First Friends

In the fall of 1993, I took my sweet Savannah to kindergarten at Dubois Elementary School in Springfield, Illinois; I signed up to be a classroom mom; and Mack “met” her first friend. Well, kind of, because Mack had not quite arrived in the world, and neither had her first friend. You see, there was a sweet boy named Ian in Savannah’s classroom who had a mom who took him to kindergarten and signed up to be a classroom mom just like me. This other classroom mom, Cynthia, was petite like me; she had long and straight brown hair like me; she was strong-willed and sassy, like me; and she was pregnant, like me. My Mack and her Elyse spent that school year in kindergarten “together” growing into the adorable babies who would be born in 1994 on March 17 and April 12, respectively, while Cynthia and I organized the hell out of all the other classroom moms.

kindergarten bio
Mack’s kindergarten bio, in her hand, in her school memories book I made for her (and frequently had to force her to complete)

Now it turned out that Mack and Elyse ended up in the same kindergarten class at Dubois exactly six years later; and they became great friends. It was always a running joke with the two of them that they had known each other in utero and they even frequently succeeded in convincing people that they were sisters. Elyse lived with her family in our historic neighborhood north of Washington Park, coincidentally, in a work-in-progress old house full of animals just like ours; and those two girls had two funky, fun, and familiar homes to grow up in together, and they had extra parents and siblings in the bargain. After school and during the summer months, they rode their bikes and walked back and forth between each other’s houses, often stopping at the Hometown Pantry along the way for giant slushies and sour candies.

Generally speaking, Mack and Elyse were good kids and good students and steered clear of illegal activities. However, there was one time when they were supposed to be playing on the Dubois playground just up Lincoln Avenue from our house, when a Springfield police officer called to inform me that Mack was in big trouble and I should come collect her immediately. I arrived at the school to find the officer, perhaps playing the stern cop a little too seriously, standing beside a very wide-eyed Mack and a sobbing Elyse. Also standing by, looking very worried, were two male co-conspirators, twin boys who were classmates of the girls. One of them was named Chris, but I’ll be damned if can remember the name of the other one. And I really should remember it, because surely those twins were the first two boys to lead my Mack and Cynthia’s Elyse astray. Mack, Elyse, and the delinquent twin boys had climbed on top of a small maintenance building behind the school that the kids called the “smokehouse,” because it had a steam pipe that always billowed smoke into the air. Mack always adamantly swore that they were not kissing, but just hanging out on the flat roof of the two-story building when the Po-Po (Mack’s word, not mine) spotted them, assessed the situation as potentially dangerous, and then decided to scare the little criminals onto a more law-abiding path. I decided that the Po-Po’s stern warning was punishment enough for Mack, as it was the first time I had ever seen that kid rattled. Elyse’s punishment was more severe, as I recall, but all of the bad parts of this misadventure faded. No harm done, and it became one of those wonderful life-bonding moments for the girls, a forever memory of their shared wicked and fun childhood.

After elementary school, Elyse and Mack went to separate middle schools; and Mack’s heavy sports schedule reduced the time the girls had together. Yet they always stayed connected and maintained their unique “first friend,” growing-up-together bond. I guess they were really more like sisters or cousins than friends; and that is one of the reasons that Elyse is stuck with me forever. I was an extra Momma Bear to her during hundreds of hours spent in my house, on my front porch, and in my backyard and eating my food and listening to me gripe about Mack’s messy room or legendary procrastination. Elyse is simply one of those kiddos I am happy to have adopted and to whom I have pledged a lifelong commitment as an extra mom.

For her first big-girl job, Elyse recently moved to St. Louis near where I live, and we planned a little reunion. And would you believe that sweet young woman happily joined me for an early Saturday morning walk through the Missouri Botanical Garden? Of course, I bribed her a little, with Starbucks before and French pastries at my favorite patisserie afterwards. We spent three perfectly lovely hours strolling through the gardens and talking about the past, the present, and the future. She shared some worries, I offered some mom advice, we laughed over some Mack stories, including the infamous Smokehouse Incident, and posed for a Big-Mack hug in the luscious greenhouse. Most importantly, though, we allowed our kinship, the flowers and the trees, and the gentle spirit of the gardens to push aside our sorrows, to refresh our spirits, and to appreciate the bond we have because Mack was here in the world to love us.

