been a terrible trial. When Mack died, I quit reading books, I stopped taking online classes, and I abandoned my Pimsleur Spanish and French lessons, too. I gutted out the reading and research for my job, but my former life of the mind, my voracious reading, and my personal scholarship were casualties of my grief. Because you know what no one tells you? Grief is a monstrous, devastating destroyer that shatters so much more than the heart. I could no longer concentrate and for better than three years I faded as my eyes stared blankly at Netflix. My brain went offline, and I did not expect it to return to active duty. But thanks to all of the brilliant book-loving women in my life, I am a reader again. Thanks to an amazing new editing job, I am a scholar again. Thanks the lifting of the fog that smothered my brain, I have taken one online class and am in the middle of another. My brain is coming back, and that means in one really big way, I am coming back, too. And as I stand here in this bright new landscape, I’m smiling because Mack would be so damned happy and very relieved to know that my brain is not dead after all.
  5. Today, along with being Savannah’s mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a professional historian, I am a creative writer. Since attending a two-week creative writing camp at Indiana State University with my dear Bridgett in 1984, I have been a creative writer. But while I enjoyed a successful career of historical writing, life often intervened and my creative pen was idle. In October 2014 I started this blog, a desperate attempt to capture in words my memories of Mack, to celebrate her life, and to work through my sorrow. This blog was the first non-scholarly writing I had done in years, and it sustained me through many dark and very lonely stretches of depression. In March 2018, the urge to be creative again bubbled up anew, and I purchased a thick blue notebook with a wide green strap, and I became a creative writer again. Every single day in my notebook, I jot down thoughts and observations about the world, copy a paragraph of beautiful writing from the latest book I am reading, compose a poem, or frame dialogue gleaned from eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants. Since March, I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, and in my less lucid moments sharing that poetry with poor people who have no choice but to accept it. I’ve also written character sketches and short pieces of prose; I’ve conjured up ideas and taken copious notes for a book of essays and two novels, and I’ve written nearly 100,000 words for a memoir about grief. At some point I will explore the publication of some of this writing, but publication is not the end game. In my new life it is the process of the writing that matters, it is the good therapy it does me, it is the solace it brings me, it is the journey of curiosity and exploration and the rediscovery of me.
  6. BKS=01

    Me with Bridgett and Kathy, present for my epiphany in Minnesota.

This blog entry is a meandering mess, but my strict rule of raw, vulnerable, quick release forbids editing and, thus, I apologize for the density and the disorder. But, I hope, it is clear enough, dear reader, that a mist has cleared for me or I have emerged through a portal into the light or come to some proverbial crossroads. Or, perhaps, I really have arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow. Still grieving. Still a speed bump away from a straight-jacket. But better. More vibrant. Less afraid about where life will lead me in the coming year. And, I think, looking a little more like the Momma Bear Mack knew and loved for twenty precious years of my life.

Mackenzies Rainbow

Peace, Luck, and Chipmunks

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the Missouri Botanical Garden opens at 7 a.m. for seekers of tranquil walking upon deserted, dewy paths and among the early birds singing in quiet and fresh morning air. As a rule, I am not a disciple of mornings, as most img_1528of my nights are late and disrupted, but I make happy exception for daybreak in the garden. The gentle solitude of an early morning spent walking with memories, lost and found among the trees and the flowers, wraps up my broken heart and brittle bones like a heavy, handmade quilt on a lonely night in winter. For most of these quiet morning walks, I take Mack with me. Like me, she was not enamored of wakefulness at god-awful hours, nor was she a devotee of strolling or of flowers or of birdsong before coffee. Yet I think it is precisely the unlikelihood of this path forward with grief that would lead me and my lost girl into a garden in morning that renders such productive peace upon my soul. These morning walks are when I feel most grateful and lucky and human.

Recently, after a particularly difficult two days, my large umbrella and an overwhelming need to commune with the garden gave me the resolve necessary to venture out on a dark and rainy Wednesday morning. By the time I arrived at the garden, the rain had mostly cleared, although the southern skies still threatened. I stood at the car debating the inconvenience of carrying an unneeded umbrella for my morning therapy stroll in the garden, and I closed the car door and left the umbrella on the passenger seat. I walked away from the car and toward the garden and the dark clouds. Yet although I could feel the warming presence of the sun lurking just beyond the dissipating thunderhead, I stopped walking, sighed deeply, and then returned to the car to retrieve my umbrella. It was to be just my first curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.

