The radio scratches in my ears, and from the back seat I can just make out the balls and strikes count through the AM static. My little sister is next to me in the back seat, jabbering to my mom, who is the front passenger seat, her head turned around jabbering back at my sister. I have no idea what they are saying, and I do not care. I am trying to read my book.

My dad is driving and smoking and keeping a score card. The car windows are cracked open to keep us from choking to death, and the wind noise is crashing into the radio static, occasionally mixing with a sudden clarity of the radio signal and the baseball announcer calling a play at the plate. My dad curses and bangs his fists on the steering wheel, and the Reds are losing, and still I am trying to read, dammit, and we have another baseball game worth of driving, and I am losing my mind in the chaos.img_9486

Can’t the quiet of my book overcome us all? What would be the cost of one hour of silence in this car? What could I pay them to whisper? Why is there always radio static and sisters and moms jabbering and wind noise and dads yelling at baseball games?

Today, I live alone. Silence is a precious joy of my life, treasured, filled up with reading one book after another, with New Yorker magazines sprinkled in between. And oh my goodness, but the quiet is divine. But there are days when I would trade in all of my books and my solitude for one hour in the backseat of the car in the chaos of my childhood, my mom and sister jabbering away, my mind unsettled by the wind noise and the Reds playing on the radio through AM static, and my dad cursing the blown call at the plate.


Note: I was lucky and am grateful to have been invited to join a monthly memoir writing group called Past Forward. It is a group of bold and brave people who write their hearts and memories and share their writing with each other. For each meeting, we write from an advance prompt on a particular topic or theme, and when we get to the meeting we are presented with another writing prompt on which we write quietly for twenty minutes or so. After the writing, we spend the remainder of the time sharing our prepared and spontaneous writing with the group. It’s a courageous new experience for me, reading aloud my creative writing, and it is stretching me in wonderfully uncomfortable ways. Some of the most enjoyable writing I have ever done has taken place in the quiet space of that spontaneous writing, sitting in a circle with other writers who are willing to share and to listen. I wrote this piece at the most recent meeting, the spontaneous prompt was “Silence.” 


Strawberry Zucchini

Mack was born with the face and body of a sweet little cherub, and I could not resist the urge to dress her in over-the-top feminine frocks to match her ruby and oh-so-chubby cheeks. Perhaps because I suspected my window for so doing was to be a short one, I frequently chose outfits that even outdid the level of froufrou I had achieved with Mack’s way more girly-girl sister. But almost as soon as Mack could walk (at 8-months-old, by the way), she started to rebel against nearly every article of clothing I put on her. Her sister and I persisted in our efforts to girly-girl-a-tize our little Mackadoodle, but we ultimately failed…and thank goodness, really. Because looking back on our choices, I realize we certainly did overplay our hands.

By the time Mack was three, she screamed at skirts, ran away from dresses, claimed that frilly headbands “squeezed her brains,” and threw lacy anklet socks in the garbage when I wasn’t looking. But there was that one pink bikini with the strawberry appliques on the top and the little ruffle on the bottom that broke Mack’s no-stupid-superfluities-on-this-body determination and melted her anti-girly-girl grit. That ridiculous swimsuit beat all the tomboy odds against it. Mack wore it with joy. She sported it—big belly and all—with pride. Strawberry boobs, we called that bikini; and it ruled Mack’s wardrobe. She would put it on and smile from sea to sea, checking herself out in front of the bathroom mirror. The too-short bangs, which were just rebounding from being cut off at the root, completed the look of girl toddler magnificence. In her smashing strawberry swimsuit, Mack definitely strutted the preschool catwalk. One day after I helped her into that swimsuit for an afternoon in the backyard sprinkler, Mack proudly stood up, admired herself, ran her hands down her torso, and shared this heartfelt opinion: “I just love this zucchini!!” And love it she did during the entire summer of 1998.