Bye-Bye, Benji

Last week, we said bye-bye to Benji, the spirited and plucky little Jeep Wrangler that raised my two spirited and plucky little girls. He had chugged to a stop late last fall when Savannah parked him on Winnemac Avenue, in the middle of the block, just south of Winnemac Park in Chicago. He had gurgled and rattled when Savannah cut the engine, just like he always did in the waning years of his life, as he struggled to be the peppy and happy car he had been in his youth. But, sadly, it was there on that sleepy, residential street, where a dead battery, a finicky starter, a worn-out transmission, and one final Windy City winter finished off the poor, old bastard once and for all. Mack would have thought it a fitting final parking place for her beloved “Benj” on a street with her name in it and very near a softball diamond, like so many other softball diamonds, where Benji often collected a pitching mound’s worth of dust waiting for Mack to collect him after a practice or a game.

Savannah probably never should have taken that 1997 Jeep Wrangler to Chicago with her in the first place, but it was just months after losing her sister and she lacked the heart to let go. Sometimes inanimate objects hold the keys to our most cherished memories. Benji had been Savannah’s high school and college car, and then Mack’s high school and college car, and then Savannah’s car once again. The sister connection in that gun-metal blue bucket of rusty bolts was strong and the emotional attachments deep; and even though it made not a lick of sense whatsoever to keep an unreliable car with a long list of ailments in Chicago, it made absolute sense to Savannah’s heart. So for two years, in honor of her sister, Savannah held on tight, patiently weathering the inconveniences of Benji’s senior citizenship.

But when spring came this year, so too came the realities of driving and parking in Chicago, especially in a car that needed hundreds of dollars in repairs. As the daffodils bloomed and street sweeping loomed, Savannah understood that she had to either sell or at least to move Benji from his pastoral parking spot around the corner from her apartment. Savannah made the difficult decision to let Benji go. It was time. It was past time. It is true that the tangible artifacts of our lives—big and small treasures into which we place our memories for safekeeping—possess the spirits of ghosts we wish would linger. But material objects do not possess the permanence we so desperately seek when we entrust them with our memories in the first place. Savannah held on to Benji long enough to learn that her connection to her sister was bigger and deeper and far more permanent than a beat-up, old car, however well-loved the car.

Although Jeeps, even old ones that do not start, will fetch at least some pocket-money, Savannah did not wish to profit from a decision that was breaking her heart. NPR really does take old cars, it turns out, and Savannah chose this graceful exit for our old family friend. We mailed in the Jeep’s title, and last week NPR took the car away. Rephrase: took Benji away. Benji with silly string sun-baked onto the dashboard and the driver-side door, evidence of a “hit” by Mack’s softball teammates. Benji with the duct tape holding his glove compartment in place. Benji with his broken and failing mechanical systems, a flat tire, a bleached out and ripped rag top, and a “Life is Good” spare-tire cover still on the back. Benji went away with a little piece of Savannah’s heart, and a little piece of mine, as well. But Benji did not go away with his gear shift, because Savannah snagged it as a final souvenir. And he did not go away with our memories, either. We will keep those, as well.

Benji was just a base-model, 1997 Jeep Wrangler, but he was the vehicle of some very important McDermott family memories. He took us on summer night drives to watch outdoor, local theater at Lincoln’s New Salem. He delivered us, albeit uncomfortably, to the family cabin in Wisconsin after our big car broke down one summer. He taught both of my girls how to drive a stick-shift, and he suffered all of the terrifying lessons they each gave to their teenage friends. He kept Savannah safe when she rolled the Jeep over and landed upside down in a ditch on a snowy ride home from college. Benji was just a car. But he was the spirited and plucky car of my spirited and plucky girls. And that, in and of itself, is grand.

Mack loved her Jeep, and I love the memory of her loving her Jeep. I have painted this happy picture in my mind that Benji and Mack are together again, reunited like friendly old ghosts, out on the open road somewhere in the beautiful universe. Mack is driving with the top down on a warm summer day; Benji is new and shiny, engine humming. Music is blaring and Mack is singing, big sunglasses covering her sweet, freckled face. She’s grinning, driving way too fast, and breathing in the feeling of freedom that the wind bestows upon the spirit of carefree girl in a Jeep.

