Hair

The Springfield McDermott family was, historically, a long-haired clan. From about 1997 onward, Kevin, Savannah, Mack and I always wore long hair, and we had the hair-care product budget to prove it. Our family used gallons of shampoo, conditioner and detangling spray and stretched out hundreds and hundreds of hair ties. Savannah did bob her strawberry-blonde mane once or twice. And during a moment of temporary insanity, I had cut mine into a boyish pixie cut; but after crying myself to sleep, I started growing it out the next day. Other than those few exceptions, however, long hair ruled at 709 S. Lincoln Avenue.

Throughout elementary and middle school, Mack kept her hair long, straight, parted down the middle, and tied in a ponytail at the nape of her neck. She was never really interested in styling her hair; and since she was busy with so many sports, longer hair made a good deal of sense. With a tight ponytail and a spongy athletic-tape headband, her face was free of wispy hairs for soccer and basketball, and her ponytail slipped neatly through the back of her baseball cap. In football, a braided ponytail tucked up under her helmet suited Mack’s sensibility and her own personal I-play-sports-but-I’m-still-a-girl style. Savannah tried on numerous occasions to persuade Mack to put her ponytail up a little higher, wrap it into a messy bun, or do away with the center part, anything at all to make it a little more girly. But Mack always rolled her eyes and said something like, “What do I care?”

A Christmas trip to the Caribbean when Mack was nine or ten inspired a new style that lasted about nine months. While in Roatan, Honduras, Mack had sat for two hours while a woman gave her a full-set of beaded, cornrow braids. She just loved those braids, and she wanted to keep them. Therefore, when we returned from our trip, we went to Sally’s Beauty Supply and purchased a spray bottle, a fine-toothed comb and thousands of tiny black rubber bands. For months after that trip, Mack and I would periodically sit down in front of a basketball or baseball game while I braided her hair…for hours. I did not possess the talents to duplicate the cornrows, but she was thrilled with my braiding nonetheless; and much to her sister’s horror, she sported those white-girl braids with considerable pride.

braids

However, when school started again that next fall, she went back to that long, low-slung ponytail. Late in eighth grade and early in high school, Mack finally abandoned her ubiquitous low ponytail by experimenting with the popular side-bang, sporting some layers and trying shorter, shoulder-length styles. But by her junior year, she was losing patience with her hair and also beginning to chastise me more and more for spending so much time on my own. During basketball season that year, she began to talk about getting a buzz cut. And this is where I have to admit that I was horrified by the notion of a buzz cut on my beautiful daughter, and I was pretty well dedicated to keeping her from going through with it. I mean, come on, she had beautiful hair. It was so silky and smooth and glinting with golden streaks. I couldn’t imagine why she would want it all gone; and besides, I would always argue, it needed to be long enough to secure tightly away from her face for sports. My pleas to her only led to more talk about buzz cuts. It came to a point where Mack would say “buzz cut” just to get me all in a tizzy. Clearly, she was starting to equate her budding feminism with a rejection of societal expectations of femininity, and she was trying out these new arguments of hers on her addicted-to-long-hair-and-eyeliner mother.

But Mack never did buzz off all of that gorgeous hair, and when she graduated from high school it was beautiful and long. When she went to college it was beautiful and a little less long. When I sent her back to school for her sophomore year of college after a summer at home, her hair was beautiful and long. She had not stopped talking about the possibility of a short cut, but she had not gone through with it before, and I felt fairly confident she would not go through with it in the future. Lolled into a false sense of complacency, I guess, I was shocked when my cell phone buzzed with a text from Mack attaching this video:

She had given me no warning, had not asked for money to visit the salon, had provided no accompanying text in the message, and did not call to follow-up. She just sent this video, knowing that I would be more amused than upset. Of course, she was correct. So here we have yet another piece of precious evidence of Mack’s unique way of doing things and her incomparable sense of humor.

It took me a little time to get used to, but by Thanksgiving I warmed up to that short hair. It was adorable, it suited her personality, and it represented her new way of balancing the feminine and masculine sides of her spirit and style. She was brave and bold and beautiful…and the length of her hair had absolutely nothing to do with it.

After and Before on Hair Cut Day

hair

Forks

Everyone who knew Mack was very much aware of the fact that she not only loved food, but also that she could eat quite a large quantity of it. Regularly, she would annihilate an order of egg rolls and a plate of curry fried rice, finish off a full-sized bag of Funyuns during one episode of Parks and Recreation, drain a quart of Gatorade in seconds, or eat way more all-you-can-eat sushi than seemed humanly possible. Luckily for her, however, she was an athletic kid, possessed a lean nearly 5’10” frame, and had inherited those skinny McDermott genes. She also happily embraced and celebrated her appetite, and it was often the subject of her own self-deprecating humor.