For a long, long time afterwards, we teased Mack a lot about that bikini, and, fortunately, it stayed tucked in the back of one of Mack’s dresser drawers for years. When we packed for the move to St. Louis, it made it into the “keep” pile, because it had become such a funny fashion artifact of Mack’s life. She always thought it quite a hoot that she had once worn strawberry boobs with such panache. I still have the bikini today, tucked into an archival box with Mack’s baby blanket. Funny, these memories we keep. Funnier still the odd artifacts we retain in our human effort to document those memories and to hang on to the happy past for dear life.


Mack’s Best Friends: M-Maggie-Margaret

They met when they were toddlers; and very different toddler characters, they were. Mack was quiet, physical, and sporty. Maggie was talkative, dainty, and artistic. But their parents were friends and would soon become Springfield family, and so these toddling happy girls were destined to be linked together. Oh, but never mind that the start of their friendship was engineered by their parents. Never mind that they were so dissimilar. Those little girls were fast friends for fun, alacritous allies in mischief, and fierce and faithful champions of each other. Although their membership in our Springfield family of close friends was a given, M & M existed on a best-friend spiritual plane of their own making, and they forged their forever bond with each other on their own unique terms.

Together, Mack and Maggie were soccer teammates on the Fireballs, enthusiastic consumers of Thai food, and co-conspirators in epic kitchen messes, which sometimes resulted in edible cookies but mostly just ended with flour fights, colorful frivolity, and cherished memories of time spent with each other. Together, they paid homage to middle school fashion by sporting side bangs and skinny jeans, were confidants about boyfriends and girl drama, adopted each other’s pets as their own, kept each other’s secrets under tight lips and behind poker faces, and shared a smart sense of sarcasm and zany humor, with no end of inside jokes between them. Apart, Mack and Maggie attended different elementary schools, engaged in vastly dissimilar extracurricular activities, and attended to different personal interests and priorities. Yet they always made time for each other, made a habit of lunch dates at Taste of Thai (their favorite restaurant), and frequently schemed up opportunities for engaging together within their overlapping but varied circles of friends.

Much of the bond between M & M was in their hearts for only the two of them to see, but as a mother who watched them grow from six-year-old Fireballs into brilliant and beautiful young women, I think I know something of their friendship. First, I attribute their forever connection to acceptance and unconditional love. They took each other at face value, as they were, never judging or reprimanding when one of them made a poor decision, never pressuring the other to meet somewhere in the middle of the differences between them. Instead, they always preferred to provide unyielding and unquestioning support to each other and to be comfortable in any differences that might otherwise separate them. Yet I also think they viewed each other from a unique perspective, vastly different from all of their other friends. For example, to Maggie, Mack was Mackenzie; and to Mack, Maggie was Margaret. It was almost as if they took each other more seriously, respecting each other for what they would ultimately be capable of as adults when they left nicknames and their childhood homes behind them.

Second, these two girls each possessed an infectious affinity for childhood, each ever embracing her inner Peter Pan. Together, they were professional finders of fun in even the simple and mundane activities of life, like drinking sodas after school or trekking to Walgreens to buy junk food. When Maggie turned nineteen in 2012 just weeks after the girls had moved away to college (both in Missouri), Mack tweeted: “How the fuck is @maggieerickson 19? Can we just be 6 again please?” And Maggie was equally annoyed at being so old. But Mack & Maggie were both committed to keeping childhood with them into young adulthood and beyond; and that shared affinity was made all the more powerful an influence in their lives because they had shared childhood together. This past December, Maggie graduated from the University of Missouri, and I know exactly what Mack would have said to her: “How the fuck are you a college graduate? Can we just be 6 again please?”


Perhaps somewhere in the ostensible contradiction between their adult-level of respect for each other and their shared affinity for childhood fun is a useful clue for all of us about how to forge friendships that really matter. The friendship between M and M, Mack and Maggie, and Mackenzie and Margaret was truly one for an eternity. Mack was a brilliant collector of best friends; and her best friendship with M-Maggie-Margaret is another beautiful testament of her gifts in that regard.

