Benji the Jeep

When her sister moved to Spain in July 2010, Mack inherited our 1997 Jeep Wrangler. Mack had been driving since March, sharing my boxy blue (and very uncool) Honda Element, so she was very happy that her sissy decided to leave the country. That soft-top, gun-metal blue, noisy, old Jeep and my Macko were a match made in highway heaven. That spunky car befitted Mack’s personality, matching her casual, no-frills style and providing endless material for her unique brand of self-deprecating humor. The Jeep ran pretty well and, for an old guy, was still very reliable, yet it sported a few rusty spots and some tattered upholstery, rattled and roared over bumps, idled raucously at stop lights, and sometimes sputtered between second and third gears. But Mack, as she did with every person and possession in her life, accepted that old Jeep for what it was; and she was grateful to have it all to herself.

When we presented to Mack her own set of keys to the Jeep, she announced her undying devotion to her new four-wheeled friend, and she frequently reminded her sister via Skype that the Jeep was ALL hers now and forever. She named it Benji, talked to it like it was an old friend who needed extra love and encouragement, and made it famous at Springfield High School. When Mack sped into the gravel overflow parking lot at school each morning, Benji announced their arrival in a cloud of dust and a noisy shimmy and shake as Mack cut the engine; but classmates standing around the high school’s south entrance already knew that they were coming before they hit the parking lot, as Mack’s quick and forceful gear shifting and Benji’s creaky old bones could be heard at least a block away. I think Mack got a kick out of her arrival at school each morning. She was proud of Benji’s good effort to deliver her to school before the bell (at least most of the time), and she was glad that her classmates knew that she drove a classic old car with genuine character.

Back Camera license plate

Shortly after adopting the Jeep, Mack got a “Life is Good” tire cover, and we ordered vanity plates to help her make the car her own. The floor of the backseat almost immediately became a large garbage heap, littered with Laffy Taffy wrappers and Gatorade bottles. Usually, there was also a softball glove or bat, a basketball, or golf shoes hanging around back there as well, so there was really no good place for passengers to put their feet. If Mack ever wiped down the dashboard or washed the outside of that car, I certainly never witnessed it. She could not even be bothered to scrub off the silly string caked onto the driver’s side door, the dash, and the steering wheel after she suffered a “hit” by a few softball teammates. I suppose Mack viewed Benji as an extension of her own messy bedroom. That Jeep may have been old and noisy and dirty, but Mack loved that car and driving it was a joy to her. A neighbor of ours remembered: “I recall seeing Mackenzie jump in her Jeep and head off with a smile on her face and a whole bunch of energy.”

Mack also loved sharing Benji with her friends, although she demanded that they, too, accept the old guy for what he was (rattles, backseat litter, and all!). Mack was so happy to chauffeur underclass teammates to practices, games, or the golf course in Benji. She enjoyed teaching a few friends how to drive a stick-shift behind the wheel of her car. And she was always willing to take down the Jeep’s top if her favorite passengers wanted to joyride with the wind in their hair. One time, after riding around Springfield in Benji with the top down, it began to rain. Mack had to quickly pull over to put up the Jeep’s rag top. As the kids all struggled to secure the top in the rain, Mack’s friend Patrick’s cellphone rang. In the rain and in the ruckus, Pat answered the phone and yelled: “I can’t talk now, Dad, I’m helping Mack put on her top!” Oh, how Mack and her friends laughed and laughed, as Pat then attempted to explain to his father what he had really meant by that provocative statement! That story remained one of Mack’s favorite Jeep stories, it always made her chuckle, and she frequently repeated it over the years.

When Mack left for Spain in September of last year, we parked Benji in an open parking lot just a couple of blocks from our loft in downtown St. Louis. Once in a Skype conversation, Mack asked about Benji’s welfare, and once at her request, I sent her a picture of the Jeep resting peacefully awaiting her return. Since losing Mack, seeing Benji parked in that lot all alone without his favorite driver has haunted Mack’s father and me, as it is a bitter reminder of our loss. But keeping the Jeep has been something of a comfort as well, because Benji is also a reminder of the joy Mack experienced behind the silly-stringed-caked wheel, with the wind in her hair, with a crooked grin on her freckled face, and the whole world in front of her. I am also reminded of one particular conversation I had with Mack about Benji’s future. I had suggested at some point that when she went away to college that we might sell the Jeep and give her my Honda. Mack was horrified at that suggestion. “Benji is my bad-ass buddy!” she exclaimed. “Benji CANNOT be sold!