I am not quite sure when it first happened—perhaps it was in middle school or early in high school—but on at least five or six separate occasions at different restaurants, Mack’s place setting at the table contained a serving fork instead of the typical dinner fork that all the other place settings at the table had. I remember very clearly how it happened the first time. Mack unwrapped her napkin, pulled out the serving fork, held it up in dramatic fashion and said, “Are they calling me fat?” Just as I thought she would ask for a regular fork, she announced that it was some kind of an omen and began using it to consume her meal. Afterwards, she stuck that fork in her pocket and brought it home. The second time a restaurant served her a large fork, Mack was absolutely convinced that the food gods were taking good care of her. She celebrated the arrival of the large utensil, used it to clean her plate and, of course, she brought it home. The third time it happened, we all agreed with her that this large-fork thing appeared to be more than a coincidence. And every time it happened thereafter, we were not surprised by it and we always had a good laugh over it. On every subsequent presentation of these large forks, Mack thanked the food gods, used the fork, and added it to her collection in our kitchen. At home, she always insisted on using these large forks, and she would become quite indignant if I failed to put one of them at her place at the table.

The week before she left for Spain, we were at Pier 1 Imports looking at chairs for our new dining room table, and Mack disappeared. As I was considering two upholstered chairs, which we finally purchased, my cell phone rang. I answered it, it was Mack, and she said that I must immediately meet her in the back right section of the store and see for myself the amazing wall art that was absolutely meant for her to have in her college apartment in Kirksville. I was annoyed that she was calling me from within the store, but this was typical Mack and I told her I would be there shortly. When I located her, she was holding a humongous fork. With great animated enthusiasm, she said that she believed that since there was no one else in the entire world besides herself who would actually want this type of wall art and that weird circumstances—one, that she was actually in a Pier 1 with parents at all; and two, that she had, even more oddly, wandered off to look at stuff—had conspired to make her aware of the existence of these wonderfully giant and shiny forks. Therefore, she was destined to own one. She needed one. She desperately wanted one. And, she proceeded to demand one, arguing that 70 bucks for such a glorious object was a bargain.

I suggested that she could choose the fork and skip the new clothes I was going to purchase for her to take to Spain. She paused, placed her hand on her chin and cast her eyes upward, as she often did when she was contemplating one of my questions. After a few seconds, she sighed, said she would choose the clothes…this time…but that when she returned from Spain, we would take up this issue once again. As a temporary consolation, she asked me to take a few pictures of her with this wonderful fork not only to document its magnificent existence but also to serve as a reminder to me that it would be a perfect Christmas gift.

fork 2          fork 1

It’s MY room, Mother

Like all kids, Mack hated household chores: but like most good kids she would begrudging do many of those we required of her. However, there was one chore that she unabashedly refused to do and no amount of weekly allowance, begging, yelling, grounding, or bribes motivated her to oblige me. Mack’s bedroom was in a perpetual state of nuclear disaster, and it was a serious topic of contention in our mother/daughter relationship. While I did not expect her to possess my obsessive level of organization, it bothered me a great deal that she seemed not to care that glasses with an inch of iced-tea were growing mold, that her basketball uniforms were wadded up in a pile of dirty clothes, that her history text books were under the bed, or that there were more jeans and shoes in the middle of the room than here were in the drawers or in the closet. I would yell, and she would just look at me, shake her head, and say things like, “What’s the big deal, woman? It’s MY room, mother, and you don’t have to come in here.” Exasperated, she would lead me out and close the door.

Since our family was a busy one, days and weeks at a time would pass when I would just clench my teeth, shut my eyes and pretend I did not know the extent of the disorder on the other side of her bedroom door. Therefore, Mack’s room was most always a Super Fund site, her close friends grew accustomed to the mess, and even occasional visitors were witness to the disorder. One time, Mack was babysitting the three young daughters of some close friends of mine at our house. There was no time for a fight with her to clean her room, so I begged Mack to keep the kids downstairs and out of her bedroom. These little girls looked up to Mack, and I did not wish her to set a bad example. She rolled her eyes at me as if I was being unreasonable, but she agreed and I trusted she understood my point. After several hours, the adults returned from dinner, and our friends all went home. Apparently, as soon as the three children piled into their minivan upon leaving our house, they all started chattering about how much fun they had hanging out with Mack, how good she was at making boxed macaroni and cheese, and how freaking cool she was because her room was so messy!

Over the years, I learned to accept some level of messy. But on rare occasions when we needed her room for overnight guests or I had reached my limit, I would do battle. Sometimes, I could coax Mack into a good cleaning if I helped her and gave her money for iTunes or promised her a trip to Taste of Thai when we were done with the work. Mostly, she ignored both my shrill and my subtle efforts to make her more organized. At some point during high school, Mack shoved her twin bed into what had previously been a little study nook in her room. This rearrangement opened up some floor space in the middle of the main part of her bedroom perfect for bouncing or spinning her basketball or sitting around with her buddies. It also tended to be a larger space for much larger messes.