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An example of their silly, inside joking: a random word game they carried on in social media and in text messaging

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in St. Louis, summer 2013

Oh, how I wish that these girls were six-years-old again, and that we could all relive those wonderful Springfield years together.

Mack on Trumpet

When I registered Mack for sixth grade at Franklin Middle School, I insisted that she give the school band a try. It would be an understatement to say that she was not very keen on the idea, but she accepted my suggestion and mumbled that it would probably be better than choir. She made a typically dramatic Mack pitch for the percussion section, but just the thought of that kid with drums or cymbals sent shivers down my spine and made my ears bleed. Besides, we still had Savannah’s school trumpet in the house, and I knew Mack’s heart was not in the band so why spend any money? Always respectful of parental money arguments, Mack accepted the trumpet and said she would probably kick her sister’s trumpet talents in the butt, so perhaps the trumpet was the best instrument choice anyway.

Band was a scheduled class at Franklin Middle School, so a little practice time at home and a handful of evening concerts did not interfere with Mack’s involvement with sports. Mack loved the very cool and youthful band director, Mr. Keys (isn’t that a hoot?), and several of her best friends were in band, so Mack never complained about it. She made some pretty horrible honking sounds during the first few weeks of school, but after that I barely noticed Mack on trumpet anymore, so she must have gotten the hang of it. Besides, Mack was a three-sport athlete, so I had no expectations that I was raising a musical prodigy, nor did I hold any real hopes for trumpet solos or the jazz band. But since she never moaned about band, kept an A in band class, and participated in the first couple of concerts, I believed she was learning to read a little music and broadening her musical and intellectual horizons. And when my friend Alica reported that she had come home one day after work to find her daughter Maggie (one of Mack’s best friends) and Mack on their front porch playing their band instruments, I was like, wow, maybe this band thing was having an influence on my hyperkinetic child and would become a happy habit.

At the Christmas concert that year, the sixth grade band sounded so much better than it had sounded during their first concert at the beginning of the year, and I figured Mack on trumpet had at least a little something to do with the band’s overall progress. But then, sometime in the spring towards the end of the school year, when I was sitting in a camp chair in the grass at a track meet waiting to watch Mack high jump and run a slow 800 meters, I noticed all of the band instrument cases piled up with all the book bags near where the Franklin track team members were hanging out and waiting for their events. I wondered to myself if Mack had her trumpet over there, and it put in my head the idea to ask her on the way home if she still liked the band. Mack, who did not, by the way, get into the car with a trumpet case, skipped not a beat when I put the question to her. She said something like, “yes, it’s ahright. I’m not first or second chair or anything, but I’m pretty boss.” She said it without a hint of sarcasm or fear in the eye or facial tick that belied the words, but at that moment I knew damn well it was a Mack-happy answer and had absolutely nothing to do with the truth. The past months of school flashed across my brain. I realized that I had never checked to see if Mack was practicing her trumpet. I had no memories of hearing Mack on trumpet in her room after those first few days of honking. I had not a single memory of seeing her schlep to the corner of our street with that trumpet to meet the school bus in the morning. I could not, in fact, remember any time other than during the previous band concert when Mack was in the company of that trumpet.

I had a momma bear fit, accused Mack of being a band slacker, and told her she had better practice and be ready for the spring concert. She was unfazed, refused to make any practice promises, and said she would do just fine at the final band concert of the school year, which would also be the final band concert of her life. She had no intention whatsoever of participating in the seventh-grade band, and she informed me quite sternly that I just needed to get over it. I was not heartbroken about the band necessarily, but I was frustrated by Mack’s lack of effort on trumpet and I was mad at myself for failing to notice that lack of effort for an entire school year. At that final spring concert, I settled into my seat and trained my eyes on Mack on trumpet. As the band played, Mack pressed the keys of her trumpet, but it was absolutely clear that she blew no air into the instrument. And, it turns out, she had never played a single note at any of the previous band concerts either. She had faked her way through the entire school year of band. Mack on trumpet was, it turns out, never a thing. Mack on trumpet was a lie. And Mack deemed the farce one of her favorite Momma Bear scams.

