Better than Angels

Many well-meaning people have told me that Mack is an angel now, in Heaven. That she is eating infinite quantities of sour candies, sushi, and Thai fried rice in a place where the weather is ever perfect for her open Jeep to drive down beautiful, tree-lined avenues, music blaring, with a car full of puppies. I do not doubt that religious belief eases the burdens of grief for religious people. Yet I cannot seek comfort in the magical thinking of religion. For me, death is terminal to the flesh and to the soul. I keep the spirit of Mack within me and allow her impact upon my life to guide me, going forward, but my grief is grounded in the painful reality that neither her body nor her soul inhabit any world. And so, in the absence of spiritual solace, I seek a more tangible comfort.

I have spent innumerable hours pondering this idea of angels, of the meaning of the people who pass through our lives and of the trauma their deaths inflict upon the living—the people they leave behind in the world to understand and to make peace with the fragility of being human. Losing Mack ripped open the flesh of my emotional vulnerability and offered shocking clarification of my own mortality and of the mortality of every single person I love and need. But losing Mack also uncovered, in the exposure of my bones, other lost people, living there, with me still, although long gone from the world of the living. In the parlance of the religious observer, I have three angels: Mack, my dad, and my maternal grandmother. But I have come to understand that the bold impression that each of these three marvelous humans made upon me and the tangible guidance they continue to provide me are much more powerful than any otherworldly existence they would inhabit if heaven was a place and angels lived there. But what does any of this babble mean, anyway, and why do I feel compelled to define Mack, Jim, and Kathleen as something other than angels?

There is a historical debate about whether upon Abraham Lincoln’s death, his Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton consigned Lincoln to the “angels” or to the “ages.” If one subscribes to magical thinking—as author Joan Didion argues every grieving person does, at least at the immediate impact of a loss—then it is likely that perhaps all of the people present for Lincoln’s last breath, each of them grounded in Christian theology, believed Lincoln had joined the angels in Heaven. Certainly Mary Lincoln believed it so. But what we have learned in the 153 years since Lincoln’s death is that he actually resides with the living. He does not inhabit some ethereal plane as an angel, but rather he belongs to the ages, regardless of what Stanton might have actually said. Lincoln exists in the bones of America; just as Mack, Jim, and Kathleen exist in my bones. Lincoln is, for Americans, a folk hero—a tangible historical presence who corroborates our past, who by the example of his own leadership offers tools for leadership in the present, and who in his human worth provides inspiration for the future of America. Mack, Jim, and Kathleen are, for me and for my life, folk heroes—the tangible comfort I seek, because they corroborate my past, they by the examples of their own lives give me tools to navigate my life in the present, and in their human worth, and from their significance in my life, inspire me to gaze forward, onward, toward the future.

In looking back across three and a half years of the blog entries in Being Mack’s Momma Bear, I realize that what I have written is a series of “Mack-tales,” stories of Mack’s life and the influence she had upon the people who knew her, many told with some moral or inspirational purpose beyond the story itself. My individual stories about Mack are all true, but taken together, they read as folktales; and Mack, I think, reads like a folk hero. It is not my intention here to argue that Mack is a folk hero in the way that Abraham Lincoln is a folk hero. Rather, my point here is that we all have people we have lost who are so much more than angels looking down upon us from some kind of heaven, happy away from the ones who loved them, looking down upon mere mortals through some bright, heavenly light. And I also think it is good and useful, in fact it is a tangible comfort, to recognize the folk heroes we were so damn lucky to know and to keep them with us by telling their stories. Perhaps not for the ages, but for us and for our immediate families, as a way to make sense of life, of death, of the world around us, and of our fragile but beautiful human connections.

I am going to keep pondering this idea of folk heroes, and probably of angels, too. It is a topic, as yet unresolved in my brain, and about which I intend to write more. But for now I want to tell you about my first folk hero, my grandmother, whose name I gave as a middle name to Mack and whose stories I shared with my girls as they grew. My  grandmother died when I was in graduate school, and she was with me, tucked deep within my bones, throughout my doctoral studies as I gutted out soul-crushing seminars, grueling reading lists, and inhuman schedules. My memory of her grit and her sass offered me strength and solidarity from beyond her grave. I did not have any real sense at the time that she was with me or that I had attached so much purpose to my memories of her. But now I do, as it is one of those curious light bulbs that have switched on in my psyche, through the fog of my grief for Mackenzie. So on what would have been her 95th birthday, I give you Kathleen: a woman, a grandmother, a folk hero. See for yourself why she is so deep within my bones and how much of her folk-hero character and traits ended up in the bones of Mack, as well.

