I talk myself out of doing things because I feel awkward about doing them alone. All the time I do it. I talk myself out of doing things I enjoy because I don’t have a partner or a friend to do them with me. I’m afraid to be out in the world alone, and that is ridiculous. People go out in the world and do things by themselves all the time. I don’t need to be strong or cool or brave. I just need to make myself go, push my pathetic butt out the door. I don’t want to be a crazy old lady hermit.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I purchased a season ticket for one to attend all of this season’s premier shows at the performing arts center here at Eastern Illinois University. I figured plunking down $180 would be the answer for every excuse I might use to keep from taking in good shows that are right here in my little town. I went to the first show of the season last Wednesday, and I didn’t talk myself out of going because I already had a ticket. I felt a little self-conscious and uncool finding my seat alone, among hip college students, but it turned out that going alone was not that hard. I survived it. And although the show itself was not that great, I felt pretty great when I stepped out into the chilly night air after the show and walked myself to my car.
A good friend of mine suspects I might eventually like to do things by myself. I am less sure about that. But here are three things about which I am certain. One: I live alone now. I am a single woman without a partner, and I have no interest in finding a new one. Two: locating joy is hard enough for me in my melancholia without giving up the simple things that still have the power to make me smile and to lift my spirits. And three: I need to cut myself some sack for being tentative and shy about being on my own. I am an old dog trying to learn new tricks. I’m living alone for the first time in my entire life, it’s only been two years, and most of that time, good grief, has been during a global pandemic.
Change that makes us better takes time and patience. Change is a challenge. It demands hard work. And, hey, that is a fourth thing I know: I can do hard work.
Not today, I said.
So, this morning I didn’t let me talk myself out of taking my bike out to explore the Lincoln Prairie Grass Trail, just four blocks south of my house. It was not easy to beat down the excuses hammering in my head while I sipped my morning coffee on the porch. I am my own worst enemy, after all. What if I fall, who will pick me up? Should a woman be alone on a bike trail in the country? Who will tug me back home if the wind is too strong and I can’t make my heavy bike move forward (this really happened to me once, back when I did have a partner). What if I get a flat tire or get lost or what if what if what if wtf if… See? This is what I do. This is why I have been so unsuccessful taking myself out into the world on my own and doing things all by myself.
Today, I am riding alone.
I got on my beach cruiser, which always makes my heart skip rope like a girl. I smiled and pedaled all the way to Charleston Country Club and back. Just eight miles round trip, but a long ride for me. I enjoyed the sunshine and the lovely breeze, and I stopped by a few butterfly gardens along the way. I waved at passing cyclists, many of whom were alone, like me. None of us wallowing in the self-pity of loneliness. In the bargain, I didn’t fall or get a flat tire and it wasn’t scary. Not really. It was delightful; and I grinned the whole time like Mack always grinned when she was delighted.
It was another baby step on the road to confident single womanhood. It was a badge earned on this journey of mine to be at peace in my head and confident in my place in the world, as a single woman doing my own thing.
I can ride alone. I am riding alone. And that’s okay.
In the shade beneath the feathery emerald branches of a weeping white pine in a secret garden, I closed my eyes. My yearning for the spirit therapy of the dawn redwoods I left behind, along with the rest of my life in St. Louis, was quiet. I had arrived at the new altar of my peace. I breathed in the joyful air of finding a treasure, and I exhaled the end of a two-year search—or, rather, a waiting—for a new spirit place.
I am curating a new life and redefining peace for myself in a charming, craftsman bungalow on a corner lot in a sleepy college town. It is still a restless, sorrowful, lonely journey, but I am well most days and comfortably tethered to the earth. But now that I have found The Whiteside Garden, I have a place for my spirit to wander, for my mind to wonder, and for my heart to continue its journey of healing. I finally have a place to contemplate life, to contend with grief, and to get the hell out of my head for an hour or two each week, away from home. A place to amble and write and commune with trees.
I extract a great deal of the vitamins I need to be emotionally healthy by tending to my old house, reading on my breezy, shady porch, and spending meditative time in the yoga garden I created all by myself. But I have spent two years looking for a replacement for my health-giving, Wednesday morning strolls through the Missouri Botanical Garden. I’ve spent two years pining (pun here intended) for a place that is serene but engaging, bright and shady and lovely, restorative and transcendent. The Lake Charleston trails are too rugged, the sidewalks of my historic neighborhood too noisy, the college campus too populated with ghosts of the past, and the bike trail, although vibrant with wildflowers and butterflies, too unsheltered from the punishing Midwestern sun.
The dawn redwoods and the Missouri Botanical Garden helped me begin my spirit’s healing. And now the weeping white pines and The Whiteside Garden, just two miles east of my new home, will tend to my spirit going forward.
Who knew I only needed to get in my car and drive across a state highway and a corn field, to find my new spirit place? It’s funny how simple the remedies for our sorrows often are. Funnier still how long it sometimes takes to find precisely what we need, although the remedy is so close, within shouting distance, or just around the corner. And isn’t it frustrating that some of our remedies, the life-altering, precious, restorative life medicine we need is often hidden behind an experience or acquaintance that has not, as yet, crossed our path? Is it not unfair that we must sometimes wait for that remedy to emerge from the randomness of life, from serendipity and stupid luck?
Oh, that life is short and still we must be patient.
The planets do not align for our singular benefit, but sometimes we do win the universe’s lottery. In fact, I find it to be mostly true that the elixirs and balms that have helped me to survive my grief have found me when I wasn’t looking. It is no surprise to me that I would find my new spirit place by happenstance. That at yoga one Friday morning at the end of summer I would meet a woman, and that the yoga teacher would introduce us and tell her I was new to the area. That the woman would give me her docent elevator pitch for The Whiteside Garden. That I would venture out into a dangerous heat wave to visit the garden later that morning. That a weeping white pine would greet me like I had known her my entire life. That I would stand under her gentle branches, sheltered in the impossible coolness beneath them, and know that my spirit was home.
The Whiteside Garden, the lifelong labor of love of Eastern Illinois University botany professor Wesley Whiteside, is small and charming, hemmed in by a busy state highway and central Illinois fields of corn and soybeans. Yet to me, it a grand thing, a majestic replacement for my beloved Missouri Botanical Garden. The weeping white pine a gracious gift to fill the void of the dawn redwoods. This glorious new spirit place is the perfect size, the perfect setting, for me right now, where I am in time and space, where I am in my journey of healing. Opened to the public just three months ago, The Whiteside Garden is also a new kid in town, just like me. Yet, as Professor Whiteside, who died in 2015, began cultivating the gardens surrounding his home in the early 1960s, before I was born, his legacy garden will be a wise teacher.