Mack on trumpet 2Many years later, when we were packing up our Springfield house to move to St. Louis, Mack found the old school trumpet in the back of her bedroom closet. She opened up the dusty case, wiped off the mouthpiece, and played a “tune” (which I captured on my IPhone). Pepper, our Pomeranian, was, according to Mack, entertained by this impromptu concert; I am not so certain. But the concert definitely took us back to Mack’s great band hoax, which sent us into fits of laughter, and then we put that trumpet in the “keep” pile and packed it for St. Louis. Mack thought that even though she never really played the damn trumpet, it was a funny memento of her childhood, a reminder of the Mack on trumpet that never really was.

And for your listening pleasure, I introduce to you, Mack on trumpet:

The Best Idea Ever

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


Cousins’ Weekend

In the McDermott family, Cousins’ Weekend is a cherished family tradition that has had a magical impact on the personal connections that eighteen McDermott cousins, now ranging in age from five to twenty-seven, feel for each other. In 1989, Bill and Dianne, Mack’s paternal grandparents, took the first two McDermott cousins—babies Jacquie and Savannah—to their Wisconsin cabin for a weekend; and that trip became an annual event around which five McDermott families planned their summers. Mack attended her first Cousin’s Weekend in 1995, and for the next eighteen years it was a highlight of each summer for her. During those weekends, she became a strong swimmer, failed at water skiing (the only sport she never conquered), lived on hot dogs and chips, fell in love with all of her cousins, and became the magnetic ringleader of the little ones.

On the south bank of Fish Lake, just two miles or so southwest of the Wisconsin hamlet of Hancock (population 417) the McDermott family cabin sits nestled among giant and fragrant pine trees. The humble, two-bedroom, wood-frame house, which is perched high up over the lake, accommodates the large and boisterous McDermott clan for one long weekend every August. There is a multi-level deck, a long wooden staircase down to the boat dock, an inflatable pier, a tree house, a private loft for the teenagers, and a small patio and yard. Therefore, the large group can spread out a bit, but it’s always crowded, ever noisy, and a raucous good time. Now in its twenty-sixth year, Cousins’ Weekend is a chaotic, full-blown McDermott party to which nearly all of the some thirty McDermott clan members make annual pilgrimage to central Wisconsin to share food, to spend time on the lake, to take impromptu walks and bike rides, to loudly talk over each other, to tell bad jokes and to laugh, and to roast marshmallows around a small fire on the beach at night.

Although she generally steered clear of large and loud gatherings, Mack enjoyed the hell out of Cousins’ Weekend. She loved the water, tubing, the late-night card games, the walks to the neighboring campground snack bar, listening to her Uncle Brian play guitar, organizing various ball games in the yard, teasing her grandpa and her uncles, and sharing her electronic devices with the youngest kids and teaching them tricks with a basketball. Mack adored each of her crazy cousins, and the feeling was mutual. And although it is probably wrong for me to say it out loud, let alone to put it into writing, Cousins’ Weekend never officially began until Macko arrived. The younger cousins would eagerly await her arrival, as Mack was frequently delayed by a basketball tournament, and there were always squeals of delight when their tall and smiley big cousin walked through the cabin’s front door.

This weekend, the cousin gathering at the McDermott cabin is underway. It is the same chaotic, fun, and magical time it always has been. Mack’s grandparents and father are there, as are three uncles, two aunts, and fifteen McDermott cousins. Those rambunctious cousins are swimming, boating, playing silly games, and laughing. Cousins’ Weekend is about fun and time together, after all. Yet there is also a dark little cloud that has settled over the cabin and the lake and the woods. Macko is missing and, in many ways, Cousins’ Weekend will never be the same again.

But it is absolutely true that Cousin Macko would be so very happy to know that the tradition continues and that far too many people are crammed into that cabin, together once again, catching up with each other before the summer ends and all of them are busy with their own lives. Mack would be excited to know the little ones are learning how to water ski. She would chuckle to learn that Grandpa Bill is still trying to shake the older kids off of the tube into the cold water behind the boat’s wake. She would be happy that hot dogs and toasted marshmallows are being consumed with reckless abandon and that someone (probably Cousin Sam) is telling a very bad joke that has made everyone laugh and at least one little cousin fart.

