A Thanksgiving Tradition for Mack

Thanksgiving is a perfect American holiday because it is a holiday for all Americans, it transcends religious and cultural divides, it encourages gratitude, it focuses on the family table, and it celebrates food. For all of those reasons, Mack loved Thanksgiving, but mostly she loved it for the food. Every year as we drove to my sister’s house for our annual family feast, Mack would say something like: “Thanksgiving is da best, because I can eat three plates of noodles and no one will judge me.” (I can certainly attest that Mack could definitely put down some noodles!). Sharing a meal with Mack was delightful, because her love and appreciation for food was infectious; and Mack’s enthusiasm for food and her joy of eating always enriched our Thanksgiving dinners together. All holidays without Mack are difficult, but I feel her absence more keenly when food is the focus, and so Thanksgivings without her will always be particularly sad days for me.

In bracing myself last year for my first Thanksgiving without Mack, I wrote a blog about Mack’s love of food and her unique philosophy of eating. At most every meal she ever ate, Mack saved a perfect last bite for the end. It was a bite that epitomized the best qualities of the meal. A bite for which she would close her eyes to more deeply savor the food she had just enjoyed. A bite that would linger on her tongue and remain in her brain. Since writing that Thanksgiving blog, I have frequently finished a meal with a Mack-perfect last bite. It is a small and quiet way to honor my girl, but it is also a reminder to me to stop for a moment to appreciate the simple joy of good food. Thanksgiving is a holiday of food and of gratitude, and so it was a Mack-perfect holiday; and a Mack-perfect last bite is a perfect holiday tradition that I will always observe. So go break bread with your families. Go gorge yourselves on noodles (no one will judge you and Mack will definitely approve). And then, end the meal with a perfect last bite to savor, to appreciate, and to remember.

For inspiration from Mack’s perfect-last-bite philosophy, please read last year’s Thanksgiving blog: https://macksmommabear.com/2014/11/26/the-perfect-last-bite/. I think you will see that Mack’s joyous approach to food was, indeed, an inspiration. Love and cheers to you all and my best good wishes that your perfect last bites this Thanksgiving will be memorable.

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McDermott Family Cheers in Ireland, 2002. (Mack is reppin’ the Yankees in her motherland).


Benji the Jeep

When her sister moved to Spain in July 2010, Mack inherited our 1997 Jeep Wrangler. Mack had been driving since March, sharing my boxy blue (and very uncool) Honda Element, so she was very happy that her sissy decided to leave the country. That soft-top, gun-metal blue, noisy, old Jeep and my Macko were a match made in highway heaven. That spunky car befitted Mack’s personality, matching her casual, no-frills style and providing endless material for her unique brand of self-deprecating humor. The Jeep ran pretty well and, for an old guy, was still very reliable, yet it sported a few rusty spots and some tattered upholstery, rattled and roared over bumps, idled raucously at stop lights, and sometimes sputtered between second and third gears. But Mack, as she did with every person and possession in her life, accepted that old Jeep for what it was; and she was grateful to have it all to herself.

When we presented to Mack her own set of keys to the Jeep, she announced her undying devotion to her new four-wheeled friend, and she frequently reminded her sister via Skype that the Jeep was ALL hers now and forever. She named it Benji, talked to it like it was an old friend who needed extra love and encouragement, and made it famous at Springfield High School. When Mack sped into the gravel overflow parking lot at school each morning, Benji announced their arrival in a cloud of dust and a noisy shimmy and shake as Mack cut the engine; but classmates standing around the high school’s south entrance already knew that they were coming before they hit the parking lot, as Mack’s quick and forceful gear shifting and Benji’s creaky old bones could be heard at least a block away. I think Mack got a kick out of her arrival at school each morning. She was proud of Benji’s good effort to deliver her to school before the bell (at least most of the time), and she was glad that her classmates knew that she drove a classic old car with genuine character.

