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.
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.
Savannah 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.
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.”