During this year of our plague, two thousand and twenty, I spent roughly a third of my waking hours working as a scholarly editor (thank goddess I am still employed), a third sprucing up the 1919 bungalow with overgrown yard I purchased in October 2019, and a third escaping within the pages of books. Losing myself in other people’s stories and reading about faraway worlds and experiences from the safety and comfort of my heavenly front porch was my best remedy for coping with the isolation and emptiness of the year. Reading books has been a balm on my anxious bones; and audio books, too, helped fill the vast silences of my days and nights. Books have been great friends, keeping me company and joining in the chorus of my voice echoing off lonely walls.
I read fifty-five books this terrible year, nearly double the leisurely reading I might have done if the pandemic had not isolated me from friends and family and travel. My reading journey this year began on New Years’ Day with The Giver of Stars and concluded December 28 with Girl, Woman, Other. In my reading this year, I escaped to rural Kentucky, London, Australia, the Holy Land, and the Pacific Crest Trail in the American Northwest. I read novels, memoirs, collections of poetry, history, and one work of philosophy. I enjoyed books about nature, coming of age stories, and nineteen works of historical fiction, my favorite pleasure-reading genre. I solved mysteries, walked the streets of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, shivered in Alaska winter, traveled back to 1950s India, learned about the brain and personality of the American crow, and raged at the injustice that is bound up tight in the DNA of American democracy.
I smiled. I frowned. I laughed. I wept. I pondered. I learned. Books are so magical in their power to influence our emotions and challenge our brains.
As a historian, I read history books and articles and bend over historic documents during my work days, and pleasure reading provides an important counterweight to all of the scholarly reading I do. However, pleasure reading this year took on a more important purpose. I felt a pressing need to escape the political and biological chaos of the world around me and to fill the silences of socially distanced family and friends. In that context, I read far more light-hearted books than I have allowed myself the luxury of reading in decades, and I embraced the soothing joy of audio books to cope with a new and unwelcome brand of quiet. Books helped me cope with that quiet, and although I am happy to bid farewell to 2020 and will not remember it fondly, it has been an epic year of reading.
And for all the books I read—the great, the good, and the meh—I am grateful. They remind me that stories are at the heart of every human experience. That stories nurture and guide us, teach us, remind us of the past, get us through our days, and inspire us to face the future. Stories reveal the breathtaking diversity of life experiences, but they also remind us of our shared humanity. Stories help us understand the world and ourselves.
In no other time in my life do I think that books have been so important, so loved, so appreciated, so damned necessary. This is my humble ode to my 2020 reading list, filled up with books that nurtured and inspired me, kept me sane, and carried me through the long, lonely year. It is also a kind of portrait of my life this past year, a record of my travels, a log of the characters I met along the way, and the stories I heard from the comfort and safety of home.
Alphabetical Annotated Reading List for 2020 (Each includes my love rating)
♥ Finished the book. I give books about 25 pages, and if I finish a book it gets at least one star.
♥♥ Pretty good story, writing meh.
♥♥♥ Solid writing. Good story. Enjoyable, useful and/or important.
♥♥♥♥ Excellent writing and story. Taught me something and/or took me away and I was happy to go.
♥♥♥♥♥ Wonderful. Breathtaking. A book for my lifetime master list of great books.
Bauermeister, Erica, The Scent Keeper (2019), fiction. This story about a family who smells memories is mystical (and odd) and mildly interesting. ♥♥
Burton, Jesse, The Miniaturist (2014), historical fiction. I likely would not have picked up this book in a typical reading year, but listening to it on audio was quite agreeable. I think my daughter Mack was right when she said: “Everything sounds good in a British accent.” ♥♥♥
Cameron, Claire, The Last Neanderthal (2017), historical fiction. Meh. I really don’t remember why I even finished it. Good idea, poor execution, and I don’t recommend it. ♥
Chevalier, Tracy, A Single Thread (2019), historical fiction. A sweet story about a single woman in the decade after WWI, when a generation of women in England was adjusting to a heartbreaking dearth of young men. ♥♥♥
—Girl with Pearl Earring (1999), historical fiction. After reading A Single Thread , I remembered how much I loved this older book I had read many years ago. This time around, I listened to the audio book. Chevalier is a great writer of the genre. If you’re new to her, start with this one or At the Edge of the Orchard (2016), which is my favorite. ♥♥♥
Coehlo, Paulo, The Archer (2017), fiction. As a rule, I don’t read much nonfiction by men, frankly because so few of them write well-formed, realistic female characters. So why would I bother with the Brazilian Coehlo, you ask? I loved The Alchemist, and so decided to try this novella, a fable like that older book. Bad idea. Definitely my worst reading decision of the year, and I only finished it out of respect for the renown of the author and because it was mercifully short. ♥
Diamonte, Anita, The Boston Girl (2015), historical fiction. This book is a good story about an immigrant girl in the tenements of Boston. I listened to it on audio, read by the actress Linda Lavin, who elevated the story. She was a brilliant narrator. One of these stars is all hers. ♥♥♥
Diaz, Joanne, My Favorite Tyrants (2014), poetry. Witty and deep, this Illinois poet is incredible. So good. She teaches at Illinois Wesleyan, and I saw her do a reading from this book in January before the pandemic cancelled 2020. Not all of the poems are great, but a few of them are sensational. ♥♥♥
Doyle, Glennon, Untamed (2020), nonfiction. Doyle is a social media darling who offers some valuable nuggets in this book. I appreciate Doyle’s voice, and I follow her on Instagram. She is smart and observant as fuck. But, I must say, the book was a tad underwhelming, and a bit overhyped. ♥♥
Erdich, Louise, Future Home of the Living God (2017), fiction. Two stars because Erdich is a great writer, and there is some great writing on the pages of this book. However, this futuristic story did not capture my imagination. ♥♥
Ervick, Kelcey Parker, The Bitter Life of Božena Nȇmcoá: A Biographical Collage (2016), nonfiction. Part history, part memoir; has words and images. This book is so weird, impossible to categorize, and so wonderful because it is brilliantly off kilter. ♥♥♥♥
—Lilian’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater (2013), fiction. Ervick is a creative storyteller. I met her at a writer’s fair and workshop at Eastern Illinois University early in 2020, before we knew there was a virus lurking. She views writing as more than words in ink on a white page, preferring to tell stories with images and space as well as words. Function and form commune with the voices of her characters, and she likes to blur the lines of genre. I love her work, and she’s a fun follow on Instagram, because she draws memoir almost daily (that’s a bad description of her work, but check her out, she’s great). ♥♥♥
Evaristo, Bernadine, Girl, Woman, Other (2019), fiction. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other is a triumph of writing, of the powerful voice of female characters who know who they are, and of storytelling across race and gender. The diversity of voices in this creative work scream from the mountaintops that their stories matter. That all of our stories matter. ♥♥♥♥♥