March

I accomplished my two greatest human endeavors in the month of March, bringing into the world two amazing girls with Irish fire in their bellies, adventure in their bones, and big and beautiful brains in their sweet little heads. In my fifty years on this planet, I have had some academic and professional success, collected an amazing group of life-long friends, and done a pretty respectable job of staying out of trouble. But raising my two March babies is the life achievement of which I will always be most proud; and March not only always belonged to Savannah and Mackenzie, it always belonged to me, as well.

shared birthday pizza

Shared Birthday Pizza, 1997

But this will be my third March without Mack, the third March that is as chilly upon my heart as it is upon my skin. The first sight of determined daffodils poking their brave petals up into the brisk air of the coming spring is no longer my happy tidings of March’s arrival. Now those damn daffodils remind me of all I have lost. Selfish and regrettable is the feeling of self-pity, but these milestones of life are treachery against my heart, and some days there is simply no hope for even one hour of solace.

This morning as I sat down at my desk to work and to begin day eight of my weary journey through March, an email lifted my spirit from the shadows and smacked my self-pity Megan Matheneyupside its head. It was Megan Matheney checking in; it was the first recipient of Mack’s scholarship sending happy tidings in March that the daffodils had failed to bring me. She wanted me to know that she is graduating from Truman State this spring and will attend graduate school in the fall to further her study of writing. She wanted me to know that the scholarship afforded her the opportunity to study abroad in Italy. She wanted me to know that she is getting married after graduation to a math major named Jeff, who proposed to her in Italy and will graduate with her this spring. She wanted me to know that I. That we. That Mack helped her to achieve her dreams.

Life marches forward even as we shield our eyes to its promise. March is here, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. Mack’s birthday will come no matter my mood to face it. But March is proof that Mack was here. Megan is proof that Mack is still making a difference the world. And this day is proof that days without solace will not always be so elusive.

 

birthday 1 and 7

Shared Backyard Birthday Party (Mack turning 1 and Savannah turning 7)

Mack in Monsaraz

Craggy cobblestone paths amble through the haunting medieval village of Monsaraz, passing under Moorish arches on their way to an ancient past. On the banks of the Guadiana River in southeastern Portugal, Monsaraz is home to the spirits of human history. Neolithic people were the first to find comfort in this country of rolling hills and cork oaks. Romans, Visogoths, Arabs, and the Christian crusaders of the Reconquista staked their own claims under the region’s bold, blue skies. Romantic tales of the Knight’s Templar and Portuguese bullfighters whisper on the breezes atop a castle keep that has stood watch over the valley for a thousand years. Mack is there, too, mingling with all of the spirits of the dead, all touched by the magic and the memories of Monsaraz.Back Camera

As the seventeenth-century outer walls of this quiet village of historical spirits hold tight their ancient memories, so, too, the fortified places in my mind hold tight my memories of Mack. It is within the most vibrant landscapes of our shared experiences, like those viewed from the parapets below the castle tower of Monsaraz, where my lost girl still lives. In Monsaraz, Mack walks in basketball shorts and suede, New Balance shoes. In Monsaraz, Mack stands with irreverent and commanding posture among the many ghosts of villagers past, holding her own in an uncharacteristic pink t-shirt. In Monsaraz, Mack breathes air among colorful Bougainvillea that bloom against white walls. Mack is in Monsaraz.

Mack’s spirit fills several specific places, fixed in time and in space within my memories, where closed eyes are all I need to transport myself to her. It makes sense that in my memories, Mack comes to life in places like the gymnasium at Springfield High School, the penguin exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo, or the outfield bleachers at Busch Stadium, because these were favorite and frequented sites of our lives together. But for some reason I cannot quite comprehend, the idea of Mack in Monsaraz is one of my most vivid and comforting memories. Mack’s time on this extraordinary planet was short, but her dad and I were able to show her at least a little of the world beyond her Springfield, Illinois, home. Perhaps castle-7Monsaraz represents my gratitude to have spent cherished hours with Mack in a few exotic locales. Perhaps the Portuguese sun on whitewashed medieval walls offers the enchanting environment in which I wish her beautiful spirit to roam. Perhaps I want my Mack to be a part of the haunting history of that spectacular, historical place. Perhaps I want her to gaze forever through those ancient windows, watching the past, existing in the present, and waiting for the future.

