Penguin Pete

If Mack had conducted interviews for potential best friends, Jackie would have aced a Mack-best-friend compatibility exam:

Mack: Do you giggle easily and often?
Jackie: Yes, and I squeal, too.

Mack: If you could, would you eat sushi every single day of your life?
Jackie: Yeah. Duh.

Mack: Is watching TV more important than doing homework?
Jackie: What’s homework?

Mack: Do you love playing sports?
Jackie: Yes, soccer is my life.

Mack: Do you live in sports shorts and t-shirts with writing on them?
Jackie: Yes. And dresses suck.

Mack: Do you own at least five pairs of Nike athletic shoes?
Jackie: More like ten. Or maybe fifteen.

Mack: Does your mom buy Choco Pies, and will you bring them to me at school?
Jackie: Yes, she buys the good Korean brand. And yes, I will keep you supplied.

Mack: Do you love penguins?
Jackie: Penguins are the love of my life.

Jackie—or “Yackie” as Mack frequently called her—was a fast friend and a permanent presence in Mack’s life since the very beginning of sixth grade at Franklin Middle School. They were both unapologetic tomboys who could the rock basketball shorts in a sea of girls in summer dresses. Basketball teammates and after-school TV buddies, those girls giggled more than they talked, likely consumed more junk food than any other two athletes on the planet, and were in constant competition for the title of “Most Accomplished Procrastinator” in the history of Springfield High School. Mack would always claim the title for herself, but she was very quick to give Jackie her props for being a “terrible Asian” because homework was such a low priority. Being called a “terrible Asian” would send Jackie into a fit of giggles; and then she and Mack would watch TV or goof off instead of doing their homework…again.

Mack and Jackie had a lot of goofy in common, but I observed pretty early on in their relationship that they had a bond based to a large extent on their individual comfort in defining femininity in their own damn way. Neither had any personal qualms about balancing her inner girl with her inner boy, but I believe that having each other to walk that unique girly-tomboy path emboldened their individual spirits and gave them extra strength to navigate the gendered dramas of junior high and high school. With Mack in her basketball shorts, Jackie in her soccer shorts, and both of them in sports t-shirts and over-sized sunglasses, they faced the world on their own terms. And, together, they always had a blast doing it.

The hijinks never stopped with Mack and Jackie, but the story of a Penguin named Pete takes the prize. Senior year of high school, Mack took a glass-works class, and for an early project in the course, she created a tiled mosaic of an adorable cartoon penguin. She was wide-grin proud of that penguin she named Pete, showed it to all of her friends, gave it personality traits, told stories about its life, and kept it in her locker all year. From the moment Jackie laid eyes on that penguin, she wanted it for herself. She asked Mack if she could have it. Mack said no. Jackie, however, was a determined young woman. And a somewhat sinister one, as well. Repeatedly, throughout the school year, Jackie stole Penguin Pete from Mack’s locker. Repeatedly, Mack would hunt him down and reclaim him, always dramatizing the emotional scars wrought by the separation. The girls laughed and fussed over that penguin all year long, turning their senior year into an entrenched battle for the love a hand-made, tile penguin. Mack finally brought Penguin Pete home in order to keep it safe from Jackie’s frequent heists, but that child even tried to steal Pete from Mack’s room, too, during her graduation party!

For whatever reason, maybe just because Mack had made it, Jackie loved Penguin Pete. In a lot of ways, Jackie was Mack’s little penguin. Not at all in a condescending way, but in a loving and endearing way that perhaps only Mack could have expressed. In Mack’s mind, it was simple. Jackie loved Penguin Pete. Mack loved Jackie. And so in June 2012, Mack presented Penguin Pete to Jackie for her birthday with this note: “Me giving you my dear friend Penguin Pete is a true test of our friendship. It hurts to part w/ my buddy, but I know you’ll take good care of him. Treat him well & make sure he remembers me fondly. Love, your bestest friend EVER, Mackenzie.”

I love this Mack-best-friend story because it reveals the multi-layered aspects of one special friendship. This story represents shared interests, silly fun, cherished memories, and the tangible and priceless mementos of life. The tale of Penguin Pete should also serve as reminder to all of us all how important it is to tell the people who are central in our lives how much they matter to us.