Gregory, Philippa, Three Sisters, Three Queens (2017), historical fiction. Written by a popular British writer of historical fiction, this book is about Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and Catherine of Aragon. Oh, the intrigues of British royalty during the Middle Ages. And, yikes, the human drama of medieval life in general. ♥♥♥
Hamilton, Gabrielle, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (2012), memoir. My surprise book of the year, written by the chef of the award-winning New York restaurant Prune. Gorgeous writing about life and food. Read it. It is fabulous and there are mouth-watering descriptions of food. ♥♥♥♥
Hannah, Kristin, The Great Alone (2017), historical fiction. Pretty good coming of age story, but the star of the book is Alaska. Lovely. Vivid. And fucking freezing. ♥♥♥
Harjo, Joy, An American Sunrise (2019), poetry. Want to cry? Read this collection of poems by U.S. Poet Laureate Harjo about the Trail of Tears, history, grief, cultural annihilation, and memory. Wow. Breathtaking. Horrifying. Heartbreaking. ♥♥♥♥
Harper, Michelle, The Beauty in Breaking (2020), memoir. A female, African-American ER doctor, Harper puts her deft fingers on the heart of racism in America and caresses out of her stories the truth of our shared humanity. After I read the book—in two days, it is that good—I watched Harper on Zoom in a book talk and Q&A, and she is an impressive woman. She is a bright-sider, despite all the ugly she has seen, and her perspective was a welcome viewpoint during this year of our biological and political plague. ♥♥♥♥♥
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness (2009), nature. I only discovered Haupt last year, but I’m hooked. She is a spectacular writer and gives the reader science and nature with pure joy. She is birder with a great sense of humor, and her knowledge and insights are wonderful. Love her work. ♥♥♥
—Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (2013), nature. I am obsessed with Haupt’s view of nature and her funny bone on the intersection of humans with nature. Her eco-sensible philosophy is inspirational, and she has made me a more observant citizen of the spaces I share with birds and squirrels and other wild animals. She has a new book coming next year called Rooted, and I can’t wait. ♥♥♥♥
Hoffman, Alice, The Red Garden (2010), historical fiction. Hoffman is a very popular author in the genre of historical fiction. However, her books for me always just miss the mark. This one was creative and enjoyable, but not great. ♥♥
Holmes, Linda, Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019), fiction. I chose more light books this year than is typical for my tastes, because pandemics are pretty damned depressing. But this book was a little too romancy for me. If I’ve learned anything from this year of magical reading, it is that prefer books that are more substantive than this one. ♥♥
Joshi, Aika, The Henna Artist (2020), historical fiction. Joshi’s story of a single woman making a life for herself in India in the 1950s reveals much about caste and gender and human dignity. Great story with very good writing. ♥♥♥
Kendi, Ibram X., How to Be an Anti Racist (2019), nonfiction. It is not enough to just not be a racist (is there I better way to state this—I tried but failed!). In America, white people must become actively anti racist. This book by an important historian of race should be required reading for every high school student in America. ♥♥♥♥
Kendzior, Sarah, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020), nonfiction. A journalist and anthropologist who studies autocratic and dictatorial regimes, Kendzior offers a lucid portrait of the horrifying story of Trump’s rise to the presidency and depicts American democracy dangling precariously from a cliff. She’s lives in St. Louis, where I lived from 2012-2019, and I knew about her work and followed her on Twitter before she became well known. She’s super smart (PhD, Washington University), and she minces no words. She’s not an optimist, though, so if you’re looking for a bright spot in the dark of night, don’t look here. ♥♥♥
Kidd, Sue Monk, Book of Longings (2020), historical fiction. This was the bravest book I’ve read in a decade, the biblical story of Jesus from the perspective of his wife. Fabulous writing and sensational female characters set in the stark historical context of the Holy Land in the time of Jesus. Brilliant. Stunning. One of my favorite books of the twenty-first century. Shout out to my dear friend Sandra who recommended the book to me by saying: “Stace, I know you don’t do Jesus, but you have to read this book about his wife!” ♥♥♥♥♥
—The Invention of Wings (2014), historical fiction. I had missed this novel about the life of Sarah Grimké, a historical hero of mine, because it was published in the year my daughter died. In a normal year, I would have read this book by an author I loved and a historical topic that intrigued me. But my grief robbed me of reading for almost four years. I stopped reading after losing Mack because I couldn’t let my mind go long enough to get through a novel. Thank goodness my joy of reading and my ability to read returned to me in 2018, and I am grateful it was here for me this year when I needed it so much. In this book, Kidd takes too many literary licenses with Sarah’s story, but her writing is always good and the story moves along at a good clip. ♥♥♥
Kingsolver, Barbara, Unsheltered (2018), fiction. I’ve been a fan of Kingsolver forever, and this book is the epitome of her. Kingsolver knows humans better than almost any writer I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Simple story paired with good writing is Kingsolver’s method for uncovering the beauty of the human heart, and this book is her, per usual. ♥♥♥
Letts, Elizabeth, Finding Dorothy (2019), historical fiction. This story of L. Frank Baum’s wife, Maud Gage Baum, who consulted with MGM on the production of The Wizard of Oz offers some interesting stories of Maud Baum’s early life and her famous suffrage mother Matilda Gage, and it offers some provocative observations about Judy Garland. Good story, but a little draggy. ♥♥
McLain, Paula, Circling the Sun (2015), historical fiction. Mediocre novel set in the overlapping contexts of the Out of Africa story. Privileged white people in Africa. Kind of boring. And definitely passé. ♥♥
Miller, Madeline, Song of Achilles (2011), historical fiction. I read this because I loved her novel Circe, but this book is not as good. However, for full disclosure, I suspect I didn’t like this one as much because it is about a man and Circe is about a woman. I prefer a women’s perspective on things, even regards ancient mythology, thank you very much. ♥♥
Moriarty, Liane, The Husband’s Secret (2013), fiction. Moriarty is my latest guilty pleasure, because I relate to the quirky, middle-aged women who inhabit her stories. I started reading Moriarty’s work last year with Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty, and I appreciate the dark corners her humor. ♥♥♥
—The Last Anniversary (2005), fiction. Sisters and secrets. ♥♥♥
—Nine Perfect Strangers (2018), fiction. Wacky characters in an absurd settling. Mayhem ensues. Laugh out loud funny. ♥♥♥♥
—What Alice Forgot (2009), fiction. A story of amnesia with Moriarty’s usual compelling characters. I made my way through five of Moriarty’s light-dancing books this year, and what fun they were. On audio, they are made even more delightful by the talented Australian voices of the two fantastic readers who narrate them. Moriarty doesn’t set the world on fire, but she tells a good story and makes a reader giggle and gape. ♥♥♥
