I Am Flexible

Yoga in the park this morning was all about the spine. My soft-spoken teacher stretched and twisted and cooed us into shapes that make the back-body purr. The rising sun cast majestic shadows on the concrete of the pavilion. Shadows of my body, reaching and breathing into beautiful movement in the already-warm breeze of a Midwestern day in late summer.

This stretching reminded me that I am alive, like yoga always reminds me that I am alive. These shadows made me grateful. I am able-bodied. I am here. I am breathing. Imperfect and grieving and uncertain, yes; but also accepting and peaceful and hopeful that life might still bring me gifts. That I am deserving of those gifts.

The mantra of my first yoga teacher, more than two decades ago, was: “You are only as young as your spine is flexible.” I didn’t appreciate her mantra back then, because my spine was flexible. It was also young and supple and strong. I was in my early thirties. I did not yet know that my body would change and that life would make me rigid. Back then, I could still do flips in the backyard with my daughters, the muscle memory of competitive gymnastics still lithe in my muscles and bones.

Not so much today, now that I know the weight of living. In my fifties, I am starting over and feeling green, despite my graying hair. I am unbending, even though life has done its damnedest to bend me. I am strong, in spite of all I have endured. But I know all of this, and that is the difference. Knowing is what makes me flexible.

And this is, precisely, the point of yoga. To practice. To learn. To bend. Not just in body, but also in spirit. To remind us to breathe. To make us sit in our moment with all of the crap life heaps upon us. To witness our shadows. To know the beauty of our bodies to bend without breaking.

Sometimes, I think I am old and inflexible. But in reality, I am young and bendy. I am strong. I am human. I am flexible.

Mack with Me

By myself, I am walking,
Mindfulness in all my steps,
Heel to toe, toe to earth.
Purposeful, with measurement.
In the walking, in my presence,
I find solace out of sorrow.
Unaccompanied, I walk in silence.
Yet I am not alone.

Mack is here.

Her presence in my present
Is my permission.
To breathe. To see.
To find my feet.
To find my peace.

By myself, the mornings
Are coffee and worries.
Blurry with my future,
Foreverness of loneliness.
Caffeine anxiety
For future years of misery.
I lose myself in the tyranny
Of incapacity for grace and dignity.

Mack is not in this state with me.

Her no-show no surprise to me.
To fret. To sweat
What I cannot change and cannot know
Just wastes precious time
She did not get.

By myself, in bed at night,
I fight to sleep.
To be at rest.
I toss and turn through history.
Through memories of who I was
When Mack was here.
When tragedy was unforeseen.
But when I wish upon the past,

Mack will not reminisce with me.

She sees no good
In glances back.
To dwell on loss, forget what’s not.
It breaks her heart
To see me lost.

By myself, I need to breathe.
To learn to sleep.
To find my dreams. To stay awake.
With every step. Through every task.
Through every day.
I need to learn to live for now.
To be content with me
And how to be right here,

Where Mack will be.

Where joyfulness can walk with me,
And Mack with me.
How I can laugh
And hope and see
All the life in front of me.

For you, my dear Mackenzie, on your birthday.
I am here. With you. In the present.

Me and Mack in the Garden

I was in the garden yesterday.

I was there to seek the company of the dawn redwood trees, upon the deeply fissured trunks of which there is written an ancient wisdom and under the branches of which I often find comfort. I was feeling a great deal of anxiety, as I always do at the end of a project that has consumed much of my creative energy and intellect over a long stretch of time. Instead of embracing a contented feeling of achievement, my mind was restless from the release of its previous intensity of purpose; my body was stiff and sore with the lingering memory of the labor, hanging tight and clinging heavy to my bones. It is a regular, and peculiar, ritual with me that the completion of a piece of writing about which I feel so damn good also leaves me, in the bargain, feeling so damned lost. It is similar to the sorrow that overcomes me when I read the last word on the last page of an extraordinary book. It feels something like the loss of a friend, or a missed opportunity, or a misplaced treasure. To complicate my trouble with endings, I also frequently feel a little off-balance within the uncomfortable and uncertain space in my mind that occupies the time between the end (or death) of one creative project and the beginning (or birth) of a new one. It makes me feel quite lonely, very sad, and sometimes a little crazy, too. Usually I can conquer on my own any negative energy that should never cling to a successfully completed project in the first place, but sometimes I need a little outside help to do so.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has become for me not only a physical sanctuary but an emotional and intellectual one. It is a place where nonjudgmental spirits reside and where I find both relief and inspiration. The garden has become my happy refuge and a cherished friend. It grounds my restless spirit to the earth, provides solace to my broken heart, and refreshes my tired mind. It is where I go to be uplifted by the songs of birds and to be renewed by the wondrous, ever-changing colors and shadows of all of the seasons of nature. It is where I go to walk with my memories, my sorrows, my hopes, my worries, and my intellectual and creative ideas. It is where I go to conquer the uncertain and uncomfortable in-between spaces in my mind. Yesterday, the latter was my need for the garden, and to be in the presence of the majestic Metasequoia was my singular purpose. I made a brisk and determined path to the redwoods in the back of the garden, noticing neither the birds nor the colors and shadows along the way. So eager was I for those trees to release me from my burdens, I had ignored all other greetings of the garden and offered my happy refuge, my cherished friend, no greeting of my own, either.