My umbrella tucked uncomfortably under my arm, I entered the visitor center, scanned my garden-member card and collected my ticket, and ascended the stairs to the garden entry. I stopped before the fountain on the main plaza, like I always do, and weighed the options of taking a clockwise or counter-clockwise path. Remembering that my most recent morning walking had taken me left around the Linnean House and toward the Ottoman Garden, I stepped right, thinking I would walk toward the Climatron first and spend a little time in the rock garden. As I reached the tram shelter along the clockwise path I had selected, I abruptly turned back toward the fountain and headed toward the Linnean House after all. I do not know why. I just did. Sometimes simple life choices simply make themselves, I guess. I looped the handle of my umbrella on my right arm, knowing now that the day was free and clear of the rain, and I walked briskly toward the Ottoman Garden. Curious and fortunate volte-face number two.

The Ottoman Garden is tucked away in the northeast corner of the Missouri Botanical Garden on a short spur off of the main circuitous path around the entire perimeter of the garden. It is a small, square, wall-lined garden with a lovely pool and fountain in the center and lined with graveled paths trimmed with Turkish plantings. At the back of this quiet little garden, which is never crowded even on busy afternoons, there is a wooden arbor in front of a stucco wall and topped with a Moorish dome. Under the tiled roof sits a glorious, regally decorated wooden throne that sits up upon a slightly raised portico offering royal views over the fountain and the flowers. Whenever I take a female visitor to the garden, I always snap a picture of her sitting upon that throne being a sultan, if only for the duration of a minute or two. However, I do not always visit the Ottoman Garden on my early morning walks, but I suppose on this particular morning I needed to feel like a sultan in control of my life and the world. Or maybe this was my third curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.

I walked over to the throne, and of course, it was wet with rain. Too wet for a sit, I thought, but then I brushed off the biggest puddle and struck a pose for a selfie, documenting that royal feeling with a photo I could pull out later as a reminder of yet another productively therapeutic trip to the garden in morning. After I snapped the picture, I noticed movement in the fountain. A small animal was frantically swimming and making repeated attempts to scale the deep lip around the edges of the pool. I kneeled down to see a chipmunk, desperately keeping her little head above the water, legs rapidly paddling. I put down my bag and my umbrella upon the wet stone and watched the chipmunk through eyes welling up with tears, and I wondered how in the world I might manage to catch the soaked and scared little chipmunk with my bare hands, fish her out of the pool, and bring her to safety. Almost before I could even rationalize or consider it, I grabbed the handle of my umbrella and gently dipped the thicker end of it into the pool directly in front of my desperate little swimmer. She immediately climbed aboard her unlikely life raft, and I carefully guided the umbrella away from the fountain, softly depositing its precious cargo upon the solid ground of stone.

She sat for several seconds, shivering and catching her breath, as I counted her blessings, and then she began to dry off and look noticeably stronger and more calm. As she collected herself and I cried, movement in my teary peripheral vision drew my attention. It was another chipmunk, this one much smaller, desperately swimming and barely keeping her tired head and sleepy eyes above the cold water. I picked up my “unneeded” umbrella and it performed its second heroic rescue of the day. For this second chipmunk, the cold morning swim had been more harrowing, and her breathing more labored and her body more shivery, as I gently sat her down upon the stone. She was just a baby and much more disoriented than her “sister” chipmunk, who by now was breathing normally and was drying herself off with busy little paws. I sat with those sweet little animals for about ten minutes, as their tiny bodies were warming in the humid morning air. When it was clear to my mind that they would live to see the sun burst out from behind the morning’s storm clouds, I resumed my morning walk in the garden, albeit upon shaky legs and with eyes still full of tears of sadness and joy and tender feelings for small creatures.