Moyes, JoJo, The Giver of Stars (2019), historical fiction. This book offers a fictionalized story about the Packhorse Librarians, women during the Great Depression who delivered library books to people in the hills of Kentucky. It’s pretty good, but the happy ending is contrived and disappointing. ♥♥
Oliver, Mary, Upstream: Selected Essays (2016), essays. Stick to her poetry, which is gorgeous. These essays, published late in her life, not so much. ♥
Orlean, Susan, The Library Book (2018), nonfiction. Interesting story of the devastating L.A. Public Library fire written by an excellent journalist who is also a great writer. It’s a bit plodding in its methodical retelling of the events of the fire. I liked that level of detail, but it’s probably not for everyone. ♥♥♥
Owens, Delia, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), fiction. A truly lovely novel with a haunting human story told among the vivid images of a disappearing landscape. Gorgeous prose and an unforgettable female protagonist. ♥♥♥♥
Penny, Louise, A Better Man (2019), mystery. This book is part of a great mystery series I love, but it is a weak book in the series. However, I recommend the entire series, which is chockablock with loveable, eccentric characters, gorgeous (and frigid) Canadian landscapes, and great literary and historical references. The series is much more than the standard detective story. It weaves together the lives of Inspector Gamache and his wife with the residents of a strange and isolated little town where the stories are set. Start with the first book Still Life and keep on reading…there are sixteen books in all (and the seventeenth is scheduled for 2021)! ♥♥
Richardson, Heather Cox, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020), history. If you want to understand why America is in such a political mess these days, read this book. Richardson, a political historian and expert on the history of the Republican Party from Lincoln to the modern day, studied American history under the great Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald at Harvard, and I have admired her work for years. She is one of the most trustworthy and talented historians working today. ♥♥♥♥
Rutherford, Edward, New York: The Novel (2010), historical fiction. Rutherford’s book sweeps broadly across time, setting fictional characters, connected through the generations, in the (fairly accurate) history of one of the world’s greatest cities. The sweep, I think, is why I enjoyed this fictionalized story of New York, which began with the Dutch in the colonial period and ended with stockbrokers in the 1980s. ♥♥
Sedaris, David, Calypso (2018), humor. Is there any writer who is funnier than Sedaris? That’s a rhetorical question. I love, love, love this guy. Calipso is not his strongest collection, but it has some dandies; and I happily recommend any of his books or audio book (he reads them himself). I met him once at a book signing, and my signed copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a treasured possession. ♥♥♥
Stedman, M. L., The Light between Oceans (2012), historical fiction. I was haunted by the many sides of loneliness depicted in this story, set in Australia after WWI. Did I relate a little too directly in my isolation to the two lonely characters in the story who inhabited a lighthouse on a remote island? Maybe. Whatever, I enjoyed the book. ♥♥♥
Stockett, Kathryn, The Help (2009), historical fiction. I had never seen the movie or read the book, and I selected it this year as an audio book. It is a good, albeit problematic, story, the dialogue is fantastic, and the black women in the novel are compelling characters. The readers of the audio book elevated the story, and their brilliant reading added that fourth star. ♥♥♥♥
Strayed, Cheryl, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2014), memoir. I am very late to the party on this one, but it is a fascinating, well-told story. I liked it. As well, in reading this book, I learned not to ever, in a million years, no matter what personal difficulties befall me, to go looking for myself, all by myself, on a hiking trail more than four or five miles in length. ♥♥♥
Strout, Elizabeth, Olive Kitteridge (2008), fiction. Many of my friends love Elizabeth Strout, but I am less enamored of her writing. Olive is, however, an intriguing character, and I hope I do not become the cranky old lady she turned out to be. ♥♥♥
—Olive Again (2019), fiction. I did not really think I needed more adventures of Olive, but this book was not without its worthwhile scenes of Olive’s strange interactions with the world. ♥♥♥
Ware, Ruth, The Death of Mrs. Westaway (2018), mystery. Not my usual fare, but this story was fun and this British writer definitely has found a niche. ♥♥♥
—In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015), thriller. Not my cup of tea, and I think Ruth Ware might be crazy. The pandemic has been scary enough; I should have skipped this one. ♥♥
West, Lindy, The Witches Are Coming (2019), essays. West’s cultural critiques are hysterical, and she is dead-on balls accurate in her observations about Trump, social media, and an array of other topics, as well. ♥♥♥
Wetmore, Elizabeth, Valentine (2020), historical fiction. Yowza! This is a stunning first novel, set in the bleak oil landscape of Odessa, Texas, in the 1970s. And it is an important novel, too, with its beautifully crafted story of race on the border. Gut-wrenching. Haunting. It will make you scream and cry and mourn the pain that humans are capable of inflicting upon the “other.” ♥♥♥♥
Wilson, Catherine, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (2019), philosophy. I picked this book up in late December 2019 on a “new book” display cart in the library at Eastern Illinois University, where I hold a “local scholar” library card which grants me 16-week borrowing privileges. The book’s cover intrigued me, but it sat on a shelf in my office for weeks and weeks. I never picked it back up, and then the pandemic came and the library closed, and all of the books I had checked out were renewed through October. And so, with time and automatic renewal, I finally cracked it open; and although I probably would not have ever gotten around to reading it if not for the pandemic, I’m glad I picked up and even more glad I read it. It’s basically the philosophy of me. I understand myself so much better now. I am an Epicurean. Who knew?!! ♥♥♥
Zabin, Serena, The Boston Massacre: A Family History (2020), history. A fresh approach to the American Revolution that depicts the blurry lines between patriot and loyalist. A friend of mine who is a professor of political science at St. Olaf College recommended the book, because she knows Zabin, who is a professor of history at neighboring Carleton College in her Minnesota town. I like reading books written by people I know or with whom I have some personal connection. ♥♥♥
The tree in my backyard is going away. She’s a silver maple, 70-feet or so in height, stretched out wide across the lawn, her branches heavy with shiny, lush ivy. She’s been standing in her spot, growing up and out for more than thirty years, shading the back side of my 1919 bungalow and sheltering generations of wildlife families. Her presence in the yard was not a factor in my decision to buy this old house last fall, but when I first toured the property and stood under her cooling canopy on that muggy August afternoon, I pictured summer evening meals with friends beneath her leafy umbrella. I certainly had no plans until recently to kill her.
She’s not dead or rotting, and she’s not that old, either. But she’s a tree-quirky thing and potentially dangerous. Her codependent trunk, with its five enormous branches, and her daring proximity to my backdoor make her a menace, “unfit for a small yard” said two arborists who sealed her fate with pronouncements of eventual doom. “She’s gonna come down at some point,” said one of them, “and she might take out your house in the bargain.”
