My Kid in a Candy Store

To say that my sweet Mack adored candy would seriously disrespect the intensity and commitment of her devotion to refined sugar. Candy was a way of life for that kid. Mack was a sugar fiend and a candy monster. If something was sweet and sticky or dusted with glistening sugar, she was all about it. Better yet, if it was sweet and painfully sour, she gobbled it up with glee. She was a shameless consumer of sugar and never apologized for her lack of self-restraint when candy was within her reach. She always said, “I’m that kid in the candy store that people are talking about when they say ‘like a kid in a candy store!’”

Mack loved candy, but her sweet tooth was not sophisticated by any means. She eschewed fine confections like Belgian chocolates and French pate de fruit in favor of sugary candies packaged and marketed for American children. Warheads, Sour Punch Straws, sour gummy bears, Airheads, Skittles, Nerds, Twizzlers, Runtz, and Laffy Taffy were some of her favorites at the age of ten. And they were still her favorites at the age of twenty. Her preferences did not improve with age and, in fact, I think she may well have consumed far more of her childhood favorites after she went away to college. Whenever Mack was home from Truman State, she almost daily visited the little bodega across the street from our loft in order to purchase candy. The week before she left the United States for her study-abroad program, she ate two huge bags of Warheads, because she feared they would be unavailable in Spain. For that indulgence she paid the price, destroying the roof of her mouth. She had to admit then that perhaps she had finally eaten way too much candy. But that was a very rare confession, and she was not really all that sorry about it anyway.

While doing my household shopping over the past few weekends, the bright Easter candy displays have triggered my tears. The yellow marshmallow chicks, the purple jelly beans (her favorite), and the gummy bunnies swathed in sparkling sugar hurt my heart. They are salty reminders of the sweets I can no longer bestow on my candy-crazed kid. Mack enjoyed candy-centric holidays like Easter; and I delighted in showering my sweet girl with her favorites. It was a pleasure for me to collect interesting and colorful versions of all the candy she loved and then present it to her in an overflowing basket. Mack’s reaction to the Easter candy abundance I presented her every year never disappointed: she always bugged out her eyes, sucked in her breath with excitement, and dove into the candy cornucopia with zeal.candy

Seeing all the beautiful and delicious Easter candy this year has been bittersweet for me. It is sad to know that I will never again fill an Easter basket to maximum capacity for my little candy monster; and it is unbearable to accept the fact that Mack will never again enjoy her favorite candies. But all of that pastel-colored candy and all of those sugary bunnies remind me of my happy girl and her voracious appetite for sugar. She was such a sweet kid, and I suppose it was quite fitting that she loved sugary sweets so well and consumed such large quantities of them. Maybe all of that sugar is what made her so sweet in the first place. Or maybe it is true that the sweetest souls among us are the ones who love candy with the passion and pure delight that Mack did.

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A tweet from her summer at home from college and proof of her frequent trips to the bodega across the street.


Savannah Arya McDermott is the one thing…the one person…who inspires me to get out of bed every morning and face another day without Mack. She is my amazing older daughter, and she was an amazing big sister as well. Today is Savannah’s 27th birthday, and I want to brag on her a little. She is an intelligent, feisty, and adventurous young woman, and she really does inspire me. She was an inspiration to her baby sister as well. Mack was very lucky to have had Savannah as her “Sissy,” and here are just a few of the wonderful reasons why…

Unconditional Love: Savannah was an only child for six years, and for most of that time she begged for a baby sister. She was a precocious child (talked at nine months!) and she was an adorable little drama queen. She skipped and twirled through her life, always playing the role of a Disney princess. She was the center of my attention, spoiled rotten, and happy. But she was lonely for a sister. So Mack’s arrival in the world was a big day for Savannah, and she was the happiest little Kindergartner in the world when Principal Hathaway came to her classroom to deliver the news that her sister was born. Savannah cuddled and loved her new baby sister and looked after her like a little momma; she was thrilled to play the role of big sister.sissies

Mack—a goofy comedian and a tomboy with a quiet disposition—grew into a very different person than Savannah—a studious girlie-girl with an outspoken personality. My girls were as different as night and day. Yet their love for each other never wavered, and the guidance my big girl provided my little one never faltered. They fought and fussed like all siblings, but Savannah always loved, respected, and accepted her sister for who she was, what she wanted to do, and who she wanted to be in the future. I have no doubt that a large part of the reason Mack was so accepting and tolerant of others was because Savannah was so accepting and tolerant of her.