But, thankfully, Mack was in the garden yesterday, too.

As I followed the path, curving around the Victorian section of the garden and leading toward the stand of the dawn redwood trees, Mack popped up in my mind at precisely the moment that a single snow crocus, poking up through a carpet of old autumn leaves, popped into my peripheral vision. “Slow down, Mamma Bear,” she whispered. “Walk with me.”

It was then that I first noticed the warmth of a long-missing sun and the crisp breeze upon my face. It was then that the nurturing characteristics of the garden began to work their magic upon my tired body and to ease the discomforts of my restless mind. We started walking, Mack and I, under the branches of the dawn redwoods, and for more than two hours we mindfully strolled. Along every path, we spied chipmunks scurrying in bushes and we looked for the shiny blades of new-born leaves peeking up through the dirt and promising the coming of spring flowers. In the Japanese garden, we chatted with some turtles sunning on rocks and laughed at the awkward and silly cypress knees randomly jutting up out of the ground. We lingered at every statue we passed, we found some pansies in the home garden, and we sat for a spell on a bench in the woodland garden, enjoying the soothing sound of the water gently falling over rocks on its way down the stream. Everywhere we walked, we listened to the songs of the birds and took in all of the colors and shadows that a glorious pre-Spring day in the Midwest has to offer.

I did not think about the past. I did not worry about the future. I did not think about the end of my completed project. I did not contemplate the challenges of my new one. I just walked, with Mack, breathing easy and settling my mind upon the present. When I finally made my way to the exit, the in-between space in my mind had closed. I whispered my gratitude to Mack and to the garden, and I headed for home, basking in the satisfaction connected to rewarding work and the successful completion of a creative project and happily looking forward to a new creative project on the horizon.


Better Angels

Three things. Each of them from my heart and through the raw edge of my emotion. But each of them also from my conviction that America got this election horribly wrong and that the mistake may cost us more than we can right now even begin to comprehend.

First, in his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the “better angels of our nature,” choosing to believe that Americans, north and south, were not enemies but rather friends, bound by a shared history and unbreakable bonds of affection. In the early days of the American Civil War, Lincoln continued to doubt the intensity of racism and hatred in the hearts of so many of his fellow Americans. Even the swift rebuke from many voices and regions across the country in angry response to his Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 did not dampen his hopeful resolve. While I can today still see Lincoln’s good and true heart, unlike him, I am loath at this moment in American history to believe in the better angels of our nature. Bloody Civil War, Segregation and Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment in WWII, and the turbulent Civil Rights Movement have, apparently, provided no lessons. Instead, we now find ourselves here, one hundred and fifty-five years after Lincoln appealed to those better angels, witness to the election of Donald Trump, a man who played to the devils in our nature, to the worst in America—to our bigotry, our sexism, our ethnocentrism, and our hatred and fear of the “other.” Yesterday, we betrayed Lincoln’s belief in and hope for America, and in this devastating realization I am bereft.

Second, today Mack, like me and half of my fellow Americans, would be devastated, as the shocking result of this hateful election flies in the face of everything she believed in her heart. But she would, no doubt, do what she always did: offer a crooked smile, tell a stupid joke, and deliver Big-Mack hugs all around. And, most importantly, she would never let the bitterness I am feeling on this terrible day to pass a shadow over her generous heart.