Her massive limbs reach halfway across my roof and also threaten the cottage behind me, along with the back porches of the old, historic homes on either side of my house. She’s on borrowed time in her uprightness, vulnerable to injury by a lightning strike or by heavy winds in thunderstorms, which are frequent on the Illinois prairie. It is better to bring her down peacefully and to keep the insurance companies out of it. In my head, removing the tree is a smart choice. In my heart, I feel a little bit like a murderer. Unlike the arborist who is cutting her down for a king’s ransom, I cannot take such a purposeful felling lightly. I feel the natural as well as the unnatural weight of responsibility for the tree’s demise. I have even shed tears over my decision, not only for the dent her removal is putting in my savings account, but also for the loss of the tree’s beauty and for the well-being of her current inhabitants.
There is a red squirrel, a fat one with a fabulous tail, who I see most mornings from my bathroom window, as she is perched on one of the tree’s outstretched branches. That squirrel is a friendly neighbor, and I cannot explain to her that her home will be soon be destroyed. What will the warbling vireos do now but move on down the street, perhaps too far away for me to hear their lively, insistent singing. I expect, as well, to lose my regular midnight visits from the barred owl, who coos high up in the silver maple’s branches. I’m less remorseful about the fate of a colony of five million box elder bugs living in and around the tree, but my heart aches for the nesting cardinals who will not return to my back garden in the spring.
Seeking professional advice on the tree and deciding to defer to the expertise of arborists forced me to overrule the faintness of my heart to kill such a large, living creature. Instead of dwelling on my nature-loving feelings for the tree, I’ve been thinking about all the hours I will be able to read instead of raking her fall leaves and her damnable helicopter-seed pods. I’ve imagined all the herbs I will be able to grow next summer, just outside of the back door, where the sunshine will paint the yard in the place of the deep shadows cast in the last living summer of my silver maple. It will be lovely, I remind myself, to fall asleep to the rolling thunder of a storm instead of being frantic and awake, waiting for the tree to crash down through the roof and kill me and the dogs in our own bed.
Yes, yes, I know, I know. It’s just a tree, and I’ve never been that much of a treehugger anyway. She is a tree, I agree. But is a tree really just a tree? Isn’t a tree also a beautiful, green, living thing, cleansing the air, providing shade, sheltering wildlife, and connecting us to the earth? My tree has lived well and fulfilled her promise, providing fast growing shade and massive sanctuary for birdsong. I think she is deserving of this ode, because it is not her fault a previous owner of my house planted her so thoughtlessly. I honor her utility and grace and beauty; and when the chainsaw makes its first assault upon her bark, I will feel the pain of it.
I suspect, however, that it will take me far more time to recover from the size of the check I will write to pay for the tree’s removal than from the size of the space the tree will vacate in my back garden. Perhaps the high cost of removing a 70-foot silver maple is a penance for murdering her. Perhaps the economic pain of this felling will help me ease some of the heartache of losing the tree and the shade and the birds, as well.
view of the tree’s great reach, just beyond the eaves
view of the silver maple towering above my house from behind
Pandemic. Social distancing. Restaurants and bars shuttered. Cultural institutions and libraries closed. Economic crisis. Political dysfunction. Sickness and death. Uncertainty. Shelter in place. Isolation. Time. Oh my god, it is bonkers, and there are hours and hours of extra time to allow my anxiety to overwhelm me and surrender my spirit to despair and loneliness. And Netflix. And biting my cuticles bloody and freaking the fuck out.
Breathe in through the nose. Breathe out through the mouth.
I refuse to give myself over to loneliness in this time of quarantine, because I am finally starting to crack the code for living alone in peace. Besides, I am not alone. I have my dogs, the internet, and a cell phone with unlimited usage. I’ve already had countless text conversations with my mom, sister, and several friends. I’ve enjoyed lengthy telephone calls with my daughter Savannah in Chicago and my friend Sandra in Springfield. I had a scheduled video chat with my friend Bridgett in Olney, who doubles as my writing coach. All of these “social distance” interactions with beloved people in my life brought laughter, wisdom, and brilliant inspiration.
Deep Sigh regarding Netflix, though, because it is tempting to settle down in front of it and binge watch for days and days. I will not waste time watching Netflix. I refuse to give myself over to Netflix. Ok, so here’s my plan: I will allow Netflix to provide limited, curated therapy. Because if I’m honest, all the news about infection rates and death tolls, economic losses and news about people who are losing their livelihoods, and the daily buffoonage from the White House will make me crazy. The kind of crazy that yoga or meditation or contemplative walking cannot soothe, let alone undo. That’s the kind of crazy that requires me to get out of my own head. That’s the kind of crazy I usually combat by hanging out with friends in a cozy, noisy pub or cheering for a team during a televised sporting event. Netflix will have to step up and be the pub or the basketball game. Periodic episodes of Schitt$ Creek will lighten my mood on rainy days when I cannot work in my yard or go for a long walk. Father Brown’s singular concern for the souls of murderers will make me believe, at least for an hour, that all humans can be cast in their own tales of redemption. And when I think the entire world is going to hell in a hand-basket, I’ll watch a few episodes of the Great British Baking Show and remind myself that healthy competition is, indeed, possible, and you do not have to kill everyone around you or step on people to win at cake, politics, or life.
I am lucky. I am grateful. I have worked from home as a scholarly editor for eight years, so I don’t have to figure it out or patch it together like so many people now are scrambling to do. My job relies on NEH funding, which makes me nervous. But for now, it is secure, my paychecks are coming, and I do not have to worry about food or shelter or paying my bills. My daily life will not change all that much, and I will continue to do work that challenges my mind and makes my heart sing. I am going to continue my yoga and meditation routine, and I intend to be restful and calm during this isolation. Instead of seeing this predicament as forced isolation, let’s say we are hibernating. We are bears, cute and cuddly and warm in our homes, resting up for all the living we will do when humanity finally kicks this pandemic’s ass.
With a little help from my human, furry, and television friends, I will be calm and keep my cool. In the space of that quiet solitude, that beautiful serenity in my lovely new home, I vow not only to stay calm and keep my cool but to also make the most of my time. To cook. To draw and to color. To freestyle my yoga practice. To read half a dozen books and make a worthy effort to catch up on the New Yorker. But most importantly to write. Hours and hours and hours of extra writing. I will keep writing in my daily journal as well as blog and work on the revisions of my memoir. I am going to spend so much glorious time at my computer writing that my aging knuckles will get sticky.
Last week in the Washington Post I read an interesting story about Isaac Newton. During the Bubonic Plague of the 1660s, Newton’s college closed, forcing him home to his family’s estate. While at home, he wrote a paper about some math he was working on (math that became calculus); and he sat under that famous apple tree. I will do nothing so important as inventing calculus or defining gravity in my isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. None of the trees in my yard produce anything big enough to knock brilliance into my head. However, like Newton I’m going to be creatively productive in my isolation. I’m going to engage my brain. I’m going to see all this extra me-time as a gift and do my amateur best to make the most of it.