Studious Role-Model: Growing up, Savannah was a conscientious student, a voracious reader, and a gifted writer. She was always writing poems and stories, and one of her stories won her a trip to the prestigious Illinois Young Author’s convention in 1999. As a young adult, Savannah was a shining example of the importance of a life-long commitment to reading and to learning. Mack’s dad and I provided evidence of that, too, but a sibling’s example in this regard had much more impact. Mack grew up with a sister who placed importance on school work, always had her nose in book, and at the dinner table and on long car rides enjoyed talking about what she was reading and learning in school. Mack spent much of her life focused more on sports and less on academics, but Savannah was a persistent (non-adult) reminder that there was a world beyond basketball and softball.

babiesSavannah often chided me for letting Mack coast in academics because she was so busy with sports; and she always pushed Mack to choose more challenging books, to study harder, and to take full advantage of her academic opportunities. I am sure there were many times when Savannah believed that her advice was drowned out by the incessant dribbling of basketballs. But by the time Mack finished her freshman year of college, I clearly saw the impact of Savannah’s example. Whenever she was home from Truman State, Mack talked with me about her coursework with the same enthusiasm that Savannah always did about her own. I frequently heard the cadence of big sister’s tone in Mack’s voice, and I well recognized the keen argumentative style she had clearly learned from her as well.

Musicals Make the World Go Round: Two days after Mack was born, Savannah auditioned for her first play. Neither Kevin nor I could bear the thought of missing her audition, so we schlepped the brand-new Mack and all of her brand-new baby accoutrements to the Springfield Theatre Centre in the early morning hours on Saturday, March 19, 1994. Mack spent that second full day of her life in that theatre, and at the end of that long day, her big sister landed a coveted role as a bean person in Jack and the Beanstalk, a musical. I guess all of that singing got into her brain, because Mack, like her sister, adored musical theatre and musical movies for the rest of her life. Every summer, Savannah attended a theatre camp program at the Springfield Theatre Centre, and as soon as Mack was old enough to attend, she joined her big sister. The girls had a blast singing, dancing, acting, and preparing for the final show at the end of the summer session. Savannah was always the ham in these productions, but one time she convinced her sister to audition for a solo part. That summer, Mack sang “Build Me up Buttercup” all by herself in the 1950s-themed final show. We were all proud, but Savannah was particularly thrilled.sissies 2

Savannah’s influence did not stop at theatre camp. From the time she was tiny, Savannah loved musicals. In fact, she WAS Ariel from The Little Mermaid almost every day of her toddlerhood; and for many weeks when she was just two years old, she scooted up the stairs on her little butt, just like Gretl did in The Sound of Music. “The sun has gone to bed and so must I,” she sweetly sang, as she went off to bed each night. Savannah was happy to have a sister with whom to watch her favorite musicals; and my little girls watched and re-watched, always singing aloud. As Savannah grew up, she added to the rotation more adult shows—like Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge. Together my girls spent hours and hours watching these shows, sometimes singing way into the night. Mack’s interest did not stop when Savannah went to college. After that, she became a devotee of the TV show Glee and she was crazy for the Book of Morman and Next to Normal. Yep, Savannah was single-handedly responsible for Mack’s love of musicals.

Inspiration for Travel and Adventure: Savannah started dreaming about studying abroad and living overseas when she was in junior high school. She worked very hard in her Spanish classes, was always reading about new places, and talked nonstop about where she wanted to go and what she wanted to see. When she left for Indiana University to major in Spanish and International Studies, we all began to realize that she was dead serious about pursuing her dreams. As a college junior, she made the bold choice to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was proud of her, but worried; and Mack thought it was cool that her very own sister was brave enough to live in a place that was so different and so far away. After Savannah graduated from college, she applied for a teaching program in Spain; and once she was accepted, she never looked back. Always determined, prepared, organized, and courageous, my little mermaid left in July 2010 for the adventure of a lifetime. After a month-long trip with a college friend, she moved to southern, rural Spain and began her life as an ESL teacher.