Mack would have rescued those chipmunks, too. And, like her Momma Bear, she would have cried with worry over the unfortunate morning circumstances of their cold and terrifying swim and fretted over their recovery long after they finally scurried along to dry and warm places under the protective branches of a flowering shrub. For the remainder of my walk that morning, Mack stayed with me, bringing to mind all of the memories of her and her tender heart for animals. You see, I do not go to the garden to escape my grief. Rather, I go to walk beside my grief, and to learn how better to live with my grief. I go to share my present life with Mack, because she is and will always be with me. And because she is with me in my memories and in my daily life, she was with me, too, for the lucky rescue of those sweet chipmunks.

I do not often feel lucky, and on many days I feel almost as unlucky as any person who has ever lived. But on one early morning in the garden, I was lucky to have an unneeded umbrella, lucky to visit the Ottoman Garden first, and lucky to happen upon two precious creatures in need of a life preserver. Most of all, it was a lucky day to be reminded of how lucky I was to have Mack, and how lucky I am that early morning walks and the rescue of chipmunks can melt my still-broken heart, can reveal to me something of the beauty in the world, and can bring me a little much appreciated and necessary peace.

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Better than Angels

Many well-meaning people have told me that Mack is an angel now, in Heaven. That she is eating infinite quantities of sour candies, sushi, and Thai fried rice in a place where the weather is ever perfect for her open Jeep to drive down beautiful, tree-lined avenues, music blaring, with a car full of puppies. I do not doubt that religious belief eases the burdens of grief for religious people. Yet I cannot seek comfort in the magical thinking of religion. For me, death is terminal to the flesh and to the soul. I keep the spirit of Mack within me and allow her impact upon my life to guide me, going forward, but my grief is grounded in the painful reality that neither her body nor her soul inhabit any world. And so, in the absence of spiritual solace, I seek a more tangible comfort.

I have spent innumerable hours pondering this idea of angels, of the meaning of the people who pass through our lives and of the trauma their deaths inflict upon the living—the people they leave behind in the world to understand and to make peace with the fragility of being human. Losing Mack ripped open the flesh of my emotional vulnerability and offered shocking clarification of my own mortality and of the mortality of every single person I love and need. But losing Mack also uncovered, in the exposure of my bones, other lost people, living there, with me still, although long gone from the world of the living. In the parlance of the religious observer, I have three angels: Mack, my dad, and my maternal grandmother. But I have come to understand that the bold impression that each of these three marvelous humans made upon me and the tangible guidance they continue to provide me are much more powerful than any otherworldly existence they would inhabit if heaven was a place and angels lived there. But what does any of this babble mean, anyway, and why do I feel compelled to define Mack, Jim, and Kathleen as something other than angels?

There is a historical debate about whether upon Abraham Lincoln’s death, his Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton consigned Lincoln to the “angels” or to the “ages.” If one subscribes to magical thinking—as author Joan Didion argues every grieving person does, at least at the immediate impact of a loss—then it is likely that perhaps all of the people present for Lincoln’s last breath, each of them grounded in Christian theology, believed Lincoln had joined the angels in Heaven. Certainly Mary Lincoln believed it so. But what we have learned in the 153 years since Lincoln’s death is that he actually resides with the living. He does not inhabit some ethereal plane as an angel, but rather he belongs to the ages, regardless of what Stanton might have actually said. Lincoln exists in the bones of America; just as Mack, Jim, and Kathleen exist in my bones. Lincoln is, for Americans, a folk hero—a tangible historical presence who corroborates our past, who by the example of his own leadership offers tools for leadership in the present, and who in his human worth provides inspiration for the future of America. Mack, Jim, and Kathleen are, for me and for my life, folk heroes—the tangible comfort I seek, because they corroborate my past, they by the examples of their own lives give me tools to navigate my life in the present, and in their human worth, and from their significance in my life, inspire me to gaze forward, onward, toward the future.