I’ve already made scones and homemade granola and expended a lot of nervous energy doing “art.” Living well, especially under duress, is about the process and the journey. I’m not a chef or an artist, but I enjoy cooking; and drawing, I very recently learned, is a scary challenge that makes me smile like a fearless six-year-old on the monkeybars.
Today would have been, should be, Mack’s twenty-sixth birthday. Maybe twenty-six would have been the age when she finally admitted she was a “grown-ass woman.” Oh, probably not. Who am I kidding? It was a status she was never eager to attain. When she was ten she declared to me her intention to remain ten forever, and I could see in her dirty, freckled face that she was speaking her truth. I never doubted the veracity of her assertion, either, because even when she became a serious student in college she never let go of the child she was at ten. Both of her parents are old souls, but a youthful heart was in Mack’s DNA. She inherited my father’s Peter-Pan gene, the gene that sits between the goofball gene and the I’m-gonna-eat-junk-food-and-sit-on-the-couch-in-front-of-the-TV-all-day gene. She inherited both of those other genes from Frisky Pratt, too.
As Mack’s inner circle of close friends are each making their own way in the world now as grown-ass women, I have been passing many melancholy minutes lately wondering where Mack might be living and what career she might be pursuing if she was still here. So deeply pulled into these wonderings, or daydreams I guess you might call them, I sometimes wake up and fifteen minutes are lost and a vivid scenario of Mack’s could’ve-been life is flashing like an illustrated storybook in my brain. Mack dreamed of a writing career in television, and that is my favorite daydream for her. She’s a writer for a sit-com in Hollywood. She’s working with Joss Whedon to bring back Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s pitching Mack’s Makin’ Bacon, her own comedy cooking show for the Food Network. Or she’s living in my guest bedroom writing a screenplay. Goodness but do I yearn for that latter daydream. But daydreams are not terribly productive, I’m afraid, and Mack’s old-soul Momma Bear usually awakens from those daydreams emotionally bruised, sadness giving way to anger at all that Mack missed out on and all the things that have happened that I have been denied sharing with her. Like her twenty-sixth birthday.
Milestones like birthdays are trigger points for grief. The day will be rough. There isn’t enough candy in the world to sugar coat that truth. The paradox of my grief is that every day I must live in a world without my daughter, I get another day of practice living in a world without my daughter. The pain is no less keen, but the callouses of long-time sorrow limit the blood loss when the sharpness of a milestone, or a bad day, break open the heart. Again. And again.
I will no doubt pass a few melancholy minutes. However, I won’t be wondering what Mack would be doing on her twenty-sixth birthday, because I’ll know exactly what she would be doing if she was here. She would be embracing social distancing, happy for an excuse to be alone on her couch in front of the TV, eating junk food. She’d settle in for a birthday-binge-watching bonanza, surrounded by Funyons, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, sour candies, two giant cans of Arizona Iced Tea, and the best looking Italian sub, wrapped in plastic, that was available in the deli case of the convenience store where she shopped for her birthday feast. She would get comfy with her two dogs, one an Irish wolfhound and the other a pug, and both named for characters on television (maybe Leslie and Ann, but who knows with that kid?). She would spend the day watching shows she’d already seen a hundred times, consume her food in cozy sweatpants and reclined repose, text her besties and her momma and her sissy, giggle to herself, and tweet about the upsides of quarantines and restaurant closings and how she wished her school had been cancelled for a month when she was a kiddo.
Mack would not be mad that COVID-19 ruined her birthday, cancelling dinner plans or drinks with friends. She wouldn’t see it that way at all. She would look at the down time as a chance to relax, be alone with her own thoughts, and do absolutely fucking nothing. Every day I miss Mack, and today I’ll miss her more. Every day I talk to her, and today will be no different. She’s heard a lot of swearing lately, because I frequently dial her in for my dialogue with the morning and evening news. She’ll laugh as I let the f-bombs fly, and she’ll shake her head at me because she thinks I let the orange moron and his clown-car of a government get too much under my skin. “Sure, Momma Bear, he’s a genuine ass,” she’ll say, “but don’t let him push all of your buttons.”
As soon as my eyes pop open I’ll miss kissing Mack on that big freckle on her left cheek. I’ll shed some tears into my morning coffee. I’ll take Mack with me to vote in the Illinois Democratic Primary, let her pick which old codger I vote for, and I’ll tell her how furious I am that I didn’t get to vote for Elizabeth Warren. I’ll try not to swear at NPR, protect one or two of my buttons, and take Mack’s lead and relax. It’s her birthday, after all, so we all should let her make the plan. I’ll probably need Mack’s spirit to stick around for the entire day, and maybe she’ll bring her grandpa with her. I trust Mack will chill me out when I get upset that COVID-19 is keeping me from the draught Guinness I traditionally enjoy on her birthday. I trust she will keep me grounded in the present, holding my hand as I take the day as it is and give myself up to the cool breeze of life, hitting my cheeks and reminding me to live and to breathe and to refrain from counting the calories and the dairy content of the Mac-n-Cheese my sister is planning for dinner.
Mack Day 2020 will be a rough day. That is no lie, and certainly no joke. But when it’s over, I will put my head down on my pillow next to gratitude. Gratitude for Mack and her presence in my life. Gratitude for the vibes of a Mack-Day mood. For twenty-six years, first in person and now in spirit, my daughter has been teaching me about life. I am not always a quick study in Mack’s be-chill school, but old souls always at least try to be at the head of the class. I am a work in progress, and Mack knows it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion she hangs around not only to tease me and to teach me, but to make sure I don’t beat myself up for not getting straight “A”s.
I started reading Pasty, a novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn, for a book club I have just joined. As I read and floated into the book on the soft clarity of the writing, I tried to understand the title character, who in the very early pages of the book abandoned her five-year-old daughter Tru in Jamaica to move to the United States. Patsy wasn’t rich in Jamaica and she lived in a depressed, struggling town; but she had a decent secretarial job and a family, food on her table, and a lovely and smart little girl. Unlike so many immigrants who leave their homes to better the lives of their families, Patsy was not going to America to make a better life for her daughter. She was going for her own selfish reasons; she was leaving her daughter to be with her best childhood friend. When Patsy left Jamaica, she lied to her daughter in her sweet little face that she was coming home. Patsy boarded a a plane to New York, leaving her daughter to live with a father she barely knew, and she had no intention of ever returning to retrieve her.
My tolerance for Patsy decreased as I turned every page, the prose quickly incapable of overcoming the pain the narrative delivered to my heart. In the early pages, as Patsy settled in with her friend’s family in New York, while she learned how to navigate her new city, and when she applied for jobs as a nanny, Patsy gave me no reason to understand her. She offered no righteous explanation for the abandonment of her daughter. She was shallow and cruel, and I did not wish to know her.