By the time it was Mack’s turn to consider studying abroad, Savannah had lived in southern Spain, spent eighteen months living and working in southern Thailand, and was back in Spain, this time in Madrid. At first, Mack talked about the UK, because she was obsessed with British culture and television. As she told me on many occasions in the months preceding her decision, “I already speak the language, momma bear, and besides, I got that accent down.” But when Savannah weighed into the conversation, challenging her baby sister to choose a location where there would be a language barrier and real culture shock, Mack listened. And you know what? I was not surprised when Mack decided to go to Spain. Savannah had been an inspiration to Mack for her entire life, and it was only fitting that big sister’s influence here would win the day. Savannah was right, and I am pleased that Mack chose Spain. It was the correct decision. And I am so very grateful that she had that short time in Spain, living an adventure, just like Sissy.

So you see, Savannah was an amazing big sister. She made an indelible mark on the life and character of Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott. So much of the person Mack was pays tribute to the sister who loved her and helped her grow into the amazing young woman she became. To know Mack was to know that she was lucky in the sister department. Savannah always loved and accepted her, challenged and inspired her. And I am so proud to have raised them both.

Happy Birthday, Savannah. As Mack would have said, “yous the best.”

sisters in spain

Mack Day

Twenty-one years ago today, a leprechaun came dancing into our little family, bringing Irish magic, charm, and shenanigans to our lives. Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott loudly introduced herself at 3:05 in the afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1994. She was wearing a full head of dark hair, weighed in at 7 pounds, 14 ounces, and was 21¼ ̎ long. She had perfect skin, sparkling dark brown eyes, a sturdy frame, and a strong little grip. It was the capacity of her lungs, however, that was most impressive to me. As I wrote in her baby book: “she has a lusty cry…temper, temper! Alert from birth, looking around.” I took one look at her little Irish face, all scrunched up in a powerful yell, and I immediately knew that I was in big, fat trouble.

After Mack arrived, St. Patrick’s Day for us was never the same, and I suppose we should credit to some extent the magical day of her arrival in the world with her zest for life and the mischievous quality of her zany personality. The more Mack grew and the more freckles that emerged on her face, the more we all knew that she was a force of nature as vigorous as the Irish surf crashing on the Cliffs of Moher. She was a terrible toddler who engaged with gusto in constant mischief. She was an active and exuberant kid, always running and roaring and making a mess. And throughout her teens, she was a one-girl comedy act, always successful in making everyone who knew her laugh and laugh and laugh some more. Mack played hard, lived loud, and was impossible to ignore. From infancy to toddlerhood and from elementary school to college, she was a bundle of energy, she was a spirited sprite, and she watched for folly and fun around every corner. She was, indeed, our family’s Irish mascot, our own little leprechaun, our jolly little elf.

My Irish imp was ever a handful of trouble, but her sense of humor was infectious and her giggles had the power to melt her momma bear’s heart. Mack learned early on that she could make as much mischief as she wanted to as long as she finished it off with an Irish jig, or a silly joke, or a dimpled grin. Mack was always quick to remind me that she was an Irish daughter who came by her mischief naturally. She embraced her Irish heritage, and she gleefully used it as an excuse for any trouble she caused. She loved the Irish cadence of her full name, wore her freckles with pride, and always believed that having a St. Patrick’s Day birthday was the coolest personal detail of her life.Leprechaun

Throughout the year, Mack was always happy and ready to play the role of our family leprechaun. One year for Halloween she even dressed herself for the part. After school, she went into her bedroom to prepare for trick-or-treating, disappearing with a tub of holiday props I kept underneath my bed. When she emerged, she was wearing what I think is the best Halloween costume she ever had. It was so damn good, in fact, that I was not even mad that she had cut up a perfectly good shirt to make the vest. That night, she skipped and jigged through our neighborhood, collecting her candy and having a blast.