Now Mack would be so happy to know that Benji will become her sister’s car once again. Savannah has returned from Europe and will settle in Chicago with her boyfriend Levi and Benji the Jeep. I think Mack’s spirit will ride shotgun in that Jeep, as her sister tools around Chicago. Savannah will be able to close her eyes and see Mack’s crooked smile every time the engine starts. She will hear Mack coax Benji into third gear and listen to her sweet little chuckle whenever the Jeep rattles over a giant Chicago pothole. Yep, Benji will remain an honored member of the McDermott family now and forever. He was a special friend to our special girl, and he possesses some magical power now to transport us away…at least for a little while…with our happy-go-lucky Mackenzie in the passenger seat right next to us.

In these photos, Mack proudly displays her driver’s license, you can see for yourself the silly string baked into the Jeep’s paint, and Mack is saying goodbye to her parents after a visit to Truman State to see her…

Jeep 4 jeep-silly string Jeep

Mack rarely complained about her car, but on long drives, the noise-level of the Jeep annoyed her. She tweeted her annoyance once, after returning to college after a weekend visit home in December 2012…

tweet--my car

Mack’s dad loved to take videos to annoy Mack, and here are two related to driving Jeeps…

I Love to Laugh

Writing this blog has been a therapeutic endeavor for me, but it has also been a way for me to share my unique and amazing girl with the world and to keep her spirit alive. Mack and I were close, I knew her very well, and I have been able to share so many stories about her life, her character, her world view, and her zany and charming personality. But I realize that my perspective on Mack and my understanding of her was through the lens of a Momma Bear. Therefore, when I run across an artifact of Mack’s life, I am compelled to share it. And when it comes in the form of Mack’s own words, so much more the better.

Recently, one of Mack’s best friends reminded me of a random Facebook game in which Mack participated back in February 2009 (thanks, Kailey!). It was one of those chain games in which a friend of Mack’s tagged her to “write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals” about herself, and then tag twenty-five people to participate, too. Generally, Mack poo-pooed games like this, and she was very resistant to use social media to call attention to herself. Therefore, it’s quite surprising that she decided to answer this very public request to share personal insights about herself. I have no idea why Mack made this post, but I am thrilled that she did it. It offers one of those precious windows into her soul that has become a priceless artifact of her beautiful life and a sweet treasure for me. When Mack posted these twenty-five random facts about herself, it was 12:35 a.m. on a Saturday night. She was just shy of her fifteenth birthday, a high school freshman in the middle of her first varsity basketball season, well settled in at high school, unusually comfortable in her teenage skin, and already a wise old owl.

Below is Mack’s list of twenty-five random thoughts she offered about herself more than six years ago. I have provided some annotations and a couple of photos to go along with Mack’s words. Coincidentally, I have already featured several of Mack’s random thoughts in previous blog posts (they are hyperlinked) and, no doubt, other items will provide entertaining fodder for future blogs about my Macko. Mack’s wonderful list captures her incomparable humor and charm, offers some honest insights from her heart, and reflects the level of comfort she had with herself at a time when most girls her age are struggling to find themselves and to make their way in the world.