But Mack would want her cousins to know that Cousins’ Weekend was “da bestest,” that they were all—each and every one of them—important to her, and that she always enjoyed her time with them, even though it was often too short. And, perhaps most importantly, Macko would want her cousins to know that much of what she understood about people and the world around her she learned from them; and she gained most of that useful knowledge during those magical meetings with them at Fish Lake in the middle of Wisconsin.

Cousins’ Weekend, 2005 (Mack is in the middle in white t-shirt, sporting her corn-row braids)…

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Cousins’ Weekend, 2011. No doubt, Mack is telling one of her uncles “what’s up” as Kevin and Grandma Dianne look on…

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Here is Mack (in a blue tank top) leading the pack of kiddos in the yard and on the beach…

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Fun on the inflatable pier and slide. Mack’s back is to the camera, as she gets ready to jump into the lake…

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In this photo, Sam is hanging on tight to Macko to keep her from leaving…

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And, finally, a picture that for me sums up the value of Cousins’ Weekend. Here Mack is on the right with Kelty on the left, and little Zachary sandwiched in between his two adoring and fun older cousins…

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Balloon Hats Are Art

Walking around in downtown St. Louis this Independence Day weekend, I saw a couple of kids, about 10-years-old, skipping next to their parents. The entire family was decked out in Cardinals gear, they were all a little sunburned, and they were laden with stadium souvenirs. Most noticeably, however, this brother and sister duo were laughing and acting nuts, enjoying life while wearing balloon hats. When I saw those silly red, white, and blue balloon hats, Mack’s freckled face popped into my vision and my memory time machine took me straight back to New Orleans, December 2004.

Mack was 10. She had just hopped into the back seat of our boxy and blue Honda Element, and just before closing the wide-open suicide doors, I snapped a classic photograph of her. She was laughing and acting nuts. She was over-the-moon, because she had won an important argument with her dad, and she was proudly sporting her championship trophy atop her little head. We had just spent several hours wandering the streets of the French Quarter and Jackson Square, listening to music, eating beignets, and enjoying the performance artists. Mack had been fascinated by a flamboyant man making balloon animals and hats. She set her sights on a hat. Her dad said “no, no, no,” arguing that it was an overpriced and impractical souvenir. “No, no, no, Daddy-O,” she argued. “It is art, and I need it.” Of course, he caved in, like he always did. And Mack chose a red and orange monstrosity with antenna-like balloons sticking straight up in the air. Mack beamed in that hat, just like those two kids beamed in their patriot variety. For Mack, those contorted balloons were the perfect end to a great day.

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It was simple things like balloon hats that lit up Mack’s world, and I am so glad her dad and I frequently indulged her in her child-like pleasures. It did not take much to make that kid happy, and although that damn balloon hat blocked the rear-view mirror, drove her sister crazy, and deflated long before we made it home to Springfield, Illinois, it was a highlight of the trip for Mack. It also left us with the cherished balloon-hat photo that now so beautifully captures the spirit of my lost girl.

When I saw those happy kids proudly sporting their patriotic balloon hats, my heart had smiled for three reasons. I remembered my Mack in her own balloon hat when she was just the same age. I was happy that those two little kids knew how to fully enjoy a simple and silly pleasure. And I was so glad that those parents had purchased ridiculous air-filled hats in spite of the fact that they were likely way overpriced and stood little chance of making it home. I just hope at some point in the day, one of those parents captured a photograph of balloon-hat bliss on the faces of their kids, like I was so lucky to capture on the face of my sweet girl.

Maybe those kids had not used the same balloon-hats-are-art argument that Mack had used back in 2004 to claim hers, but those kids (and likely their parents as well), understand the value of a few cheap balloons fashioned into a glorious and artful hat. Balloon hats are art, people. Pure and simple and true.