Finally,  I’m not sure I will be capable of Mack’s grace in regard to this election; and if I am ultimately capable, it is going to take a good while and considerable effort on my part to get there. While I take some comfort in the fact that the qualified and correct choice in this election won the popular vote, it will be a very long time before I am strong enough to forgive the part of the country who supported Trump. As I wholeheartedly believe in our country’s democratic ideals, I must accept the outcome of this election. But I will never accept Donald Trump’s vision of America; I choose Abraham Lincoln’s vision instead. I choose an America that is diverse, tolerant, open-minded, true, and kind. I chose an America that stands up against lies, that protects the rights of minorities and the LGBT community, that welcomes immigrants, that lifts up people with disabilities, that treats women with decency and respect, and that believes the American dream is big enough for all of us. While my soul is buoyed by the 59,731,599 souls who voted with me and with my Mack yesterday, the election cost me my faith in the better angels of our American nature. Yesterday was, truly, the third worst day in my life, only losing Mackenzie and my dad eclipsing my heartbreak for this country as the returns came in late into the night. Today I am grieving, and my faith in humanity is in question.

Since losing Mack, I have sought to channel the better angels of her nature. Mostly, I have been successful in drawing strength from her wit and her grace and her unbounding optimism. But at this moment, as we face potentially disturbing and historic consequences of what this election may have wrought, I am failing and, I dare say, might fail for a long time to come. Because in truth, the depth of my disappointment lies not only with the result of the Electoral College and with the dysfunction of the Republican Party, but also in the failure of the Democratic Party, my party, to understand the disaffection of its own base and to include the very people it always claimed to protect. As it was in Lincoln’s time, so it is also in our own, that we each bear some responsibility for our failure to get history right and to understand the depths of the differences between us. I can only hope that somewhere in the chasm that divides our country, reside the angels we will need to bridge the dangerous gap that threatens to swallow us all.

The Best Idea Ever

Halloween was definitely a Mack-holiday. Costumes and candy are a winning combination for every kid, but Mack set the quintessential example of how best to celebrate and to seize the day with the most kid gusto. She believed that the collection of a giant bucket of candy and the permission to gorge yourself into a sugar coma was simply the best idea ever in the history of the world. She saw selecting the perfect costume and then putting your whole kid heart and soul into it as a moral imperative of childhood. And trick-or-treating through heavy fall leaves in our historic Washington Park neighborhood—where most of the houses were spooked out with deadly decorations, creepy lights, and haunted music—was her favorite night of the year.

I miss Halloween with kids, and last week I purchased a giant $15 bag of candy even though I will not host a single trick-or-treater. Those Halloween sweets sitting in a big bowl in the kitchen all week have reminded me of the Halloween memories I have of Mack. While Kevin, Savannah, and I enjoyed Halloween before Mack joined our family, Mack’s enthusiasm for the holiday inspired us all to make it family favorite. Over the years, the four of us celebrated Halloween with themed baked goods, truckloads of candy for trick-or-treaters, decorations (including an expensive porcelain haunted mansion), and regular costume parties. So on this Halloween day, 2015, I want to celebrate Mack’s love of Halloween, to pay homage to her exuberance for costumes and for candy, and to illustrate her wholehearted embrace of America’s best kid holiday. As per usual, photos speak more loudly than words where Mack is concerned, and the following images exemplify Mack’s enthusiasm for Halloween, illustrate her sense of humor, and reveal something of the evolution (or, perhaps, de-evolution?) of her chosen costumes.


Mack would never have chosen a mermaid costume herself, but baby Macko had no choice. Mack was always horrified that I had dressed her in such a way, but I have no regrets; because I absolutely adore this Halloween photo of me and my girls!

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Little kid Mack from clown to witch to kitty to devil…

01b-baby 02-witch

03-kitty 04-devil

Our old neighborhood was full of young families, and Halloween was a serious event…porches were transformed, lawns became graveyards, and there was one house where Count Dracula invited kids up to a scary porch through mist, spooky sounds, and haunting music. Trick-or-treating in our neighborhood was magical for my girls, and Mack always insisted we do some porch decorations. We were not the best house in the neighborhood by a long shot, but at the very least, we always had jack-o-lanterns and a mechanical bat that flew around the porch.


Halloween costumes were almost always an easy way to tell my girls apart and to perfectly illustrate the differences in their personalities, as well.

05-are these sisters 06-seriously are these sisters

One year, Mack did not let a badly broken arm stand in the way of her and Halloween; and even dressed as a vampire, she was still the cool kid on the block (Word!).

08-dracula 07-dracula 2

One year, Mack was a leprechaun, and it is my all-time favorite Mack-holiday costume. She was a leprechaun every day of her life, so playing one on Halloween was likely her most comfortable Halloween role. (A previous blog explains this perfect costume: https://macksmommabear.com/2015/03/17/mack-day/).