Grief is a cruel thief, and my best defense against its relentless assault upon my heart resides in vivid places like those within the medieval walls of Monsaraz. Places where Mack continues to be. Where color and beauty, life and love, and the irresistible pull of the past help me find what I have lost. It is, perhaps, a strange truth that I can feel Mack’s presence in a quaint, medieval village nearly halfway around the globe, where we spent just one happy day together. Strange or not, however, Mack in Monsaraz is a sweet and haunting solace. I think it is such that the memories we make with the people we love bind us in beautiful and unexpected ways to the beautiful and unexpected places we explore together. And no time and no distance can break our emotional connections to the places where we live and remember the most magical moments of our lives.

Back Camera

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The Happiest and Most Enduring of Memorials

There is a smart, joyful, and kooky young woman at Truman State University for whom writing is an essential activity of life. She is also a devoted fan of sleeping, eating, and steering clear of spiders. Oh, and her name starts with an “M” and she is witty and adores absurdity. Sound familiar? Uncanny, indeed, but in all of these wonderful ways, she truly is just like our Mack. So I am beyond charmed and delighted to announce that Marisa Gearin—a senior, creative writing major from St. Louis—is the second recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship. Kudos to the Truman State Foundation for finding yet another Mack-like spirit on which to bestow the award that honors her life.

Even before official word from the Truman State Foundation, I received a welcome holiday gift in December in the form of Marisa’s handwritten, thank you note. marisaIn the message, penned in a slightly larger, but scratch-style writing quite similar to Mack’s own, she exuded passion in her descriptions of her writing and in sharing her aspirations for her life beyond college. Like Mack’s sister Savannah, she hopes to live and teach abroad after graduation. The scholarship will help ease the costs of her final year at Truman and will help her save money for graduate school, as well. Marisa writes poetry and short fiction and has been involved with the Truman slam poetry team TruSlam (check out her Mack-perfect, spider-hating poem at https://soundcloud.com/truslam/reasons-why-spiders-are-bad). She has published work in the Truman publications Windfall and Monitor and is the author of a collection of short stories entitled Egg Teeth: Realist Fiction for Young Minds. The back cover of Marisa’s book would have earned critical acclaim from Mack, tickling her funny bone and eliciting her classic crooked smile and a hearty Mack cackle.

book-back

 

In my heart, I am starting to think that Mack herself might be intervening in the selection of these scholarship recipients, whispering in the ears of the judges, telling jokes to bend them toward the most Mack-appropriate of the candidates. In my head, I know that Mack would be pleased to make this little, annual difference in the life of a student writer. Knowing that it would please Mack so well adds another depth of meaning in the enormity of this scholarship to my emotional wellbeing and my search for solace in a world without her.

Mack’s scholarship began as a simple gesture of grieving parents to honor a beloved child. The scholarship has become a living memorial to Mack’s beautiful life and spirit and to the joy and meaning she brought into our lives. The scholarship at its core is for and about Mack. But it is also about the amazing student writers it benefits; first Megan, now Marisa, and all of those amazing student writers yet to come. Mack’s scholarship is also about the donors who have made it possible. The power to confer this $1,000 annual award lives within the love and generosity of all of the amazing human beings who have helped endow the scholarship in perpetuity. I am still overwhelmed by the contributions that provided the initial endowment way back in December 2014 and by the donations that continue to flow in support of building the endowment for even greater impact.

I have said it before, but I can never say it enough, and so I am saying it once again. Thank you for loving Mack and for supporting this scholarship in her honor. What could possibly be more gratifying than helping a passionate, student writer like Marisa Gearin pay for college? What could possibly be a more fitting way to honor our Mack, whose joy for life brought so much joy into our own? And what could possibly bring a grieving mother more solace than a legacy that preserves her child’s spirit in the present and connects her legacy to the future? This scholarship really is the happiest and most enduring of memorials; a living, breathing tribute to a beautiful life well lived, to the promise of lives yet lived, and to the gratitude and love within the living hearts that Mack left behind her.