Back Camera license plate

Shortly after adopting the Jeep, Mack got a “Life is Good” tire cover, and we ordered vanity plates to help her make the car her own. The floor of the backseat almost immediately became a large garbage heap, littered with Laffy Taffy wrappers and Gatorade bottles. Usually, there was also a softball glove or bat, a basketball, or golf shoes hanging around back there as well, so there was really no good place for passengers to put their feet. If Mack ever wiped down the dashboard or washed the outside of that car, I certainly never witnessed it. She could not even be bothered to scrub off the silly string caked onto the driver’s side door, the dash, and the steering wheel after she suffered a “hit” by a few softball teammates. I suppose Mack viewed Benji as an extension of her own messy bedroom. That Jeep may have been old and noisy and dirty, but Mack loved that car and driving it was a joy to her. A neighbor of ours remembered: “I recall seeing Mackenzie jump in her Jeep and head off with a smile on her face and a whole bunch of energy.”

Mack also loved sharing Benji with her friends, although she demanded that they, too, accept the old guy for what he was (rattles, backseat litter, and all!). Mack was so happy to chauffeur underclass teammates to practices, games, or the golf course in Benji. She enjoyed teaching a few friends how to drive a stick-shift behind the wheel of her car. And she was always willing to take down the Jeep’s top if her favorite passengers wanted to joyride with the wind in their hair. One time, after riding around Springfield in Benji with the top down, it began to rain. Mack had to quickly pull over to put up the Jeep’s rag top. As the kids all struggled to secure the top in the rain, Mack’s friend Patrick’s cellphone rang. In the rain and in the ruckus, Pat answered the phone and yelled: “I can’t talk now, Dad, I’m helping Mack put on her top!” Oh, how Mack and her friends laughed and laughed, as Pat then attempted to explain to his father what he had really meant by that provocative statement! That story remained one of Mack’s favorite Jeep stories, it always made her chuckle, and she frequently repeated it over the years.

When Mack left for Spain in September of last year, we parked Benji in an open parking lot just a couple of blocks from our loft in downtown St. Louis. Once in a Skype conversation, Mack asked about Benji’s welfare, and once at her request, I sent her a picture of the Jeep resting peacefully awaiting her return. Since losing Mack, seeing Benji parked in that lot all alone without his favorite driver has haunted Mack’s father and me, as it is a bitter reminder of our loss. But keeping the Jeep has been something of a comfort as well, because Benji is also a reminder of the joy Mack experienced behind the silly-stringed-caked wheel, with the wind in her hair, with a crooked grin on her freckled face, and the whole world in front of her. I am also reminded of one particular conversation I had with Mack about Benji’s future. I had suggested at some point that when she went away to college that we might sell the Jeep and give her my Honda. Mack was horrified at that suggestion. “Benji is my bad-ass buddy!” she exclaimed. “Benji CANNOT be sold!

Now Mack would be so happy to know that Benji will become her sister’s car once again. Savannah has returned from Europe and will settle in Chicago with her boyfriend Levi and Benji the Jeep. I think Mack’s spirit will ride shotgun in that Jeep, as her sister tools around Chicago. Savannah will be able to close her eyes and see Mack’s crooked smile every time the engine starts. She will hear Mack coax Benji into third gear and listen to her sweet little chuckle whenever the Jeep rattles over a giant Chicago pothole. Yep, Benji will remain an honored member of the McDermott family now and forever. He was a special friend to our special girl, and he possesses some magical power now to transport us away…at least for a little while…with our happy-go-lucky Mackenzie in the passenger seat right next to us.

In these photos, Mack proudly displays her driver’s license, you can see for yourself the silly string baked into the Jeep’s paint, and Mack is saying goodbye to her parents after a visit to Truman State to see her…

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Mack rarely complained about her car, but on long drives, the noise-level of the Jeep annoyed her. She tweeted her annoyance once, after returning to college after a weekend visit home in December 2012…

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Mack’s dad loved to take videos to annoy Mack, and here are two related to driving Jeeps…



A Purple Bulldog

Last week, a large envelope arrived in the mail with a Truman State University logo in bold purple letters. This was the kind of envelope that announced quite clearly that it conveyed a very important and official parcel. Upon holding that envelope in my hands and feeling the somewhat squishy character of the item within it, my heart skipped a beat…or maybe two…as I realized that the envelope and its contents possessed the feel of a padded diploma portfolio. I am not sure why I knew it, but even before I pulled out the lush purple folder with Truman State University embossed in gold letters across the front, I knew that Mack’s college—the school she had picked on her own, the school she had embraced with every atom of her budding intellectual being, the school she loved—was recognizing her collegiate accomplishments along with its spring 2015 graduates.