I’m not sure how Mack came up with this one, but with her Dad’s movie makeup skills, she certainly looked just as awful as she had hoped.

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Mack trick-or-treated in our neighborhood her freshman year of high school against my protestations that she was too old. She argued quite emphatically that it was cruel to deny her one final participation in her favorite childhood pleasure. When she returned home that night, I watched her dump out the fully loaded pillowcase with the wild eyes of a ten-year-old, and I was glad she had convinced me to allow my high school girl to hang on a little longer to her childhood.

Here’s a costume from Mack’s junior year of high school, where I believe she was channeling her inner self…


And here Mack is in college, where she brings us back full circle, dressing like a baby…


The Prom Plot

Mack did not attend her junior prom, and in the opening months of 2012, she was showing absolutely no signs of interest in attending her senior prom, either. I tried to talk her into going. Her friends tried to talk her into going. But she was not hearing it. She kept saying things like, “school dances are lame,” “I’m just going to go to after-prom in my skinny jeans and a t-shirt,” and “I look weird and feel awkward in a floofy gown.” Of course, she had never worn a gown in her life, so there was no way she could have known how she might actually look in one. I was certain she would look just gorgeous in a prom dress, given her long and lean physique, but Mack was not hearing that, either. She had never enjoyed getting dolled up, she disliked dresses and makeup, and it really was not that surprising that she was being so stubborn. By February, I was resigned to her decision and gave up trying to change her mind.

But Mack’s boyfriend Abhinav did not give up, although he knew Mack well enough to understand the challenge he faced. Abhi was a very bright kid, and he realized that much ingenuity on his part would be necessary for success. It just so happened, though, that Mack was a writer for the high school newspaper, and one of Abhi’s best friends, Emma, was the Senator’s editor. So Abhi hatched a sneaky plan, sought out some tight-lipped co-conspirators, and crossed his fingers for a little luck. Emma was very fond of Mack, so she was immediately on board with Abhi’s plan to use the Senator to invite Mack to prom; and the newspaper’s good-humored advisor Ms. Negele was happy to be involved in the conspiracy as well.

The devious schemers believed that a printed, very public invitation would certainly give Abhi the “yes” answer he was seeking, but that success demanded total secrecy. It would be imperative that Mack remain in the dark, and since she was a senior member of the small newspaper staff, keeping the plan hush-hush until the March issue of the paper was printed, delivered, and distributed throughout the school would certainly be a trick. The newspaper staff always worked as a group to layout pages, copyedit, and finalize each issue before sending it out for printing. Therefore, Emma and Ms. Negele had to work carefully to make certain Mack did not see any early versions of the page on which Abhi’s invitation would appear. But, in the end, the newspaper issue was finalized and sent off to the printer, complete with the bold prom invitation, and Mack was none the wiser. On the morning that the paper would greet more than 1,300 Springfield High School students, Mack would see the invitation to prom from Abhinav, and she would have no choice but to say “YES,” right?

But for Abhi, some doubt crept in, and he started to worry. In fact, he started to agonize over what he and his co-conspirators had done. He began to question his judgment. He now wondered if the plot had not only guaranteed him a “NO” answer from Mack, but might also have set her up for school-wide embarrassment that might even jeopardize his relationship with her. His cold feet got the best of him, so he arranged a breakfast date with Mack before school on the day of the newspaper’s distribution. Now Mack always showered the night before school and rolled out of bed just in time to throw on sweats and a t-shirt and then speed the one mile up Washington Street to the high school in her old Jeep.  Frequently, she even failed to make the first bell. Therefore, convincing her to get up in time for breakfast must have been a challenge. Apparently, though, Abhinav was persuasive. But when he picked her up that morning an hour before school, I was shocked. I do not remember how he had lured Mack out of bed that early, but I think it may have been the promise of free Mel-o-Cream donuts!

At breakfast, Abhi presented Mack with a copy of the newspaper, and this is what greeted her on the FRONT page…

prom newspaper

I would have done just about anything to have seen the look on Mack’s face when she stared down Abhi’s printed invitation. I have no idea what she immediately did or said. What I do know is that she agreed to be Abhi’s date for the prom, and the two of them went on to the high school to face the student body together. Abhi’s decision to let Mack in on his secret before arriving at the school was, likely, wise. Throngs of students had already seen the paper by the time they arrived, and Abhi’s prom invitation was the topic in the halls and in the classrooms all day. Mack handled the attention with style and a great deal of humor, as she did most everything else in her life, and she laughed and joked with the multitude of friends, teachers, coaches, classmates, and teammates who greeted her throughout the day.

