When my girls were little, I praised them for their artistic talents and proudly displayed their artwork on the refrigerator or on the dining room table. However, when room was necessary for the newest masterpieces, I generally threw away the old ones. I was careful to avoid the eyes of sweet little witnesses when I crammed drawings, paintings, or crafts deep into the kitchen garbage, but I was not emotionally attached to a great deal of the art that the little dears created. Yet while I was not the kind of mother who kept everything, I did store away a few particularly precious items, and now those humble artifacts possess new and deeper significance in my life.
In December 2012, we moved out of our old, roomy Springfield house, where for nineteen years Kevin and I raised the girls and a large pack of animals, and we settled into a smaller, open loft in downtown St. Louis. We left most of our belongings behind, divesting ourselves of two decades worth of crap; but I arrived in St. Louis with about a dozen huge Rubbermaid tubs stuffed with family treasures—like photographs, keepsakes, and those extant childhood art projects. Since then, I have been working to organize it all into a proper McDermott Family Archive.
When Mackenzie passed away, my family archival work became all the more urgent to me, and I focused my attention on organizing the Mack part of the archive. I was desperate to make sure that I had saved every little thing that mattered. I needed to make certain that I still had items like Mack’s 8th Grade Basketball MVP trophy, all twelve of her high school varsity letters, and the board she broke in Tae Kwon Do. Searching through these mementos of her life is painful, terrifying, joyful, and absolutely imperative. In doing this work, I am transported right back to my life with her, to our shared laughter, to our travels, to my perpetual perch on the bleachers, watching her life unfold. In rediscovering, touching, and organizing in acid-free, archival boxes these tangible mementos of Mack’s happy childhood, I have found myself smiling, laughing, and crying over items like finger-paint hand prints, school report cards, first-day-of-school photos, and those precious few crafts that escaped the kitchen garbage.
Sorting through items from one of those bins, I unpacked one object that threw me hard into a paroxysm of sobbing, buckling my knees, and leaving me in a gooey puddle in the middle of my closet floor. I cuddled that item in my arms and, if I were a religious woman, I would have thanked God that this perfect, exquisite masterpiece made by the precious hands of my ten-year-old Macko ended up in one of those dozen Rubbermaid bins and not in my kitchen trash. Orchestrated by an artistically creative fourth-grade teacher at Dubois Elementary School, this little item was my 2004 Mother’s Day present. For this project, Mack had dutifully colorized seven photocopies of her 4th grade school photo, including one in which she gave herself some bright red lips. She had then carefully arranged those Warhol-esk images around the perimeter of a common clay pot, securing them all with a clear varnish. At the center of this careful arrangement of photos she placed her Mother’s Day ode to me:
You have been like a coach to me
You have taught me everything I know
You are like a football player
You are really cool
I couldn’t have it any better
I love you very much
How close had this little flower pot come to landing in my kitchen garbage? Had those words meant as much to me then as they mean to me right now? Was I really like a coach to her? She was wrong about the “tough” part. I am exhibiting no toughness now, as a cradle this priceless gift and cry like a baby. I have suffered much pain over the loss of my baby girl, and I have cried many, many tears. But one thing I have not let myself do is to have regrets about how I conducted myself as Mack’s momma bear. But keeping those doubts from forcing their way into my sanity has been a difficult challenge.
Laying my eyes upon this little artifact and knowing that Mack viewed me as an important presence in her world sets me free. It was her teacher who had organized the artistic part of the gift, but it was Mack who provided the words that I need to hear now, sobbing on the floor of my closet. I am sure that when I received this gift in 2004, I was touched, said “aw,” and scooped up Mack and showered her with kisses. But today, her poem on this beautiful clay pot transcends the original sentiments of the humble, handmade gift it was nearly eleven years ago. Now it has the power to quiet my doubts. Now it is Mack telling me that I “done good,” as she would say. Now it is not merely a family artifact; it is a simple, but magical treasure.