I have a hard and fast rule about the books I read for leisure. I give them twenty-five pages to draw me in; twenty-five pages should be enough to make me love them or at least want to keep reading to see if I can love them. There are too many good books in the world that have the potential for making my heart sing to spend time reading even one that makes me miserable. But in this case, I turned page 25 and kept reading, no matter how much the story was breaking my heart and making me angry. I read for the sake of the book club. I did not want to attend my first book club with some people who have not yet met me without having read the book in its entirety. Without having given the author a fair trial. Without having given Patsy time to make me know her, to want to know her.
On p. 115, Patsy decided to call home. Finally. After weeks in the United States—while poor Tru cried and cried every day and desperately yearned for her mother—Patsy finally picked up the phone to call her daughter. Just as she heard the child excitedly rushing to the phone to talk to her mom, Patsy put down the receiver. A coward, she hung up on her baby, and abandoned her all over again.
I could read no more after that.
If this book was memoir instead of fiction, I would have tried harder to empathize with Patsy’s choices and her motives. I would have given her time to explain why she gave up her precious child. But does a fictional character deserve the same effort, the same time, the same compassion? Does a fictional bad mother deserve the same human consideration? The old me might have said yes for the sake of good prose. Fiction is supposed to stretch the boundaries of what you think you know and understand. It can reveal what the truth cannot. Maybe the old me would have been more patient, as the story of Patsy unfolded. But the present me was failing to sympathize with a fictional mother who turned her back on her child. The present me has no time for untrue horror stories with which I possess no responsibility to grapple.
In my new realm of existence, I have no tolerance for despicable or shallow fictional characters with whom I cannot relate. I see no compelling reason to read a novel about a fictional woman who chose to abandon her daughter when I am a real woman forced to live without one of mine. Reading past page 25 was my own damned fault. I should not have let the author who dreamed up this character to punch me in my heart for ninety pages after I knew better than to keep reading. Yet I cannot help but feel like it might be partly the author’s fault, too, that I feel so aggrieved, that Patsy throws such sharp elbows against the bonds of real mothers and daughters.
Maybe Patsy turned out okay for all of the characters in the end. If it were memoir and I had stopped reading, I would have checked in on Tru and made sure she was okay, at least. But because it was fiction, I can let it all go now that I have written my peace about it. Good writing alone just doesn’t cut it for me these days. Good writing cannot atone for characters with whom I could never connect on a human level. I don’t want to spend time with fictional characters I would not wish to know in real life. Not anymore. Life is hard enough without letting a work of fiction beat me upside my heart. Life is too short to read books that poke my grief with a stick.
Writing a memoir walks a fine line between therapy and self-destruction. I know it, because that is what I have been doing since February 2019. I have been writing a memoir and walking a delicately fine line between healing my shattered spirit and endangering any healing progress I have made since losing my sweet Mackenzie in October 2014. Honest reflection is tricky business, and my honest report is that peering into your soul is both perilous and breathlessly rewarding. Finding the words to explain and to understand the difficult and winding path of my journey through grief has been a balancing act, indeed. But the reward for finding the words and striking that balance, through the very process of the writing itself, is peace.
When my daughter died, writing was the weapon I selected to battle my grief and to repair the many damages it inflicted upon my body and my being. Writing became my assertion of agency against the frailty of my humanity. The process of writing became a search for peace and the practice of writing its own kind of solace. Five years of steady writing—137 blog posts here at Being Mack’s Momma Bear and a nearly 200-page memoir of my experiences with grief redefined for me the meaning of peace and showed me how to find it.
When I started writing for my life, I did not understand that peace is not a destination; it is not a paradise at the end of a long journey or a utopia you win after a hard struggle. Rather peace is a state of mind you achieve for yourself at the precise moment, any moment along your way, when you find your balance within the disorienting storm of living. Every time you breathe in joy and exhale pain in the same breath, or level your achievements with your disappointments, or bank love against loss, or successfully walk the fine line between your therapy and your self-destruction, peace is your gift. Peace is not the absence of pain and sorrow; it is the acceptance of the hardships of living along with the precious gifts of being human. Peace is not a reward for traveling, it is your traveling companion.
Some people learn this truth far earlier in their lives than I did. Some people are born with this wisdom. Mack was. I think for most of us, however, real peace only comes after a great deal of eyes-wide-open, whole-hearted effort. For me, it was revealed through difficult, personal writing and honest evaluation of my experience with grief. My writing began as a personal journal but quickly became my therapy, and it was, ultimately, also a companion, a witness, and a great teacher. As I stand here at the doorway of a brand new decade, I am healthier for having spent half of the last decade writing my grief. I credit the personal writing I published on Being Mack’s Momma Bear for leading me toward peace and the memoir writing for revealing to me my capacity for finding it.
For the rest of my life, surviving the loss of my daughter will require eyes-wide-open, whole-hearted effort. A mother’s grief does not fade. I know there will be times when I will fail to maintain my equilibrium and to walk peacefully with all of my love for Mack and with all of the pain of losing her. Mack is still with me, I converse with her each and every day, and she will be with me for the coming decade, just as she was in the previous two. I am not done writing about my daughter. I am not done writing about my grief. I have just finally arrived at a place in my journey of grief that requires less therapy.
Mack in Monsaraz, Portugal, 2011.
Going forward, Being Mack’s Momma Bear will remain a space for me to share my memories of Mack and continue to process my grief when the need for it arises. Writing will always be the therapy I choose first for healing. But Being Mack’s Momma Bear will also be a space for me to write about books and writing, dogs, walking and yoga, friends, food, flowers and birds, history, politics, and peace. No matter the headspace I inhabit— mom, friend, professional historian, dog lover, bad poet, angry liberal voter, or middle-aged, single woman trying to understand our crazy and beautiful world—I am still Mack’s Momma Bear. I will always be Mack’s Momma Bear.
And so I keep the name Mack herself gave me, Momma Bear, to honor her; and I retain the blog title Being Mack’s Momma Bear to memorialize the continued presence in my life of Mack’s inspirational spirit. Hopefully, with a lot of grit, a little grace, and a dash of Mack-style humor, I will offer some insights about history and life along the way, share some honest reflections that might be of use, and serve up some simple truths about the loving, grieving, thrilling, terrifying, lonely, joyful nature of being human.
Peace, and Happy New Year to you all.
Me in Monsaraz, Portugal, 2011.
P.S. Wish me luck with the memoir. I spent half of one decade doing the personal work and writing it required, and editing and publishing the manuscript is my first goal for the new decade.
Five years ago today, the beautiful world fell into darkness when the light of our lives left us. Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott was a beaming smile of sunshine, a giggling goof of joy, and a bulldozing force of nature. Her absence left holes in the hearts of everyone who loved her, holes that can never be refilled.
Five years have filled no holes. Five years have healed no pain. Five years have not made me miss her less nor feel her a absence less keenly. In fact, some days–days like today–I miss her more than ever.