In looking back across three and a half years of the blog entries in Being Mack’s Momma Bear, I realize that what I have written is a series of “Mack-tales,” stories of Mack’s life and the influence she had upon the people who knew her, many told with some moral or inspirational purpose beyond the story itself. My individual stories about Mack are all true, but taken together, they read as folktales; and Mack, I think, reads like a folk hero. It is not my intention here to argue that Mack is a folk hero in the way that Abraham Lincoln is a folk hero. Rather, my point here is that we all have people we have lost who are so much more than angels looking down upon us from some kind of heaven, happy away from the ones who loved them, looking down upon mere mortals through some bright, heavenly light. And I also think it is good and useful, in fact it is a tangible comfort, to recognize the folk heroes we were so damn lucky to know and to keep them with us by telling their stories. Perhaps not for the ages, but for us and for our immediate families, as a way to make sense of life, of death, of the world around us, and of our fragile but beautiful human connections.

I am going to keep pondering this idea of folk heroes, and probably of angels, too. It is a topic, as yet unresolved in my brain, and about which I intend to write more. But for now I want to tell you about my first folk hero, my grandmother, whose name I gave as a middle name to Mack and whose stories I shared with my girls as they grew. My  grandmother died when I was in graduate school, and she was with me, tucked deep within my bones, throughout my doctoral studies as I gutted out soul-crushing seminars, grueling reading lists, and inhuman schedules. My memory of her grit and her sass offered me strength and solidarity from beyond her grave. I did not have any real sense at the time that she was with me or that I had attached so much purpose to my memories of her. But now I do, as it is one of those curious light bulbs that have switched on in my psyche, through the fog of my grief for Mackenzie. So on what would have been her 95th birthday, I give you Kathleen: a woman, a grandmother, a folk hero. See for yourself why she is so deep within my bones and how much of her folk-hero character and traits ended up in the bones of Mack, as well.

Kathleen was a hard-working, tough-talking woman who survived the depression, sacrificed during World War II, and suffered premature widowhood and early breakdown of her body and her health. She was a real-life Rosie-the-Riveter who swooned over Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. She was a diabetic addicted to sweets and to junk food. She was a house-dress-wearing, pocket-book-carrying granny who enjoyed pinching and teasing her grandchildren and wrapping them up in bone-crushing bear hugs. She had the delicate penmanship of an artist, the mouth of a dishonorably discharged marine, and she crocheted colorful blankets while watching professional wrestling. Kathleen did not bake pies and whisper; she worked in a box factory and told dirty jokes. She was crass and direct and devastatingly funny, full of chutzpah, contradictions, and complexities. She was true to who she was and how she felt and what she thought, and she never apologized for any of it.

Kathleen indulged my sweet tooth, once cheering me on as I devoured a Hostess Ding-Dong in one outrageously large bite. She appreciated and encouraged my spunk. She taught me to use my middle finger with authority, both literally and figuratively, and she showed me how to be bold in the big, bad world. She adopted my friends without putting on fake grandmother airs. She made card games uproariously fun, but she also made them dangerous, threatening to get those who bested her with her “bowling-ball grip” as she gestured over the card table, three angry fingers pointing skyward. First-time hearers of Kathleen’s unique and sometimes obscene vocabulary gaped, veteran hearers tittered, and everyone, in the end, understood that in speaking her truth in her own language, Kathleen had scooped them up into her bosom to love them, to boss them, to be herself with them, and to bear witness to their true selves, as well.

A 1943 photograph of Kathleen is one of three perched within the deep grooves of a giant framed mirror on the floor in my bedroom. In her photo, Kathleen is wearing a vibrant floral dress and is wrapped up in the arms of my handsome, uniformed grandfather who will soon be in Europe fighting Nazis. On the right is a photograph of Jim, my father, in 1981. Standing in my childhood kitchen, he is wearing a suit vest, tie, and an impish grin as he holds up a glass-bottle of Pepsi. In the middle photograph is my precious Mack in 2010. Clad in her red, high school basketball silks, bearing her lucky number 4, she spins a basketball atop her long, right index finger. When I propped up those photographs there, more than three years ago now, I had not given much thought to the intent of their placement. But now their purpose is perfectly clear. These are the photographs of my folk heroes, spanning nearly seventy years of time and history. Mack, Kathleen, and Jim are folk heroes. No different, really, than Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Revere, or any other folk hero you might imagine–at least not to me. My memories and my stories of them are the folktales of my life, and they are my tangible comfort. They root me to my past and to my Indiana ancesters, they ground me in the present guiding me by the examples of the lives they led, and they inspire me to see a future, even if it is one without them.