The plot had worked, and I never heard Mack express anger or even displeasure at Abhi or Emma or Ms. Negele. Yet I do think she was a tad embarrassed that day, being the topic of conversation and facing all of that attention. But I believe it was one of those rare moments in her life that Mack quietly admitted to herself that she was deserving of a little extra attention, that she was special, and that special people in her life were willing to go to extraordinary trouble just for her.

And so, together, Mackenzie and Abhinav attended their senior prom, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to see Mack in a gown. She let me spend a little time on her hair, but she wore no makeup and had chosen a very sensible pair of flat sandals. And just as I had predicted, she looked gorgeous…a divine image of natural beauty. But, hey, I will let you all be the judge of that…

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Here is a fun little video of Mack posing for pictures before prom. The quality is very poor, but it is good enough to see Mack doing her thing. She is dancing a silly little Irish jig…her goofy way of rejecting any pretense or pomp that might creep in when one is wearing a floofy gown! http://youtu.be/TjDxFJ1P_Ps

Note from Emma (Co-Conspirator Extraordinaire): “We usually laid out all the pages of the newspaper before sending them to the printer so everyone could see what it looked like. The front page “still wasn’t finished” when we laid out this issue. I’m surprised she didn’t know about it before. She was a really good sport about it, as she was with everything that came her way!”

Note from Abhinav: Thank you for putting up that video and blog post, definitely one of my favorite memories in my life and will never forget her face when she found out. Still have multiple copies of that [newspaper] in my room.

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

Mack and Abraham Lincoln

Mack, the poor little devil, spent her entire life with Abraham Lincoln. She grew up on Lincoln Avenue in Abe’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, made very frequent visits to all of the Springfield Lincoln historic sites on school trips and with out-of-town relatives, and practiced with her high school golf team at Lincoln Greens, where Lincoln’s face is plastered on the golf carts. Springfield kids have a hard time escaping Lincoln, but Mack had it worse than most, because for most of her life I was an editor at the Lincoln Papers.

Mack always told me that I knew way too much about Lincoln, that I talked about him more than was normal, and that I really needed to get a life. Mack and her friend Justice called me a Lincoln stalker, and they had a lot of laughs at my expense. From a young age Mack had a healthy amount of skepticism about Lincoln; and like she did with most things that were a tad kooky, she viewed the whole Lincoln mania thing with a great deal of humor and dramatically raised eyebrows. Lincoln 1She was always quick to point out the absurdity of seeing a Lincoln impersonator on the Old State Capitol Square in downtown Springfield, even though it was a very common occurrence. She cackled whenever she saw ludicrous advertising using Lincoln’s image to sell some modern product like a car or bag of potato chips. And she relentlessly teased me when I talked about Lincoln in the present tense. “He’s dead, Mom,” she always reminded me. “He. Is. Dead. You know that, right?”

Over the years, Mack, like hundreds of other school kids in Springfield, created artwork and essays for school projects each February in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday. I was always particularly enthusiastic about seeing those projects when they made it home. Mack’s adorable kindergarten drawing and essay occupied a prominent spot in my Springfield office at the Lincoln Papers for more than a decade and it now hangs in my home office in St. Louis. Lincoln2But a project for fifth grade was particularly exciting to me. One of Mack’s fifth-grade teachers at Dubois Elementary conducted an annual living history program in which the students studied various aspects of Illinois history throughout the fall and winter. In the spring, the kids chose one of those topics to research in depth and then they created skits, dramatic readings, or historic re-enactments to present their findings at an outdoor living history event, which was open to the public.

On the day the students selected their topics, Mack arrived home from school excited to tell me that she had chosen the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. “That’s so perfect,” I said, and then I asked: “so who are you going to be?” She looked at me like I was a gigantic idiot who had just uttered the most stupid question ever in the history of mom questions. “Well, DUH,” she answered, annoyed. “I’m Lincoln, Mom. Like anybody else could be Lincoln? I told them I had to be Lincoln.” And so, in May 2005, Mack played Abraham Lincoln to her friend Anna’s Stephen Douglas. I was so tickled to watch Mack Lincoln enacting the debate on that spring day in the historic Lincoln neighborhood, just a block down from the Lincoln Home. Hands down, she was the best and the absolute cutest Lincoln I had ever seen or will ever see again.