Kathleen was a hard-working, tough-talking woman who survived the depression, sacrificed during World War II, and suffered premature widowhood and early breakdown of her body and her health. She was a real-life Rosie-the-Riveter who swooned over Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. She was a diabetic addicted to sweets and to junk food. She was a house-dress-wearing, pocket-book-carrying granny who enjoyed pinching and teasing her grandchildren and wrapping them up in bone-crushing bear hugs. She had the delicate penmanship of an artist, the mouth of a dishonorably discharged marine, and she crocheted colorful blankets while watching professional wrestling. Kathleen did not bake pies and whisper; she worked in a box factory and told dirty jokes. She was crass and direct and devastatingly funny, full of chutzpah, contradictions, and complexities. She was true to who she was and how she felt and what she thought, and she never apologized for any of it.

Kathleen indulged my sweet tooth, once cheering me on as I devoured a Hostess Ding-Dong in one outrageously large bite. She appreciated and encouraged my spunk. She taught me to use my middle finger with authority, both literally and figuratively, and she showed me how to be bold in the big, bad world. She adopted my friends without putting on fake grandmother airs. She made card games uproariously fun, but she also made them dangerous, threatening to get those who bested her with her “bowling-ball grip” as she gestured over the card table, three angry fingers pointing skyward. First-time hearers of Kathleen’s unique and sometimes obscene vocabulary gaped, veteran hearers tittered, and everyone, in the end, understood that in speaking her truth in her own language, Kathleen had scooped them up into her bosom to love them, to boss them, to be herself with them, and to bear witness to their true selves, as well.

A 1943 photograph of Kathleen is one of three perched within the deep grooves of a giant framed mirror on the floor in my bedroom. In her photo, Kathleen is wearing a vibrant floral dress and is wrapped up in the arms of my handsome, uniformed grandfather who will soon be in Europe fighting Nazis. On the right is a photograph of Jim, my father, in 1981. Standing in my childhood kitchen, he is wearing a suit vest, tie, and an impish grin as he holds up a glass-bottle of Pepsi. In the middle photograph is my precious Mack in 2010. Clad in her red, high school basketball silks, bearing her lucky number 4, she spins a basketball atop her long, right index finger. When I propped up those photographs there, more than three years ago now, I had not given much thought to the intent of their placement. But now their purpose is perfectly clear. These are the photographs of my folk heroes, spanning nearly seventy years of time and history. Mack, Kathleen, and Jim are folk heroes. No different, really, than Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Revere, or any other folk hero you might imagine–at least not to me. My memories and my stories of them are the folktales of my life, and they are my tangible comfort. They root me to my past and to my Indiana ancesters, they ground me in the present guiding me by the examples of the lives they led, and they inspire me to see a future, even if it is one without them.

And, that, my friends, as you likely already know, is precisely what folk heroes are supposed to do.

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Kathleen and Clyde c1943

Better Angels

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

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

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

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

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

Donuts

Mel-O-Cream donuts are as much of an institution in Springfield as Abraham Lincoln and Illinois state government, and I raised my girls on them. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Those glorious, sweet and pillowy, sugary delights were a nearly weekly treat for all of us, but my Mack was a certified donut monster. She loved all Mel-O-Cream donuts, except the ones with nuts; but her favorites were the glazed donuts featuring a generous dollop of lemon curd, Bavarian cream, and all of the varieties that were covered in powdered sugar. On Sunday mornings, we would get a dozen donuts (three for every member of our skinny little family), and we would eat ourselves into sugar comas while drinking black coffee and reading the morning newspapers. It was not a healthy family tradition, but it was a cherished one.

