Mack’s self-effacing humor, silly personality, and humble nature often disguised her intellect and concealed the profundity of her intellectual curiosity. She loved to play the fool in order to make people laugh. Downplaying her own talents and accomplishments was also one of her ways of putting at ease the people around her. Growing up, Mack also invested so much of herself into athletic pursuits that she frequently put serious academics aside. She often joked about her slacking study habits, and among her friends and teachers, her academic procrastination was legendary. Throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, Mack’s public persona was that of a witty and affable jock with a strong tendency toward frivolity and fun. Yet behind Mack’s goofy-girl façade, underneath that unpretentious layer of modesty, and well beyond her natural and effortless athleticism, was one of the most beautiful brains I have ever known.
Of course Mack’s family members and closest friends knew the truth about the depth and breadth of Mack’s intellect and intellectual curiosity. I am sure as well that there were people beyond family and close friends who may have noticed the impressive range of her vocabulary, as she peppered her comic routines with new favorite words. No doubt there were others who appreciated one or more of her razor-sharp critiques about a song or a book or a news story. And certainly there were still others who respected Mack’s uncanny ability to make an absolutely astute and succinct observation about the most random of topics.
But because Mack was always so modest and so damn quiet about her intellectual ideas, I think a lot of people might have missed out on Mack’s brain. I think there may be people who knew Mack growing up who never knew that she followed current events from a very young age, that she was reflective and philosophical, that she loved words, especially quirky or archaic ones. There are likely some people who did not know that my girl of few words was a master of debate, that she worried about climate change and the fate of endangered animals, that racism in America haunted her dreams. I am sorry that others might not have been aware that Mack was interested in how mechanical things work, that she learned quickly and possessed a remarkable ability to remember the smallest of details, that she understood people so well because she quietly watched and observed and considered them.
Frequently throughout the years, I would catch Mack engaged in a moment of deep thought. To me there was no sweeter scene than watching her freckled and expressive face as she was thinking through an idea, puzzling over a problem, or contemplating an object or event. It was such a frequent occurrence that I actually captured quite a few of these moments with a camera. While it is true that many of my happiest memories of Mack are of her dramatically delivering the punch line of a very bad joke or badly singing a silly song, it is frequently a memory of Mack’s face in quiet reflection that touches me most profoundly.
Recently, I remembered a conversation that Mack and I had about one of those photographs. When we attended freshman orientation at Truman State, I snapped a photo of her peering into the office of a creative writing professor we were waiting to meet. I showed her the photo and asked her what she was thinking about when I took it. She looked at the picture, flashed one of her famous faces of incredulity, and said: “What the hell, mom, why are you all up in my bizness?” I smiled and asked her the question again. She started to say something, but she stopped and, instead, she took a long pause. Then, in a slightly serious tone that took me aback, she said something like: “You know, I started to tell you that I was thinking about how much candy I will be able to eat once I am in college and you aren’t around to tell me to stop. But the truth is, I was thinking about how now that I am a grown-ass woman, I get to take the classes I want to take and read the books I want to read and learn the stuff I want to learn.” And then my smart girl poked her head a few times with her forefinger and said: “the next four years is all about this brain, and that, Momma Bear, is pretty fuckin’ cool.”
When Mack went to college, she shed her jovial jock image, almost overnight; and I think it was partly a deliberate act. She was finally ready to share her brain with the world; she was ready to release the intellectual in her that had been there all along. She maintained her self-effacing sense of humor, she remained true to her belief that boasting and bragging and being a know-it-all served no useful purpose, and, thank goodness, she never abandoned her wit and sense of silly fun. I think it is an absolute fact that the people who knew Mackenzie McDermott at Truman State University would have used the adjectives “smart” and “funny,” in that order, to describe her. And I know that this fact would have painted a permanent smile upon her heart.
Smart and funny is a winning combination in life, and my Mack was a natural at both.
Mack’s Beautiful Brain at Work:
In 1999 and 2000, we put an addition on our house and did a lot of remodeling, painting, etc. I was surprised but delighted at the interest that Mack took in the project. She stood in the yard and watched the carpenters construct the frame of the second-story addition, she convinced her dad to let her help with painting and hammering trim, she asked questions about the tools and the building materials, and she was transfixed when her dad assembled and installed the spiral staircase to the loft. Here she is, just a shrimpy little kid, perched on the newly constructed steps, thinking about the construction going on in the family room below or, perhaps, considering the new view from the reconfigured stairs…
Of all of her sports, Mack probably had the most fun playing softball. She always said that it was her “recreational” sport, even though she played it very well. Yet for all of the fun she had in the dugout, laughing with her teammates, it was actually while playing softball that I saw her engaged in the most thoughtful reflection. In this photo, I think she had trained her attention on the opposing pitcher, perhaps developing a strategy for her next at-bat…