At Barrelhead, our favorite neighborhood bar and grill, where Kevin and I raised our girls on whole, deep-fried catfish and burgers and fries, there was a sign just inside the entrance that counted down the days until St. Patrick’s Day. The sign had chunky wood block numbers that sat in a frame, and the staff religiously updated the numbers each day. We ate at Barrelhead about once a week for something like fifteen years, and every time we entered the bar, Mack would go over to that countdown sign, turn around with a big grin, and shout “275 days until my birthday!” or whatever the magic number was that week. Mack never tired of this ritual; and I always laughed at her, so I guess I never tired of it either. Mack owned St. Patrick’s Day. It was uniquely hers. It was more than a birthday for her. It was a celebration of her Irish self, her inner child, and her devotion to all things silly.

For everyone who knew her, St. Patrick’s Day became Mack’s day. Mack made sure of it; and everyone seemed willing to oblige her. I miss my leprechaun oh so very much. I miss her every…single…day. And my sorrow today, on this first birthday without her, is overwhelming. But I find some solace in knowing that for all of us who loved her so much, St. Patrick’s Day will always be Mack Day.

Leprechaun 2

The Power of a Photograph

Dear Mack,

This would make you crazy, I know, but I have surrounded myself with pictures of you. They give me some comfort throughout each day without you and provide a warm sense that you are still with me and watching over me. Ok, you can stop making fun of me now, young lady. But seriously, I wanted to tell you that there is one photograph to which I have become particularly attached. And, more importantly, I wanted to tell you why I love it so much.a favorite photo 2

I picked up this cute little metal frame at World Market; it looks a little antiquey and it has a small metal hook tied with a rough-hewn rope. It is a two-sided frame. On one side, I placed one of your wallet-sized senior pictures. I adore this picture, because it is so casual and shows you wearing your favorite Chuck Taylor high tops. In the photo that I placed on the other side of this little frame, you are all dolled-up ready for prom, and I am a privileged interloper in the shot. The two photos provided the contrasting images of you that I deliberately sought; one casual and one fancy, together in a convenient portable frame. This frame I carry around with me like a security blanket. It spends time in the kitchen when I am cooking, sits on the arm of my favorite leather chair when I am reading or watching a basketball game, and spends the night on my bedside table.a favorite photo 3

Lately, I have noticed that it is the prom picture side that I choose to more frequently display; and this is the picture that has become so important to me. I noticed myself getting lost in that photograph, and I determined to give some serious thought about why I was finding is so compelling. I stared at it for a long, long while, and I embraced the powerful way in which it encapsulates so many of my memories of you.

My dear, sweet Mack, I love this picture of us because:

  1. You look absolutely beautiful. Even though beauty was not important to you and it is the least important reason why you were so special, I always thought you were beautiful. Gorgeous skin. Adorable freckles. Silky smooth and shiny hair. Statuesque physique. Here you are in this photo without a speck of makeup; and here you are looking absolutely perfect. You said you felt uncomfortable in that dress, but you do not look awkward at all. You were a natural beauty.
  2. It shows the ridiculous size difference between us that you always found so amusing. I think I might have been standing in a bit of a hole here, but in the interest of full disclosure I will remind you that you were wearing flat sandals so you would not be taller than Abhinav. Yet even if I would have been standing on that concrete ledge next to my feet, you still would have towered over me. This picture reminds me that our size difference made your special mom hugs possible. I loved it when you would rest your chin hard on the top of my head, squeeze me, and call me a “small huggable person.” You did it the day your dad took this photo, just before you left our front yard for dinner and the prom.a favorite photo
  3. You are holding your damn phone! Even there, all dressed up for prom, the phone is present. I am pretty sure I did not notice you were holding it when we took the picture. Surely, I would have chastised you and made you put it down for two seconds. But now, seeing it in this context, it makes me smile.
  4. Our favorite family hosta plant is bursting out of the ground behind us. It was only spring and there it is already well on the way to its annual takeover of the flower bed. We used to laugh and laugh about that stupid plant, because you said it epitomized our silly employment of the term “from the Pleistocene Epoch” for everything we saw that was abnormally humongous. You made me laugh, Mack. You even made hostas funny. I loved that about you.
  5. In this photo, I am one happy mom. Being your momma bear was a tremendous joy and watching you grow and participate in the important events of your life were the happiest days of my life. You and Sissy were my best accomplishments. You and Sissy provided the most important pleasures in my life. I am so grateful for the experiences you gave me; and I am grateful now for photographs like this one that help me relive the best twenty years of my life when I was the mother of two precious girls.