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The tears freely flowed down my cheeks and I forgot to breathe as I fixed my blurred gaze upon that beautiful diploma. I cried because this represented Mack’s hard academic work and her success at Truman. I cried because she will not graduate with her best college friends and classmates one year from now. I cried because this will be her only college diploma. But I also cried because I realized that Mack had made a very wise college decision. That she had chosen a special school that embraced her as much as she had embraced it. And that my baby girl had spent her magical two years of college at a very special campus where individual students matter. The letter accompanying the diploma validated my realizations, and the tears just kept coming as a read it…

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I am grateful and happy that Mack chose Truman State. Mack was incredibly happy there. And at every turn, she met teachers, administrators, editors, a coach, and friend upon friend upon friend who were all happy that Mack was there, too. But I can tell you that back in March of 2012, when Mack was procrastinating her college choice right down to the wire (of course), I had no idea Truman was such a special place. I had not even heard of this small liberal arts school in rural, northern Missouri until after we began searching for a suitable substitute for Oberlin College, which was way out of our price range. In our last-minute research, we became impressed with Truman’s rankings for academics and value. After we visited Truman for the first time, we came away with a pretty good feeling about the lovely little campus with its solid red-brick buildings, lush green spaces, and architecturally impressive library. The academics, especially in English, the varied writing opportunities available to all levels of students, and an invitation to play NCAA Division II golf added to the allure. But I was still worried it would be a poor substitute for Oberlin; and late in the game, I favored Mack’s other choice, Saint Louis University.

Once Mack narrowed her choices to Truman and SLU, she refused to discuss it further. She wanted to be left alone to quietly make a decision on her own. I tried not to press her, as I wanted the final decision to be hers; but, of course, I fretted more as each day passed. Mack’s nonchalance about it added to my stress, but she expressed no worry whatsoever. Finally, just a couple of days before a deposit for housing was due, Mack chose Truman State. She was calm and deliberate in delivering her decision and explaining it. She told me that she believed it made the most sense. It was affordable and would require very little in the way of student loans. It offered the liberal arts curriculum she wanted, as well as a strong creative writing department and a B.F.A. if she decided to pursue that path. And playing golf for free was “the bacon on the burger,” she quipped. Mack’s decision made sense, I had to admit. But I immediately worried that she had simply made a practical decision, choosing Truman not because it spoke to her heart but because it was more affordable. When I expressed my doubt about her choice, Mack said: “Mom, the school color is purple. I’m going to be a Bulldog. What could be better than being a purple bulldog?!!” I responded that a college wardrobe of her favorite color and the lovability of the mascot was no way to choose a college. “Nah! Hush, hush, Momma Bear,” she chided me. “It’s all good. I’ve found the right place. I feel it.”True Bulldog 5

Of course, like so many other things in her life about which I had fears or doubts, Mack was right all along. Her hunch…her feeling…about Truman State was, indeed, all good. Within just a few days of arriving on that campus, it was Mack’s place. She found a comfortable home there, and it was from that amazing little college in northern Missouri that I watched the scholar in Mack emerge. Truman was the place where she bloomed and beamed and blossomed. It is a good feeling now to understand so very completely that the most important choice that Mack made as a young adult was absolutely perfect. Truman’s kind and human gesture in awarding a diploma for the academic work Mack completed adds one final proof attesting to the special place it really is. Truman is a smart and quirky little school with a whole lot of heart, just like my Macko. Thank you, Truman State University, for giving my baby exactly what she wanted: a happy and healthy and hopeful place to flourish.

Purple bulldogs forever.

Mack sporting some of that TSU purple…

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Mack is the first golfer on the left, next to her coach, Sam Lesseig. He was a sweet man, greeting Mack at freshman orientation with her Truman State golf bag. He and his wife fed the girls at their home and showered them with kindness and small gifts. Mack reported to me after a Christmas feast of lasagna, that he had given her a coloring book and crayons so that she could chill out a little while studying for finals. She was so tickled about that. Sadly, Sam died suddenly in the summer of 2013.