Penguin Pete gift


The birthday presentation of Penguin Pete (Mack, Ali, Jackie, and Sierra)


The Ali-Mack Frouple

Mack once said that of her best friends, she knew Ali “the weirdest.” Although they were never elementary-school classmates, the girls first met all the way back in kindergarten at Dubois Elementary. After a few years, Ali moved to a new house and a new school and disappeared for a spell. A year or so later, Ali was assigned to Mack’s summer softball team. Those girls were reunited as giggling teammates on the Izzles and as friends over the course of several summers, although Mack teasingly disapproved of Ali’s affinity for the Cubs. But when summer faded, so did their friendship, as they lived in different neighborhoods and attended different schools. Yet during their preteen years, these two social butterflies had so many friends in common that they frequently ended up at the same birthday parties and sleepovers. Summer softball always reunited them. And an easiness between them ever fostered a quick resumption of their friendship after time spent mostly apart.

In August 2008, Mack and Ali were reunited for good at Springfield High School, and their friendship flourished. They were still leading somewhat separate lives due to involvement in different extracurricular activities and sports; Mack was so very annoyed that Ali chose soccer over softball! But for the first time, they were classmates. For the first time, they were reading and learning together. For the first time, they had a steady connection to each other. For Mack, Ali was one of those easy friends that luckily kept bouncing in and out of her life; and each time they bounced into each other, Mack became more attached. By the end of sophomore year, Mack bounced Ali into a Big-Mack, forever hug and “collected” Ali for keeps.

The British television show Skins, intellectual late-night discussions about television and books in Ali’s basement, and heart-to-heart talks about friend drama, travel abroad, and the future elevated the Mack and Ali friendship from high school buddies to best friends. Ali called them a frouple—two inseparable friends who completed each other’s sentences, accepted and adopted each other’s quirks, and married each other’s families. High school friends are the friends that help shape the adult underneath your awkward and uncertain teenaged skin. Ali and Mack bounced into each other for good at the perfect time; and they were so very perfect for each other. They accepted and loved each other unconditionally, but they opened their hearts and minds to learning from each other, as well. They served as each other’s best role models. Ali was a studious and goal-oriented model for Mack’s far too leisurely and haphazard approach to school work and to life in general. Mack was carefree and an unapologetic goofball model for Ali’s serious nature and more circumspect interactions with the world. By the end of junior year, I noticed a bond between Mack and Ali that had the character of a lifelong friendship. And I am certain that by then, Mack already understood that she and Ali would be silly old ladies together.

Since losing our Mack, I have mourned for my sweet girl, for myself, and for my family, but I have also mourned for Mack’s best friends. Life has dealt them a cruel and painful blow, and I feel such sorrow for them all. But where the best friends are concerned, I have shed the most tears for Mack’s dear Ali, and I have long searched for some understanding for the depth of my emotion in this regard. Over these past months, reflecting on my grief and grappling with the meaning of Mack’s death for all of us, a story of Ali’s personal loss continually pangs my heart. When Ali boldly applied for an adventurous study-abroad program in Budapest, Hungary, Mack was the only person she told; and when Ali learned of her acceptance into the program, Mack was gone. This story haunts me. It is a bitter reminder that life as we know it can change in an instant, and it illustrates the high stakes of our human connections. But it also reveals to me the significance of Mack’s life in the lives of the people who loved her.

Just weeks after losing her best friend, Ali bravely accepted the challenge of that daring study abroad. She knew it would be hard to leave family and friends during such an emotionally difficult time for her, but she went to Budapest for herself, and she went to Budapest for Mack. She embraced the experience with courage, with humor, and with Mack in her heart. I have no doubt that Mack’s spirit provided Ali with important emotional support during those months abroad, and I am absolutely certain that Mack was a constant, giggling whisper in Ali’s ear, reminding her to laugh too loud, drink too much, and have way too much fun.

So once again we see that Mack collected the best and the bravest of best friends. We can see how Mack enriched the lives of her best friends, too. And, perhaps equally important, we can see and pay homage to the magical power of friendships in life and for an eternity. Just ask Ali, she’ll be bouncing to the beat of the Ali-Mack Frouple many, many moons from now when she’s a silly old lady remembering a cherished best friend.


Brand new Springfield High School Graduates, June 2012.

softball with Ali2


Mack arrived at Truman State University on August 18, 2012, to find the scholar and the writer inside of her soul. Within her first hours on campus, engaged in organized activities with students assigned with her to Grim Hall, she met her soul mate, Meagan. Neither Mack nor Meagan could exactly pinpoint or describe their first introduction, as their fast friendship was so effortless and so comfortable that it was as though they had known each other all of their lives. They initially bonded over a shared love of television, musical theater, food, sarcasm, humor, and feminism, but the depth of the connection between these two sweet girls went far and away beyond dorm acquaintances, college companionship, and coed mischief. This was a friendship that quieted insecurities and doubts. This was a friendship that inspired dreams. This was a friendship that empowered the women within them.