Singing to Lamps

Mack was born a professional procrastinator. She waited until the absolute last second to do everything that needed doing. She penned school papers the night before they were due, crammed for tests on the day they were scheduled, and met important deadlines on deadline and not a day or a week beforehand. She never worried about unfinished tasks that were in front of her. She was never anxious about the consequences of putting them off too long. She never lost sleep because of them. And she certainly never let them interfere with the silly things she wanted to do instead. From her first days as a little elementary school kid to her days as a college student, Mack made a sport of putting off things until tomorrow.

Mack was no ordinary procrastinator, however. She possessed a very particular skill; and it was that skill that separated her from the amateurs. Mack had a talent for knowing exactly how much time and energy were required to successfully complete an undesirable task. In her mind, there was certainly no good reason to spend three hours writing for literature class an essay on, say, The Scarlet Letter, the weekend before it was due if in fact it could be done in an hour and fifteen minutes at 10:45 p.m. the night before it was due. Fortunately, Mack was a naturally good student. She would finish that essay at midnight or later and, usually, receive an “A” for her minimal effort. It was impossible to teach Mack about the potential consequences of procrastination for us mere mortals when the goddess of procrastination seemed impervious to them.

Maybe because of her amazing triumphs in procrastination, Mack was not a quiet or accidental procrastinator, either. She actively celebrated her willful procrastination and she encouraged her friends to join her. It was during the times when Mack and all of her friends should have been studying that Mack was the most ridiculous. Whether she was on a school bus with the basketball team coming home late from an away game, or working on a group project at Barnes and Noble, or studying with one friend on the floor of her bedroom, she was a goofy distraction to herself and to everyone in her vicinity. It was during these times when she told her silliest jokes, made up absurd poems and songs, and regaled her friends with her foul language and her unique sense of humor. Why keep your nose in a book or stare at an unfinished essay on your computer when you could dance in your bra and over-sized sweatpants, make a seven-ingredient omelet (eggs, onion, olives, mushrooms, cheddar, basil, and hot sauce) at 10 o’clock at night, play a game of who-can-text-the-silliest-word-or-combinations-of-words with Maggie, or sing a love song to a lamp?singing to a lamp

Even more than the perpetual messy state of Mack’s bedroom, my younger daughter’s procrastination made me crazy. You see, I am the antithesis of a procrastinator. I complete unpleasant tasks as soon as it is humanly possible to do so in order to put the unpleasantness behind me; because as long as it is in front of me, I will do nothing but wring my hands and worry over it. On this point, Mack and I did not understand each other very well at all. She probably said to me a million times: “Don’t worry, Momma Bear, I’ll do it tomorrow.” She made me even crazier when instead of studying she would clomp up the stairs to my loft office with her computer to show me fifteen videos of giant baby pandas going down slides. The next thing I knew, an hour was gone and neither one of us had accomplished a damn thing but to fall deeply in love with those baby bears, to coo with syrupy sweetness over their adorableness, and to discuss a plot to steal one the next time we went to a zoo.

Mack was a genius when it came to sucking everyone around her into her personal plot to practice the fine art of procrastination. No one, not even me, was immune to the inappropriate timing of her amusements. She always put fun and laughter ahead of chores, and I think she always understood when the people around her needed a little levity. As far as she was concerned, everyone needed to be silly and to have a little fun when they were working on something serious and not fun, like schoolwork. And if singing to a lamp might provide the humor that was needed both for herself and others, then she was more than honored and thrilled to oblige us all.