  1. I tend to overthink things. not sure why.
  2. I’m crazy if you know me but quiet if you don’t. [Mack was a little shy around strangers, but that never lasted very long. The close friends she made on the golf course is an excellent example at how quickly her “quiet” faded away.]
  3. I enjoy food. a lot [Oh, Mack, what an understatement!eating 1].
  4. lunch is my favorite [I suspect what she meant by this one is that lunch was her favorite subject at school!]
  5. people say I’m odd, but what do they know =).
  6. Basketball’s chill but it’s not my life [Even though Mack was at the height of her basketball success, making varsity and getting playing time as a freshman, she already knew that basketball did not define her nor did it control her life.]
  7. When I grow up I’m going to have a show on the food network called Mack’s Makin Bacon. I shall be famous [Mack’s love of bacon was legendary, and for a very long time she talked about having this show. A blog post entitled “Mack’s Makin’ Bacon” is definitely forthcoming].
  8. I once had a hamster named Strawberry Fabio McDermott. She died a tragic death. [Strawberry died of wet-tail disease, which is a common ailment in hamsters. Yet, I do suppose her death was kind of tragic, as Mack was so very fond of that little rodent.]
  9. I also had a fish named filis. Her death was similarly depressing. [Mack named a giant carp in our aquarium Phyllis (at least that’s how the Greeks and most other people would have spelled it). During an ice storm one winter when the power went out for several days, we had to leave the house as temperatures dipped below zero. Sadly, we left Phyllis behind, and the poor beloved fish froze to death. Mack was upset with her dad over that one for quite some time!]
  10. I have a pound puppy named Spot that I’ve had since I was two.
  11. I have 2 dogs. One is fat and the other is insanely hyperactive [Napoleon was our fat pug; and Pepper is our crazy Pomeranian]
  12. Stuff doesn’t bother me, I just kinda go with it.laugh
  13. I play golf basketball and softball. I don’t really have a favorite, but I’m best at softball.
  14. I can’t dance, but that doesn’t stop me.
  15. My nails are bright purple at the moment [Mack’s one beauty item was nail polish, and her toes and fingers were always as bright and cheerful as her personality.]
  16. Harry Potter is pretty durn sweet. not gonna lie.
  17. I love to laugh [oh, yes, Mack laughed every day; and she made other people laugh right along with her.]
  18. It takes a while for me to break out of my shell.
  19. I did not enjoy middle school.
  20. When I wake up in the morning, the only thing I want out of life is to stay in bed. [Mack was a professional sleeper…more to come on this topic for sure].
  21. I have 7 pairs of huge sunglasses. They all cost about 5 bucks [Stay tuned for a photo-essay about Mack’s glorious collection of sunglasses.]
  22. Blueberry pomegranate gatorade is disgusting. (that is not really about me, but I just took a sip and thought I should give a warning).super cool 11
  23. My sister’s in Argentina and I am very jealous [Savannah spent a semester studying in Buenos Aires when she was junior at Indiana University majoring in Spanish.]
  24. I watch comedy central, disney, food network, and discovery, and that’s about it
  25. There’s a giant CWLP cone in my room [Mack’s sister stole a giant orange City Water Light and Power caution cone, and when she went away for college Mack inherited it. When we moved to St. Louis, Mack insisted that it come with us. It enjoyed a place of prominence in her bedroom, we have it still, and I will keep it for Mack forever.]

Balloon Hats Are Art

Walking around in downtown St. Louis this Independence Day weekend, I saw a couple of kids, about 10-years-old, skipping next to their parents. The entire family was decked out in Cardinals gear, they were all a little sunburned, and they were laden with stadium souvenirs. Most noticeably, however, this brother and sister duo were laughing and acting nuts, enjoying life while wearing balloon hats. When I saw those silly red, white, and blue balloon hats, Mack’s freckled face popped into my vision and my memory time machine took me straight back to New Orleans, December 2004.

Mack was 10. She had just hopped into the back seat of our boxy and blue Honda Element, and just before closing the wide-open suicide doors, I snapped a classic photograph of her. She was laughing and acting nuts. She was over-the-moon, because she had won an important argument with her dad, and she was proudly sporting her championship trophy atop her little head. We had just spent several hours wandering the streets of the French Quarter and Jackson Square, listening to music, eating beignets, and enjoying the performance artists. Mack had been fascinated by a flamboyant man making balloon animals and hats. She set her sights on a hat. Her dad said “no, no, no,” arguing that it was an overpriced and impractical souvenir. “No, no, no, Daddy-O,” she argued. “It is art, and I need it.” Of course, he caved in, like he always did. And Mack chose a red and orange monstrosity with antenna-like balloons sticking straight up in the air. Mack beamed in that hat, just like those two kids beamed in their patriot variety. For Mack, those contorted balloons were the perfect end to a great day.

balloon hat

It was simple things like balloon hats that lit up Mack’s world, and I am so glad her dad and I frequently indulged her in her child-like pleasures. It did not take much to make that kid happy, and although that damn balloon hat blocked the rear-view mirror, drove her sister crazy, and deflated long before we made it home to Springfield, Illinois, it was a highlight of the trip for Mack. It also left us with the cherished balloon-hat photo that now so beautifully captures the spirit of my lost girl.

When I saw those happy kids proudly sporting their patriotic balloon hats, my heart had smiled for three reasons. I remembered my Mack in her own balloon hat when she was just the same age. I was happy that those two little kids knew how to fully enjoy a simple and silly pleasure. And I was so glad that those parents had purchased ridiculous air-filled hats in spite of the fact that they were likely way overpriced and stood little chance of making it home. I just hope at some point in the day, one of those parents captured a photograph of balloon-hat bliss on the faces of their kids, like I was so lucky to capture on the face of my sweet girl.

Maybe those kids had not used the same balloon-hats-are-art argument that Mack had used back in 2004 to claim hers, but those kids (and likely their parents as well), understand the value of a few cheap balloons fashioned into a glorious and artful hat. Balloon hats are art, people. Pure and simple and true.