During their first semester at Truman, Mack and Meagan settled into college life together with exuberance and with humor. Both had an abundance of each of those qualities all their own, but together they blew off the lid of tiny, old Grim Hall. As the months flew by, they also drew confidence and strength from each other as they adapted to their coursework and to life on their own. They formed the foundation of a little family of friends on campus, they embraced new freedoms and young-adult fun, and they settled into their new lives in Kirksville, a small town in bucolic northern Missouri. Very soon after arriving at Truman, Mack provided regular commentary to me through text messages and phone calls, and I was surprised but pleased about an uncharacteristic new tendency in her for chatter. While she enthusiastically shared details about her classes, laughed about getting lost or oversleeping, and relayed comical details about the dorm, the dining hall, or the golf team, most of her excitement centered on the people she met. On her new friends. On her new college family. And at the root of Mack’s happy, contented self far away from home was that girl named Meagan.

I first met Meagan when I visited campus a couple of weeks after moving Mack into the dorm, and I was smitten with her, too. She is smart and silly, just like my Mack, a skeptical liberal with the second-best giggle I have ever heard. She is feisty, a little kooky, a whole lot of witty, and she sings her sentences, lilting the syllables melodically across her full lips. She is what I like to call a good egg. Mack had a long history of collecting special friends, so I was not at all surprised she found Meagan. Mack knew a good egg when she saw one, and Meagan was a keeper. In October of her first semester at college, Mack sent me this picture…

will you be my roomie

In case you cannot tell, the candies on the partly eaten pizza spell out “ROOMMATES,” and Mack was not only thrilled with Meagan’s proposal for sophomore roommate status, but was also delighted with the panache of the delivery itself: on a pizza topped with M&Ms alongside a cheesy picture of Meagan, promising Mack a bag of her favorite Warhead sour candies.

Mack and Meagan were inseparable at Truman. During sophomore year they shared a square college apartment, and they lived together as friends, as sisters, and as confidants. Mack cooked for Meagan, and Meagan helped keep dirt and wine off of Mack’s white armchair. Meagan provided the big screen TV, and Mack taught Meagan to love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and My Cousin Vinny. Their shared academic interests in writing and in gender studies made them frequent classmates, so they frequently studied together, probably mostly while watching TV. And certainly, on more occasions than I would care to know about, Mack probably convinced Meagan to skip the studying altogether and watch more episodes of Parks and Recreation instead. Meagan brought out the talker in Mack, and the two of them shared ideas, always finding ways to connect their gender-studies readings to their unique observations about the women in their favorite shows. Over two magical years, they dreamed. They laughed. They watched TV. They talked about the future. Together. Always together. Even when they were home for break—Mack in St. Louis and Meagan in nearby Fenton—they were together.

Very early on in their friendship, the girls arranged a meeting for their parents, almost like an anxious engaged couple eager to put the in-laws in a room together. They were excited for all of us to hit it off; and hit it off, we did. Kevin & I and Tony & Mary had the pleasure of dining with Mack and Meagan several times, both in Kirksville and in St. Louis. Mack had adopted Meagan and her folks in a package deal, and so did we. Since losing our Mack, the three of them have provided me a great deal of comfort with their easy friendship–drinking, eating, and talking about politics–and their generous support of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship now endowed at Truman State. I am certain they know how much Mack loved them, but I also hope they know the depth of my own connections to them, as well. Mack’s friendship with Meagan was forever, and so it will now be with me.

Recently, Meagan told me she admired the power Mackenzie possessed to ignite the passions of the people around her, to share her infectious joy for life, and to quietly demonstrate the meaning of true friendship. Meagan’s time with Mack was too short, and her memories of college will always be bittersweet; young people should not have to suffer the tragic loss of a friend. But Meagan is a wise and brave young woman, and she believes that two years with her cherished friend was a far better bargain than never having had the pleasure of knowing Mack at all. I am beyond grateful that Meagan found her way to Truman State and that she was Mack’s best friend for the wild and wonderful adventure of college. Today, as Meagan graduates with the Truman State University Class of 2016, I take some comfort in the knowledge that Mack’s spirit lives on in Meagan’s heart and in life she will live beyond college.

And so, dear Meagan, go out in that world and make your dreams come true. As Mack would say, “you’re a grown-ass woman now,” but don’t forget to laugh and to stop to be silly along the way.