Balance is the lesson I have learned in the deepest grief of a mother’s broken heart. Every day I must balance my love for Mack and my permanent pain from the loss of her. Every day is a struggle, but on the good days, sprinkled in between the bad and the okay and the barely breathing, I can find that balance. I can take hold of some peace and find some solace. I have that scar upon my heart, yes, but joy and beauty and light are possible.
Today, Savannah is starting an exciting new job. Today, I am moving into a charming old house in a new town. Today, Kevin starts looking for his own path, too. Today is going to be one of those days when balance is vital, as our little family carries all of our pain and all of our love forward into the next five years without Mack.
Today I walk with sorrow, but I also walk with hope and the real prospect of peace. I walk onward into the sunshine of this bright beginning.
It was cold for late April in central Illinois, and the sun was reticent behind dense gray clouds resolved to keep the blue sky far away from Saturday. The day was drizzly and windy and raw to match my mood, and the chill nipped my bare ankles when I stepped from the car. But as the four of us walked up towards Mack’s gravestone, the breeze blew a little lighter on our cheeks. The rain clouds offered amnesty to mourners, and I would have bet a hundred bucks if I had had it in my pocket that the temperature ticked up a bit on our behalf, too. The painted landscape of spring lifted my spirits, and the white and pink petals of the dogwoods were luminous in the gloomy shadows on the first day of their full bloom. The colors were perhaps emboldened against the backdrop of Oak Ridge Cemetery just bursting into the opulent shades of spring green. Mack-greens, I thought. Beautiful like her. Brilliant like her. Dazzling color worthy of her true spirit.
Alicia, Maureen, Sandra, and I had gathered together for a Springfield-ladies reunion of dinner, drinks, and deliberations on books, politics, and life. Before dinner, we wanted to spend a little time with Mack. It was my first visit to Mack’s grave in four months, and I was grateful for the company of dear friends. The more time that passes the harder I find it is to return. One might think it should get easier. I once thought it would get easier. But it didn’t, and it won’t, and I guess it never should be comfortable to visit your child in a graveyard. I visit Mack because of the tangible feeling of peace it offers, although I never relish the pain it also touches upon my heart. Such is the experience of grief that one thing can be good and bad and situate you in all of the complicated spaces in between. Some visits to Mack’s grave are therapeutic. Some are devastating. Each has a character all their own, but this would be the first one I would characterize as weird as well as wonderful.
Sandra, who lives in Springfield, brought the flowers, a sunshiny mixture of daisies, chrysanthemums, and carnations, and she placed them in the urn she had stuck into the ground on a previous visit. There were no tears that gloomy yet colorful Saturday, but they were at first on the edges of our actions and on the surface of our stories. I swept the dust from Mack’s marker while Maureen rearranged the Irish felt hat and green beads she and my husband had brought to the grave the weekend of Mack’s birthday in March. Alicia, who had been away from Springfield longer than me, was quiet even for her. She located the Lincoln Tomb up the hill, framed by the dogwoods, and we all sighed at the exquisite landscape of Mack’s resting place. I pointed out one of my favorite trees near her gravestone. Just twenty or so paces to the south is a gnarly giant pine growing two wild limbs at the top. Situated as they are at wacky angles, and each with their own shades of green, they look like two entirely separate trees haphazardly attached to the top of the gnarly pine below. “Mack was as unique as that crazy old pine,” I said, and we all laughed with memories of our silly and funny girl.
At a break in our whispery conversation, I heard some music in the breeze and turned in the direction of the sound. Five men bundled in jackets stood around a headstone a few rows east of Mack’s grave, just by the road on the other side of the lot. There were pretty liquor bottles lined up on the top of the headstone. The quiet laughter of the men floated across the grass toward us, and the barely discernible decibel of classic rock rolled out of a car parked at the curb. Five friends they were. I knew it in an instant, their body language giving them away. They were five friends communing with another they had lost, celebrating a life that mattered to them, and toasting the fragile beauty of their human connections. The five of them and the four of us were the only living souls I could see in the cemetery. Even on warm sunny Saturdays these days, few people tend gravestones. The five of them and the four of us shared a common purpose and possessed a common need to commune with spirits. Nine people we were, drawn to that place because we had loved and lost, because we accepted the tether of life with death, and because there is in a communal pilgrimage great comfort for the human soul.
Several minutes passed after our notice of and whispered appreciation for the five men across the lot, when one of them stepped over to greet us. Geoff introduced himself, begged apology for the intrusion, and invited us to join him and his friends for a shot of fine tequila. So novel is such an invitation in a cemetery that we could never have declined it, even if we had not been delighted to receive and to accept it. We happily joined their group, and we introduced ourselves while the first shots of tequila were poured into tiny red cups. Geoff, Bill, Harv, Kevin, and Rick come together in Oak Ridge Cemetery every year on the birthday of their departed friend Mike. It’s a ritual now in its fifteenth year. They showed us pictures and told us about Mike, who was a joyous man and the life of every party, a man who appreciated a good bottle of tequila, enjoyed traveling, and adored his family and friends. In turn, we told them about Mack, who was a happy-go-lucky kid with a delightful wit, a girl who was a star athlete who knew no strangers but preferred quiet lazy time with best friends. Upon sharing our stories, we all agreed that Mike Henry and Mackenzie McDermott were special spirits on the earth who inspired friendships powerful enough to transcend death.
We toasted Mike, full of life, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-six in 2004. We toasted Mack, full of life, who died suddenly of Addison’s disease at the age of twenty in 2014. We toasted precious lives gone too soon. We toasted love and friendship. We toasted life and the joys and human connections that come to us along the way.
Life is weird and wonderful, isn’t it really? I am frequently overwhelmed by the human connections Mack keeps bringing to me. How fortunate I feel to have been in the cemetery with my dear friends honoring Mack, when Mike’s dear friends were in the cemetery honoring him. Mack would have chuckled with delight at the sight of her Momma Bear and three of her adopted moms shooting tequila in the cemetery with strange men. Mike’s friend Kevin, who had also been his business partner, told me that Mike would be happy to know he still had the magic of bringing people together.
It may be odd, but in a way, it feels a little bit like Mack’s spirit has a friend in Oak Ridge Cemetery. She’s not alone, and neither is Mike. Mack and Mike brought nine people together that chilly Saturday. Now through the people who loved them, they are connected, too. You can call it odd all you want to, and it may even be weird, but to me it is perfectly wonderful to know that Mack’s sweet spirit is in such good company with Mike’s sweet spirit out there among those glorious old trees in the majestic shadow of the Lincoln Tomb.
Alicia, Maureen, Sandra, and me downtown after the trip to Oak Ridge
Rick, Kevin, Geoff, and Harv
P.S. Harv sent me the photo of Mack’s marker. After we left, the guys went over to pay respects to Mack. I know from now on, I’ll always stop over to see Mike, too.