And, that, my friends, as you likely already know, is precisely what folk heroes are supposed to do.

folk heroes

Kathleen and Clyde c1943

17 Limericks for Mack Day

Grief is a humorless companion; and life without humor is grim. While I am often unsuccessful, I do try every single day to find humor in the world, because I know it is the thing that Mack would most want me to find. Mack laughed and chortled and giggled her way through nearly every day she lived. For her, laughter was as essential as the air we breathe. She was the source of a great and wonderful abundance of the laughing I did for the twenty years I was lucky to know her. Mack’s joyful sense of humor was one of her greatest gifts to me and to everyone who knew and loved her.

Therefore, on this Mack Day, March 17, 2018, in honor of the twenty-fourth birthday of my happy and funny little leprechaun, I offer seventeen limericks. A couple of them are really good, some of them are OK, and most of them are pretty terrible. But I know Mack would love them all, especially the terrible ones. She would have laughed her ass off reading each one (out loud and in a goofy voice, of course), congratulated me on my ridiculousness, and then written a couple of her own. I think she would be happy to know that I laughed a little more than I cried while writing them. I also think Mack would appreciate, and maybe even take full credit for, my decision to pen so many damned limericks in the first place. So please, read the limericks along with me and with Mack and laugh out loud, especially at the terrible ones, as we all remember our silly and sweet, cheerful and magnificent girl.

Note: Each limerick is linked (on the heading) to the previous blog post that inspired it, so that readers might revisit old stories of Mack’s beautiful life.

Candy

There was a girl with cravings for candy

always keeping it close and quite hand

Loved the sour and sweet

Always needing a treat

And campaigning that sugar was “dandy”

Clothes

Mack found sweatshirts to be the most comfy

Tucked-in tails were so painfully lumpy

Shorts and soft tees

Free toes and bare knees

Were important for not being grumpy

Cool

Well liked and admired without trying

Mack gained friendship and fame without vying

Confident and cool

Goofy fun in school

Quirky, genuine soul, no denying

Food

Ordering Asian food was quite common

Mack loved her sushi, pad Thai and ramen

Spicy she’d order

Thai folks adored her

Loving their food with such happy abandon

Freckles

There once was a daughter McDermott

on whose face there was spot after spot

“Freckle monster am I!”

she cried out with a sigh

“Guess I’ll love all the dots that I got”

Friends First

Best friends were her favorite collection

Making careful and worthy selection

Not judging her buddies

but thwarting their studies

With much laughter and goofy distraction

Golf

She preferred flip-flops over her golf shoes

Comfort and irreverence was her excuse

For her golf was fun

Just a walk in the sun

A time to chill out with friends, win or lose

Hair

Most of her life Mack wore very long hair

Shimmering with sun, so fine and so fair

But never too keen

To primp and to preen

Finally cut it to suit her own flair

Jeep

She had an old blue Jeep that rattled

with a terrible clutch she battled

But she loved that old heap

only making her weep

on nights she was late and it tattled

Laughter

Mack always stood way out for her humor

Of which everyone was a consumer

She would chuckle and giggle

Tell bad jokes and would jiggle

Make you pee your pants along with her

Lazy Days

Mack loved to watch her TV for hours

Eating Funyons and sucking on sours

Glee, Parks, and Buffy

nothing too stuffy

because Sponge Bob’s the one who empowers

Lincoln

A girl from Springfield always shrinkin’

from sharing her town with that Lincoln

Mack decided that fate

gave her no choice to hate

the man who consumed Momma’s thinkin’

Mack-Like

To be like Mack is a damn worthy goal

Making best friends is so good for the soul

Relax, enjoy life

Be brave, cut the strife

And always laugh, chuckle, giggle, and roll.

No Worries

Mack wasted no sleep or time in fretting

About things there was no use in sweating

Preferring to chill

things happen that will

Besides, nothing should be so upsetting

Spiders and Insects

Mack detested all spiders and insects

Even lady bugs to her were rejects

She’d scream in fear

When they came near

And flee fast like she had mental defects

Wild Child

A tomboy, and crazy athletic

Her pace as a child frenetic

She would bounce off the walls

Never playing with dolls

and giving her parents a headache

Writing

Mack was a good feminist writer

Who wanted the world to be brighter

She had plans to create

Female leads to abate

Sexist bullshit and bias around her

Leprechaun

Me and Mack in the Garden

I was in the garden yesterday.