 

The Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship Fund
(for creative writing students)
Truman State University Foundation
205 McClain Hall, Kirksville, MO 63501
800-452-6678
http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/

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Macksgiving

In America, Thanksgiving is about tradition, gratitude, food, and family, in various orders of importance, of course, depending upon individual traditions, particular propensities for thankfulness, the quality of the food, and the level of dysfunction within one’s own family. In our family, the Thanksgiving priority was always on the food with a double order of laughter on the side, mackoand so it was, naturally, one of Mack’s favorite days of the year. Our tradition was to travel to Charleston, Illinois, where my brother-in-law spent hours smoking ribs for Mack because she despised turkey, my sister presented an accompanying feast extravagant enough for kings, and we all ate ourselves into comas, but not before splitting seams from all of the laughter.

Without our Mack as master of ceremonies for comedy and for shoveling food into one’s face, there is a whole lot less laughter on holidays, and particularly so on Thanksgiving. In 2014 and 2015, my sister Tracy bravely continued the tradition of preparing the feast, my brother-in-law Jason remained committed to smoking those ribs in the spirit of Mack, and we began a new family tradition of creating a Mack  Perfect Last Bite. But, Thanksgiving is still not right without Mack. Nor, I think, will it ever be. So this year, we are shaking things up a little. No, we are shaking things up way more than a little. This year, Tracy is getting a break from the cooking and Jason is getting a break from the smoke. They will meet Kevin and I in St. Louis, and Savannah and her boyfriend Levi and my niece Zoe will arrive from Chicago to join us. On Thanksgiving morning, all of us will “compete” in the St. Louis Turkey Trot in glorious Forest Park before sitting down to a meal that I am preparing, a meal I have billed as Macksgiving.

Now wait a minute, you say. Mack would never have approved of such physical exertion on the most important eating day of the year. And in so saying, you, my friend, would be absolutely correct. But this year, our feast will feature a long list of Mack’s favorite foods, most of which are a million miles from healthy, many of which are gut-busting comfort dishes that each alone would set you back a day’s caloric intake, and some of which are not even really food at all. Therefore, I believe that Mack would applaud our efforts to run off a few calories before sitting down to Macksgiving in her honor, and I KNOW she’d approve of this menu!

Macksgiving

Appetizers:
Sushi, Thai Spring Rolls, Deviled Eggs

Main Courses:
Baked Smoked Ham, Mack ‘n Cheese with Bacon, Texas Cheesy Potatoes, Homemade Noodles

Sides:
Green Bean Casserole
Spicy Roasted Brussel Sprouts
Roasted Broccoli
Hawaiian Rolls

Desserts & Snacks:
New York Cheesecake with Raspberries
Powdered Miniature Donuts
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Funyons
Candy (Laffy Taffy, Sour Punch Straws, and Warheads)
Blue Gatorade

On Macksgiving, Mack  will be with me as I run. She’ll be in my ear, cackling away, slinging gentle insults about my slow pace. Her laughter will whisper in the wind, and her spirit will reside in my own. On Macksgiving, Mack will be with me for every bite, as I enjoy the foods she loved so well. I will prepare my traditional perfect last bite, think of Mack, and offer gratitude for the twenty  years she graced this earth with her beautiful presence. But on Mackgiving, I will still keenly feel the absence of my girl, who was the soul of this indulgent holiday and whose chair for me will always be empty.

A Beautiful Life

Two years ago this day, the sky plunged down from the heavens and the truest soul that ever drew a breath left the world too soon. Two years in, and I am no less lost without my Mack. Two years in, and I am still far from well. Two years in, and I cling for dear life to my happier past all the stronger. But for me, starting today and going bravely forward, October 7 on my calendar will no longer mark Mack’s passing from this life. Rather, it will mark the significance of her life.