What?!! All this for ME?

Raising Mack took a great deal of energy, because she was such a mischievous toddler and an active kid; and it took all of my organizational skills and gas money to transport her to practices and games for the nine different sports she played over the course of sixteen years. But in other ways, she was so, so easy. She was happy and silly on the outside, and she was tranquil and wise on the inside. She rarely sassed or grumbled and never felt sorry for herself. She would frequently with amusement report on the preteen and teenager drama of her classmates, but she never engaged in any of it herself. She was even-keeled, humble and sweet. For a child however, one of her most surprising and admirable traits was her gratitude. She was one of the most appreciative children I’ve ever known.

With the exception of frequently exercising her talents as a professional lobbyist for new pets, Mack never begged for material objects, especially items we could not afford. She never needed the most expensive bike, or jeans or golf clubs. She was never compelled to keep up with her peers in the accumulation of stuff. Mack was content and thankful for what she had, and she always felt a little guilty if we splurged for something like a quality catcher’s mitt or a pair of her favorite Nike sneakers that were not on sale. She adored a few precious objects—like Spot the little stuffed dog, her old-fashioned Nintendo games, her Buffy the Vampire box set, and a miniature “Dr. Who” Tardus made by the hand of a college friend. But mostly, material objects were of little importance to her.

Yet from a very young age, Mack was a gracious receiver of gifts. She would enthusiastically unwrap them, beam brightly and offer genuine enjoyment and thankfulness. At birthdays and at Christmas she always wanted to assure me that I had chosen the perfect gifts and had wrapped them beautifully. For her, receiving a gift was about making her gift giver happy. Underneath that silly, little kid persona, Mack was in that way a wise old soul. Her effusive acceptance of gifts always made me smile, and I admired this subtle quality in her. She always exhibited surprise and excitement upon opening a gift; and frequently she teased about being unworthy of such abundance.

When Mack was selecting a college, she fell in love with Oberlin, an extraordinary little school with an extraordinary sticker price. She visited twice, was recruited by the basketball coach, made her application and crossed her fingers and toes for enough scholarship money to make it work. The scholarship was significant, but insufficient. It absolutely broke my heart and it put a pretty good crack in hers as well, but she accepted it with grace. Of course, in the end, that disappointment mattered not to Mack. She found a suitable second choice, an equally quirky and special liberal arts environment at Truman State University in northern Missouri. She did not dwell on what was not to be, instead she focused on what she had in front of her. I pined for Oberlin far longer than she did. Not only did Mack move on quickly from the dream of Oberlin, she also appreciated that even the far more affordable Truman was expensive. When she went off to college in the fall of 2012, we put our family on a tight budget so as to fund most of the expense along the way and to avoid oppressive student loans. Mack accepted this plan with enthusiasm, and her discipline to make it work was admirable. She dutifully followed her budget and never once complained. She always waited too long to ask for additional funds, she felt guilty when necessity required her to ask for money and she always exhibited sincere appreciation for all she received.

At times, I find myself wishing that Mack had been more demanding. Wishing that I had showered her with more of the things she might have enjoyed but for which she was too kind to ask. Wishing that I could have afforded to send her to Oberlin. Wishing that I would have spoiled her way more rotten than I did since, as it turned out, I had so little time to indulge her. But Mack did not sit around wishing for things that were not possible. She did not dwell on the past or worry about the future. She did what we all need to try harder to do: to live in the moment and to be content with what we have immediately in our midst and easily within our grasp.

What an amazing and sage kid she was. I knew it then. I know it better now. For Mack, the glass was always half full, not half empty. For Mack, the sky was partly sunny, not partly cloudy. For Mack, life was not about the quality or quantity of your material possessions. I am pretty certain that Mack would say to me now that her twenty years were, in her words, “all good.” And I’m pretty certain Mack would tell me now she had all she ever needed. I am trying hard to keep this in mind, and I am trying even harder to believe it.

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A Mackenzie text from college…

asking for money