I was there to seek the company of the dawn redwood trees, upon the deeply fissured trunks of which there is written an ancient wisdom and under the branches of which I often find comfort. I was feeling a great deal of anxiety, as I always do at the end of a project that has consumed much of my creative energy and intellect over a long stretch of time. Instead of embracing a contented feeling of achievement, my mind was restless from the release of its previous intensity of purpose; my body was stiff and sore with the lingering memory of the labor, hanging tight and clinging heavy to my bones. It is a regular, and peculiar, ritual with me that the completion of a piece of writing about which I feel so damn good also leaves me, in the bargain, feeling so damned lost. It is similar to the sorrow that overcomes me when I read the last word on the last page of an extraordinary book. It feels something like the loss of a friend, or a missed opportunity, or a misplaced treasure. To complicate my trouble with endings, I also frequently feel a little off-balance within the uncomfortable and uncertain space in my mind that occupies the time between the end (or death) of one creative project and the beginning (or birth) of a new one. It makes me feel quite lonely, very sad, and sometimes a little crazy, too. Usually I can conquer on my own any negative energy that should never cling to a successfully completed project in the first place, but sometimes I need a little outside help to do so.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has become for me not only a physical sanctuary but an emotional and intellectual one. It is a place where nonjudgmental spirits reside and where I find both relief and inspiration. The garden has become my happy refuge and a cherished friend. It grounds my restless spirit to the earth, provides solace to my broken heart, and refreshes my tired mind. It is where I go to be uplifted by the songs of birds and to be renewed by the wondrous, ever-changing colors and shadows of all of the seasons of nature. It is where I go to walk with my memories, my sorrows, my hopes, my worries, and my intellectual and creative ideas. It is where I go to conquer the uncertain and uncomfortable in-between spaces in my mind. Yesterday, the latter was my need for the garden, and to be in the presence of the majestic Metasequoia was my singular purpose. I made a brisk and determined path to the redwoods in the back of the garden, noticing neither the birds nor the colors and shadows along the way. So eager was I for those trees to release me from my burdens, I had ignored all other greetings of the garden and offered my happy refuge, my cherished friend, no greeting of my own, either.

But, thankfully, Mack was in the garden yesterday, too.

As I followed the path, curving around the Victorian section of the garden and leading toward the stand of the dawn redwood trees, Mack popped up in my mind at precisely the moment that a single snow crocus, poking up through a carpet of old autumn leaves, popped into my peripheral vision. “Slow down, Mamma Bear,” she whispered. “Walk with me.”

It was then that I first noticed the warmth of a long-missing sun and the crisp breeze upon my face. It was then that the nurturing characteristics of the garden began to work their magic upon my tired body and to ease the discomforts of my restless mind. We started walking, Mack and I, under the branches of the dawn redwoods, and for more than two hours we mindfully strolled. Along every path, we spied chipmunks scurrying in bushes and we looked for the shiny blades of new-born leaves peeking up through the dirt and promising the coming of spring flowers. In the Japanese garden, we chatted with some turtles sunning on rocks and laughed at the awkward and silly cypress knees randomly jutting up out of the ground. We lingered at every statue we passed, we found some pansies in the home garden, and we sat for a spell on a bench in the woodland garden, enjoying the soothing sound of the water gently falling over rocks on its way down the stream. Everywhere we walked, we listened to the songs of the birds and took in all of the colors and shadows that a glorious pre-Spring day in the Midwest has to offer.

I did not think about the past. I did not worry about the future. I did not think about the end of my completed project. I did not contemplate the challenges of my new one. I just walked, with Mack, breathing easy and settling my mind upon the present. When I finally made my way to the exit, the in-between space in my mind had closed. I whispered my gratitude to Mack and to the garden, and I headed for home, basking in the satisfaction connected to rewarding work and the successful completion of a creative project and happily looking forward to a new creative project on the horizon.

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