Two lovely, random, and unconnected human encounters inspired within me the courage to reinterpret the meaning of October 7 in my life. First was a delightful yet unexpected letter I received late this summer from Dr. Goodman, a kind man I hardly know. He is a past president of the Springfield Sunrise Rotary Club, the organization that sponsors the “This I Believe” essay contest for which Mack was a winner back in 2012. In November of 2014, this same rotary club made a generous contribution to the scholarship fund we established in Mack’s honor at Truman State University. This sweet gentleman was writing to tell me that he remembered Mack and her essay so fondly that he was planning to propose that the Rotary make another contribution to the scholarship in order to reaffirm his and the club’s “everlasting memory of Mackenzie,” adding that she was “a blessing to all.” Second was a conversation I had with Jeanne, a dear and wise woman I have gotten to know in my volunteer work at an historic home in St. Louis. She and I are fellow travelers on the road without beloved children. Having lost her young son fifty years ago and buried one of her two daughters some ten years ago, she always recognizes the sadness in my eyes. Recently, we talked about how I was feeling, we shared a few stories, and she gently reminded me that life is for the living.

Life is, indeed, for the living. Mack understood that simple truth better than anyone I have ever known, better than anyone I will probably ever know. She lived every single day like it was her last one, always laughing, always doing the things she loved first, always positive and happy, and always true to her heart. She loved every friend like she might never lay eyes upon them again, and that was the real purpose of those big-Mack hugs. Mack would not wish us to grieve on this day. She would want us to remember the laughter. She would want us to live. Mack’s good and gracious life should inspire us all to live well. To be patient and kind. To hug harder and to laugh louder. To be generous with our spirits, as Mack was. The assessment of my kind correspondent is perfectly true; our Mack was a blessing to all. And the best way to pass this October 7 and every October 7 is to reflect upon her beautiful life and to try a little harder in our own to emulate the qualities we admired in her.

Life is, indeed, for the living. To my mind and to my heart, there is no greater means to honor a beautiful life than a memorial scholarship, which supports the dreams of students who have so much living to do. Therefore, I want to establish October 7 as a day not only for spending extra time with our precious memories of Mack, but also to carry her beautiful spirit forward into the future. Establishing the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship Fund at Truman State University brought me an enormous sense of peace, and it continues to feed my spirit. I know well that Mack would be honored and humbled (“aw, shucks,” she often said when anyone paid her a compliment) to know how much people loved her and to know the high regard in which even passing acquaintances held her. And although she would no doubt be quiet and humble about it, inside she would beam that a scholarship in her name at Truman State, where she went to discover the writer within her, is helping students achieve their own writing dreams.

The scholarship is fully endowed, so it will be perpetual. Preparing for this 100th blog entry reminded me that it was the generosity and tremendous outpouring of love for Mackenzie—from friends, from family, and even from strangers—that made endowment possible in just two short months, back in December 2014. (https://macksmommabear.com/2014/12/09/honoring-mack/). There has already been one recipient (https://macksmommabear.com/2015/08/15/magical-medicine/), and the university will soon name a second. Right now the annual, endowed scholarship award is $750, but I am on a mission to increase the endowment so that it returns an annual award of at least $1,000. Truman State is still a relatively inexpensive college, but tuition is always on the rise and student needs today are ever greater. Truman—a small, public, liberal-arts college in northern Missouri—is a quality school with a quirky edge, a magnet for kooky and smart students, which should be enough to illustrate why Mack chose it in the first place (https://macksmommabear.com/2015/05/22/a-purple-bulldog/). She loved Truman, and I have come to love and respect it a great deal myself. It is a true gem, just like my Mack.

I now beg forgiveness to ask you to consider making a contribution to the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship Fund as you pause to remember how Mack’s bright light lit up the world. Perhaps while you reflect on the blessing that Mack was to you, you might also consider making October 7 the day to make an annual contribution in her honor. Might we all reinterpret the meaning of October 7, so that it will no longer mark Mack’s passing from this life, but that it will mark the significance of her beautiful life.

The Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship Fund
(for creative writing students)
Truman State University Foundation
205 McClain Hall, Kirksville, MO 63501
800-452-6678
http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/
(No matter the format you use, please direct your gift to The Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship Fund, and all contributions will be applied to the endowment.)

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