I have spent most of my professional life with Abraham Lincoln, and I was always happy to share him and my love of history with Mack. She indulged me…a little…feigning interest while I rattled on about a Lincoln document I was editing or a new book about Lincoln. And, frankly, I needed her sharp wit to yank me out of the nineteenth-century when I went a little bit too far. In middle school and high school, Mack habitually chose Lincoln for her essay or research paper topics. While I am sure she mostly did so because it was easy and because we had a lot of Lincoln books in the house (which saved her a trip to the library), I was always giddy about helping her. She even used Lincoln as a college essay topic; and her humorous take on Springfield Lincoln mania set the stage for a memorable interview with her admissions counselor at Truman State, who met with Mack just a few months after giving birth to her son, whom she had named Lincoln! Good old Abe even followed Mack to northern Missouri.Lincoln5

My most treasured Mack and Lincoln memory was made in the summer of 2012, when I had the honor and the privilege to call Mack a colleague. The Lincoln Papers had a little grant money to process digital images of Lincoln documents that we had received from the Library of Congress. Mack was one seven teenagers selected to do the work. Her quiet, sweet charm and her dry wit with my colleagues and our project’s group of volunteers made me proud, and I beamed at her success with the work as well. She learned quickly, multi-tasked brilliantly, and ended up processing more documents than anyone else that summer. It was a lucrative summer for Mack, but it was an expensive one for me. I had to buy two rounds at Starbucks every morning, but it was so worth it. I am not sure I ever told Mack how much it meant to me to have her in the office every day that summer as I prepared to give her up to college. But…oh…how very much it meant, indeed. Sometimes now when I am using our project’s database, I will come across a document that Mack processed, and there is her name. It forces a little air out of my lungs and frequently results in some tears; but mostly, it makes me smile. It is like having a little piece of her connected to my professional work; Mack, Lincoln, and me, together forever at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.Lincoln database

I am really happy that Mack knew something of what I do for a living, and I am so grateful for her playful indulgence of my historical interests, even though they were not her cup of tea. Always a trooper, Mack let the Lincoln thing fly; chiming in with her brilliant comedy, yes, but accepting Lincoln as an important part of her upbringing as well. In one of her college essays Mack wrote: “The weight of Lincoln’s legacy is a heavy burden to bear,” but I know that she was just exercising her deft hand with sarcasm and hyperbole. Deep down, Mack appreciated that Lincoln gave her hometown a little pizzaz, and I am confident that she believed it was kinda cool that her mom made a living studying the guy who made her hometown so special.

Mack with her summer colleagues at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln…

Lincoln kids

Psst…in case you can’t figure it out, Mack is the one behind and slightly to the left of Mr. Lincoln.

Hoosiers and a Hedge Maze

In the summer of 2004, Mack was a ten-year-old rising fifth-grader playing on a competitive basketball team with girls who were a year older. After a schedule of local games in Springfield and a few area tournaments, the Sonics ended up in a regional tournament at Indiana University. We were happy to give Mack a serious basketball experience and excited to enjoy a simple, summer family getaway as well. But it was one of those crazy years that the Illinois legislative session continued well into the summer; so Kevin, who covered Illinois politics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was unable to leave town with the girls and I on Saturday, July 17, for the drive to Indiana. When I pulled out of the driveway that morning in our brand new Honda Element, I had no idea that this little trip to my native state would be such a significant one. That trip gave Mack an experience that inspired her throughout her basketball playing years, turned out to be a fateful one for Savannah, and conferred upon me a special, memory-making, all-girl road trip with my two favorite people in all of the world.

We spent the first half of that week-long trip in Bloomington, Indiana, wandering around IU’s campus and watching preteen girls play basketball. Mack was so happy and comfortable to be the little kid on that basketball team, and playing at the tournament with them was exhilarating to her. The Sonics lost in the championship game, but Mack was not disappointed. She was such a wise little kid, breathing in the experience, just thrilled to be dribbling with the big girls. She was also honored to be a chosen as a rebounder for a teammate participating in the three-point shooting contest that took place on the Hoosier’s basketball court. Standing on that hallowed Hoosier hardwood was a dream for Mack, and the experience inspired her for her entire basketball career.Sonics3

Savannah, who had not been all that thrilled about our basketball-centric trip when it had started, was inspired, too. But for her, it was not the basketball that offered the spark; it was the lush green and floral landscapes, the Indiana limestone buildings, and the meandering medieval-style walls of the outrageously gorgeous IU campus. As it happened, Savannah was preparing to begin her all-important junior year of high school that fall, and college was very much on her mind. On that summer trip, she fell in love with IU. Had it not been for Mack’s basketball tournament, Savannah might never have considered Indiana University at all, let alone chosen it as the perfect fit. Mack always took a little credit for Savannah’s decision to attend Indiana, arguing on many occasions that all roads lead to the Assembly Hall in Bloomington.