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Not only did Mack exuberantly participate in the McDermott weekly three-donut tradition, she added to it whenever possible. We took donuts to weekend team practices for various sports, she chose them over cupcakes for school birthday celebrations, and once she was able to drive, she frequently got up a little early so she could swing by Mel-O-Cream to collect her favorite portable breakfast. The floor of her junky Jeep was littered with those small, square, old-fashioned napkins with the Mel-O-Cream logo.

When we moved to St. Louis, we were sad, and Mack particularly so, to leave Mel-O-Cream behind. Giving up that special family donut tradition was a disappointment. However, if we had not moved, a nutritionist intervention would likely have been necessary.

Yesterday, I was in Springfield for work, attending a staff meeting. As editorial meetings at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln are always ponderous and protracted, a favorite colleague told me he was bringing a dozen Mel-O-Cream donuts to get us through the day. In route to Springfield that morning, my mouth watered and my eyes glazed as I anticipated the sugary goodness that awaited me. I thought about Mack, too, and how much she always craved those donuts. When I got to work and opened the lid of that beautiful donut box and gazed upon the lovely assortment of breakfast treats, I sighed deeply, smiled broadly, lifted a perfect glazed donut with a generous dollop of lemon curd, and toasted Mack by taking a Mack-sized first bite. And then I ate two more donuts! Mack would have been proud.

I felt fat and ashamed about my three-donut day until this afternoon, when my Mack whispered in my ear and said, “It’s ahhright, Momma Bear. If I’d have been there, I’d have eaten four.” As usual, Mack was right, and it was perfectly alright that I had detoured from my usual healthy diet. I had nothing to be ashamed of because dammit, I enjoyed those donuts. They were delicious, and they made me happy. While I do not plan to revive the McDermott three-donuts-per-person plan any time soon, I had to admit to Mack, to me, and now to all of you, that I loved those three donuts with gleeful abandon, that maybe I even needed those donuts, and that I will harbor no shame for paying homage to an old McDermott family tradition from our Springfield days.

powdered donuts

Mack at Rest with Mr. Lincoln

On Friday, January 8, 2016, Mack went home to Springfield, and we laid her to rest in Oak Ridge Cemetery. There is some comfort and peace knowing that she will sleep easy in her hometown and that the people who loved her will have a beautiful place to commune with her spirit. It was a difficult day, but I was enveloped in the loving arms of family; and I found the strength to read the following eulogy I had written for the occasion…

We should not be here today. It is not right that we are laying to rest our sweet and silly girl. It is not fair that Mack had just twenty years on this earth. She deserved more time. We deserved more time. The world deserved more time. Here among these graves, under these old oaks, and in the shadow of Mr. Lincoln’s tomb, I am stricken by the cruel and bitter reality of my loss. Of our loss. Of the world’s loss. But as is our human condition, our lives are fragile. We cannot escape tragedy. We cannot keep sorrow away. We cannot choose all that falls upon our shoulders. And, indeed, the weight of the world has fallen upon our shoulders. So here we now stand in this historic and beautiful and peaceful cemetery, placing our Mack in the arms of eternity.

It feels right that Mack should return to Springfield. It was her hometown. It was the setting for her cheerful childhood, her spirited teens, and her assorted and amazing athletic accomplishments. It was the environment in which she learned about herself and the world. It was the context of her intellectual growth and of the development of her extraordinary character. It was the place in which she crafted that zany personality, honed her comedic skills, devoured uncountable plates of Pad Thai, and made so many cherished best friends.

Since the very first time that I visited this cemetery more than twenty-five years ago, I have been in awe of this special place. I have always felt calm and at peace in the presence of the Lincoln Tomb. Lincoln’s spirit whispers on every breeze here, and the history of Springfield rests here. It is a graceful and serene place, but it is a powerful and hallowed place as well. Mack deserves to rest in this special garden of Springfield spirits and historic whisperers. It is altogether fitting that Mack should stay here at Oak Ridge with Mr. Lincoln. She will be safe here. Her spirit will rest easy here. She will belong to the ages here.

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Grandma Marie and Grandma Dianne drew strength from each other and sported their memorial t-shirts.

Locating Mack at Oak Ridge:

Oak Ridge Map 1

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Mack’s marker is eight rows back from the road, just beyond these cylindrical markers.

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Looking northwest from Mack’s marker is the majestic Lincoln Tomb.

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Mack and Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln kids

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