One summer morning before leaving for work, I stepped into Mack’s bedroom to say goodbye, and there were clothes all over her floor. I threw one of my best fits about the mess and told her how terrible she was because she couldn’t possibly know which heaps were clean and which were dirty. I angrily told her that she had damn well better have all the clothes sorted, folded and put away by the time I got home or she wasn’t going to be seeing her friends that night. She smiled that crooked grin through sleepy eyes and said, “yeah, yeah, mom, I know.” When I peeked into her room after work that day, I was astounded. The clothes were gone. There wasn’t a trace of dirty dishes, her desk was clear, and it even looked like she may have run a dust mop over the floor. I was so proud of her and I told her so. This was great progress she was making, and I even got her to admit that it did feel pretty good to exist in such a clean environment. And then, I let her go out with her friends that night.

The next morning when I called to her before leaving for work, she didn’t answer. I figured she was sleeping, so I slipped into her room and walked around the corner to her bed in the study nook to give her a soft kiss on the check. And this is what I found…

messy

So I will admit before all witnesses that this was a battle that I never won. Mack did not think keeping her room clean and organized was important, necessary, or worth her effort. I know now that on this point she was right and had been right all along. It did not really matter that her basketball uniform was wrinkled and stinky, that her favorite skinny jeans hadn’t been folded since the day she selected them from the shelf at American Eagle, or that one of our glass tumblers may have been sitting on her headboard for six months (even if it did have moldy tea inside of it). Looking back on it, I am glad she didn’t waste a lot of her precious time folding her clothes, dusting her bookshelves, or worrying about what people might think about the mess. She had far more important things to do in her life, like hosting Glee parties with her best friends, wrestling with one of our dogs, practicing her British accent, or just lounging on her bed in the study nook staring at the ceiling and enjoying that fact that she could so easily outsmart her Ph.D. mom.

I Miss My Macko

I weep for you every day;

My eyes with grief are swollen.

I yearn to change the heavy truth upon me that has fallen.

Some say time can ease my pain;

Some say time will bring me peace.

My heartbreak belies the promise, though, of any such release.

Your joyful soul to me endeared you;

Much good humor and laughter you shared.

And I am a better person, because for you I cared.

Cherished memories of your good life;

Keep pace with my sense of loss so deep.

Our time in life may be past, but your spirit forever I keep.

This I Believe

Until Mack was a junior in high school, I must admit that I saw her mostly as a happy-go-lucky kid, an athlete, and a comic. I knew she was smart, and I recognized her many and varied talents, but I did not know there was a budding writer and intellectual inside of her. She never seemed to be terribly interested in academics (although she always earned As and Bs without effort), she was not the voracious reader that her sister had been, and she rarely did homework or talked about school. She was so masterful at living a balanced life of school, three varsity sports, and a busy social life that it did not bother me that academics did not appear to be a focus or a strength. Mack was so calm and well-adjusted and led such an active life that I did not think it mattered that she was not a deep thinker. But I could not have been more wrong about her. Looking back on it, I regret that I missed signs of her impressive intellect. She was, indeed, a deep thinker; I had just been too distracted by her athletic prowess to notice. However, when she started writing for the Springfield High School newspaper, I began to see that among her physical and personal talents was a talent for writing as well; and the more she wrote, the more her writing revealed that intellectual side of her that I had missed.

As she penned more and more columns for the newspaper and began sharing her ideas about music, TV, American culture, feminism, and social justice, it became clear to me that her wisdom and beliefs had been a long time in the making. My misjudgment of her in this regard is all on me, and I am sorry about that; because I should have seen this side of Mack long before her junior year. She never talked a lot, that is certain, but when she did say something, it was always entertaining, interesting, and observant beyond her years. Looking back on it, whenever Mack opened her mouth, I always stopped what I was doing and listened closely; and remembering now so many times when she added a sharp critique to a discussion, asked a probing question, or made an astute observation, I was always impressed by her skepticism and the clarity of her comments. All those times when I thought Mack wasn’t listening as people around her were blathering on about politics or social issues, she was actually quietly and respectfully taking it all in and, in the process of listening, was developing her own, unique perspective on the world around her.

By the time Mack began writing college entrance essays, I saw in the writing her intellectual curiosity and brave and articulate ideas, especially her strong sense of social justice and equality. I was extremely proud of her ability to put her ideas to paper, and I appreciated her grown-up, nuanced perspective of the world. As an NPR junkie, I was thrilled when she decided to adapt one of her college essays for the “This I Believe” essay contest at our local public radio station, WUIS. I was beyond thrilled when the judges selected her essay, giving her a chance to share not only her beliefs about her own femininity, but to put her own quiet voice behind those beliefs.

Mack’s essay is a poignant reflection of her life as an athlete and as a girl, illuminating both her wisdom and her heart. But more importantly, it beautifully illustrates that at the tender age of seventeen, Mack loved and accepted herself for who she was and embraced the seeming contradictions of what she loved. In her quiet, humble voice, she was clearly comfortable and happy in her own skin. And what an amazing accomplishment that is for any person, let alone one who had yet to graduate from high school.

Mack’s essay is a sweet and revealing testament to who she was as a kid, a girl, and a young woman; and it speaks volumes about her wisdom, her grace, and her spirit. She truly was a remarkable human being…this I believe.

 

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