The second part of our all-girl road trip was a bit on the wacky side, but it has remained one of my favorite vacations. We left Bloomington after the tournament and drove south through scenic Hoosier National Forest. Driving through the southern portion of Indiana with my girlies was such a treat, and we all giggled and sang and Mack drove Savannah and I crazy with her bad jokes from the back seat. When we drove through Jasper, Indiana, Mack and I rolled down the windows and yelled hello to Scott Rolen, her favorite Cardinal baseball player, who grew up there. I am not even sure how Mack knew that little piece of sports trivia, but she did; and we paused ever so briefly to acknowledge it. We stopped at Santa Clause, Indiana, just long enough for a photo opportunity, and then we settled in at a resort hotel in New Harmony, Indiana, along the Wabash River. I had promised loads of time in the fabulous hotel pool, some good food, and a movie of their choice (we saw “Dodgeball,” which Mack declared was the best movie of the year). But as usual, I had a little history on the agenda as well.

New Harmony is a tiny, historical town that possesses great charm if you are a nerdy history buff like me, but it holds little allure for kids. Therefore, I had my work cut out for me. We walked around the town center looking at old buildings, and I picked up some tourism flyers and purchased a little book about the historical beginnings of the settlement, founded in 1814 by religious dissidents called the Harmonists. One night after dinner and swimming, I read to the girls about the funky little colony, its quirky residents, and its fascinating history. They rolled their eyes, not even pretending to pay attention, and went back to whatever they were watching on the TV. I left them alone and turned my attention to the tourism materials, which revealed a fantastic, historical secret weapon.

The next morning, I drove the girls to the edge of the town for a little surprise. Apparently, when they established New Harmony, the Harmonists built a hedge maze to symbolize their quest for a better life in America. In the 1940s, the residents of the town rebuilt the maze and restored the little building at its center. When Mack jumped out of the car, she ran as fast as she could to the entrance of the maze and disappeared within it. We could hear her cackling and snorting, and we watched as her cute little head, adorned with her backwards Green Bay Packer hat, bounced up and down as she raced through the maze. It was absolutely delightful for me to see my little Macko romping through that maze, pretending to be lost, yelling periodically for assistance, and having so much fun. Savannah put on her best this-is-so-annoying teenage face, but even she admitted that the maze was lovely. And, of course, once again, Mack succeeded in dragging her big sister into the fun as well, encouraging her to succumb to the absurdity of the three of us in a remote and tiny town in southern Indiana exploring a maze made out of bushes.

We spent a good hour exploring that maze, enjoying the cool-for-summer day, before driving back home to Illinois. It was one of the silliest and most simple things we ever did together, but it remains one of my favorite memories. We had embarked on the trip for a basketball tournament, and we finished the trip with so much more. Mack lived a basketball dream and collected some Hoosier inspiration. Savannah found a college. I had my girls all to myself for a precious few days. And we all felt the magic of a hedge maze.

new harmony maze3 new harmony maze2 new harmony maze1Sonics2Sonics1


When my girls were growing up, we were a football family. The NFL dominated our big-screen TV during football season, and we attended several games in St. Louis, San Diego, and Indianapolis. Mack played tackle football for three years and flag football for two, and the rest of us delighted in watching her play. We participated in a Pratt family football pool, and we all owned NFL apparel. Even Savannah, who did not embrace the game with Mackenzie’s high-energy enthusiasm, requested a Miami Dolphins winter coat for Christmas one year. And although Kevin had the least amount of interest in the game, he genuinely liked cheering for the Rams after they moved to St. Louis.

In Springfield, we lived between Chicago Bear and St. Louis Ram territories, but Mack became a devoted Packers fan. She did not, I assure you, get this Packer thing from her momma, as I have been a San Diego Chargers fan for thirty-five years. I am not really sure why Mack chose Green Bay. Perhaps it was something simple; perhaps the color green tickled the Irish in her. For Halloween in kindergarten, she asked for a Packer uniform, so her interest in the team definitely started by the time she was five. Perhaps it was even earlier than that, because the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1997, and we hosted a party that year. Yes, I guess that Super Bowl was likely the start of her green and gold fandom, now that I think about it. On Sundays during football season, Mack and I would watch our respective teams, tuning to the Packers at noon and then focusing on my west-coast Chargers at 3. We wore our own team’s colors, but we always cheered for each other’s teams. I cherished those cold, winter Sundays, curled up with my knowledgeable and rabid little football fanatic.


Mack grew up loving those Packers and the indomitable Brett Favre, and as soon as she was able to choose her own number in sports, it was always number 4 for her beloved quarterback. When she got a Build-a-Bear for her birthday one year, she dressed her in a football uniform and christened her Brett. She counted a Packer winter coat in her vast collection of Packer apparel, and she wore one favorite Green Bay sweatshirt for ten years…long after she had outgrown it! She often sported a braided Green Bay necklace, possessed one of those crazy foam-cheese-wedge hats, and loudly protested whenever sports announcers failed to recognize the talents of wide receiver Donald Driver, her second favorite player. As well, my sweet little girl became an impressive, and often foul-mouthed, trash talker; and her enthusiastic celebrations following a Green Bay victory, especially when enjoyed in the company of a forlorn Chicago Bears fan, rivaled the jubilant qualities of the Lambeau Leap.

Kevin, Savannah, and I all thought it was quite adorable that our little Macko loved football so much, and I was not even a little mad that she had chosen the Packers over my Chargers. Hell, I was just thrilled she wasn’t a Raiders fan! However, the members of the Chicago McDermott clan—blinded by their love for the Bears and their sad level of comfort with games in which no touchdowns are scored—were far less accepting. At McDermott family events, especially at Christmas as the Packers were soaring into the playoffs and the Bears were struggling for their third or fourth win of the season, Mack delighted in extolling the virtues of her team’s Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, first Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. She would then ask her grandpa, her uncles, and many of her cousins how it felt to never have their own quality quarterback to love, and she would press them for answers as to why they threw away their devotion on the bad-news Bears.

When Mack reached high school, typical teenager activities and her three varsity sports crowded out football. Yet she remained a Green Bay fan for life. “Mack for the Pack,” she always said. Occasionally, she would still sit down to watch a big Packer game or an NFL playoff game with her momma bear. She also continued to keep up with her team’s roster and their wins and losses, and she never tired of poking fun at her misguided Chicago Bear kin. At summer outings at the family cabin in central Wisconsin, Mack always packed (pun intended) Green Bay apparel, happy to play the role of an annoying cheese-head. When the mischievous cabin neighbor, a fun-loving Wisconsin native, installed a large Packer logo on the way-up, tip-top peak of the McDermott cabin—far out of the reach of a common, household ladder—Mack offered him her hearty congratulations for carrying out such a fantastic, diabolical plan. Every single time Mack saw that logo on the McDermott cabin, she would laugh and laugh, acknowledging that it was, without a single doubt, one of her favorite things in all of the world.

Mack never asked that I try to find two elusive and expensive tickets to a game at Lambeau Field, and I do not recall her even suggesting that we try to see them in a visiting stadium. Once when she was very little, we visited Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the Packer Hall of Fame; and we watched a Packer practice, peering through a chain-link fence to catch of a glimpse of Brett Favre. I have some great pictures of that trip, including a blurry one in which Mack is kicking a football on a little-kid’s gridiron, surrounded by cardboard cutouts of Packer players. But despite that trip to the Packer Holy Land, I can tell you that I very much regret never taking her to see her Packers play.

No doubt, Mack would probably tell me it did not matter then, and that it does not matter now. What mattered was that football and the Packers were just two of those trivial but enjoyable things she loved. I also think she would say that embracing football was about having fun and sharing a passion with her momma bear; and that loving the Packers made her unique in our family and gave her a weapon with which to expose the angry vein on the forehead of her Grandpa Bill, whom she loved to tease but always adored.

Partly because my team failed to reach the playoffs, but mostly because Green Bay was Mack’s team, I am going to cheer my heart out for the Packers this weekend and, hopefully, in the Super Bowl as well. Rooting for Mack’s Pack, I will reflect on all of those special Sundays on the couch with her, and perhaps those sweet memories will carry me through another difficult day without her. I will close my eyes and picture Mack’s grown-up self all stuffed into that favorite little-kid Green Bay sweatshirt. I will hear her singing: “bum bum bum…bada…bum bum bum… GO…PACK…GO!” And maybe for good measure, I’ll prepare some Mack-quality trash-talking to throw at her grandpa as well.

Now come on, Aaron Rodgers, bring us two more victories this lonely football season. Go…Pack…Go!!! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ob7T1w9_NJk)

That favorite sweatshirt…

packers2  packers3

My favorite number 4ever…