Writing for My Life

Writing saved my life. No joke. No lie. No hyperbole here.

I’ve been a writer my entire life—poetry and short stories in high school, creative writing minor in college, a few years as a journalist, an unsuccessful cookbook and children’s book author in adulthood, and twenty-six years as a historian, publishing two books and dozens of articles and essays. BUT, when Mack died in October 2014, I started writing for my life. I invested my Being Mack’s Momma Bear blog with the purpose of a life-preserver. The early days of writing helped keep my head above the water in the dark and stormy sea that was my grief. The writing helped me examine my experience with sorrow in real-time. It was a hard, ugly, messy business, but I felt the power of writing’s balm upon my shattered body and spirit. Turning the twisted knots of my grief into words and sentences that made sense in black and white was constructive and therapeutic and cathartic. Writing was a remedy for all the ways my grief ailed me. It saw me through the darkest tunnel and into the light. And it continues to fill my lungs with air, with life, and with courage.

Last year, I decided I wanted to make writing a bigger and bolder part of my life. I have a dream to purchase a large historic home and to create a serene writer’s retreat within it. I want to establish a place where all types of writers can come for quiet reflection and work, where authors visit to share their books with others, where poets practice, where creativity thrives, and where writing classes embrace the writing dreams of children, college-bound students, and adults who want to explore writing in their own lives. I can’t make this dream a reality tomorrow, or likely even soon, but I will someday make Mack’s Manor a reality in some form or another. The writing and the dream give me hope, push me onward, and are such good friends for my life’s journey, no matter what happens in the end.

While I save money and formulate plans for my writing retreat, I decided I wanted to teach some writing classes, to learn more about the process of writing and how different people approach it, and to share my enthusiasm for its healing power. I wanted to practice, if you will, what my writing retreat might be able to do. I created a Write Your Life class for an adult education program in St. Charles, MO, and I have spent the last six weeks as an excited newbie writing instructor working with a patient, kind, and creative group of students. Poor guinea pigs that they are, my first writing students will occupy a corner of my heart forever. Tonight will be my final class. Endings make me weepy, always have, and this ending will be no different. I do feel a happy sense of accomplishment for doing something scary, but I am sad it went by so quickly that I barely had time to breathe in all of the joy of it.

This little Write Your Life class of mine has been another important step on my road back to the core of my old self, and it marks good progress along my journey forward to a new life, to a new place, where there is peace and joy and grace. My first seven students have been a treat, and it has been my pleasure to inspire them to stretch the muscles of their creative spirits. Last week, one of those students—a delightful retired woman named Gloria who is finding a poet within her—gave me a thank-you box of chocolates and a little owl with solar-powered, light-up eyes. The owl was a perfect sentiment, because from this first class I was seeking wisdom to inform the future of the writer’s life I want to live. I think I found a little wisdom, at least I certainly learned a lot about the life in front of me. And in the eyes of my wise little mascot, the future looks bright (and happy?), indeed.

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.

folk heroes

Kathleen and Clyde c1943

Me and Mack in the Garden

I was in the garden yesterday.

I was there to seek the company of the dawn redwood trees, upon the deeply fissured trunks of which there is written an ancient wisdom and under the branches of which I often find comfort. I was feeling a great deal of anxiety, as I always do at the end of a project that has consumed much of my creative energy and intellect over a long stretch of time. Instead of embracing a contented feeling of achievement, my mind was restless from the release of its previous intensity of purpose; my body was stiff and sore with the lingering memory of the labor, hanging tight and clinging heavy to my bones. It is a regular, and peculiar, ritual with me that the completion of a piece of writing about which I feel so damn good also leaves me, in the bargain, feeling so damned lost. It is similar to the sorrow that overcomes me when I read the last word on the last page of an extraordinary book. It feels something like the loss of a friend, or a missed opportunity, or a misplaced treasure. To complicate my trouble with endings, I also frequently feel a little off-balance within the uncomfortable and uncertain space in my mind that occupies the time between the end (or death) of one creative project and the beginning (or birth) of a new one. It makes me feel quite lonely, very sad, and sometimes a little crazy, too. Usually I can conquer on my own any negative energy that should never cling to a successfully completed project in the first place, but sometimes I need a little outside help to do so.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has become for me not only a physical sanctuary but an emotional and intellectual one. It is a place where nonjudgmental spirits reside and where I find both relief and inspiration. The garden has become my happy refuge and a cherished friend. It grounds my restless spirit to the earth, provides solace to my broken heart, and refreshes my tired mind. It is where I go to be uplifted by the songs of birds and to be renewed by the wondrous, ever-changing colors and shadows of all of the seasons of nature. It is where I go to walk with my memories, my sorrows, my hopes, my worries, and my intellectual and creative ideas. It is where I go to conquer the uncertain and uncomfortable in-between spaces in my mind. Yesterday, the latter was my need for the garden, and to be in the presence of the majestic Metasequoia was my singular purpose. I made a brisk and determined path to the redwoods in the back of the garden, noticing neither the birds nor the colors and shadows along the way. So eager was I for those trees to release me from my burdens, I had ignored all other greetings of the garden and offered my happy refuge, my cherished friend, no greeting of my own, either.

But, thankfully, Mack was in the garden yesterday, too.

As I followed the path, curving around the Victorian section of the garden and leading toward the stand of the dawn redwood trees, Mack popped up in my mind at precisely the moment that a single snow crocus, poking up through a carpet of old autumn leaves, popped into my peripheral vision. “Slow down, Mamma Bear,” she whispered. “Walk with me.”

It was then that I first noticed the warmth of a long-missing sun and the crisp breeze upon my face. It was then that the nurturing characteristics of the garden began to work their magic upon my tired body and to ease the discomforts of my restless mind. We started walking, Mack and I, under the branches of the dawn redwoods, and for more than two hours we mindfully strolled. Along every path, we spied chipmunks scurrying in bushes and we looked for the shiny blades of new-born leaves peeking up through the dirt and promising the coming of spring flowers. In the Japanese garden, we chatted with some turtles sunning on rocks and laughed at the awkward and silly cypress knees randomly jutting up out of the ground. We lingered at every statue we passed, we found some pansies in the home garden, and we sat for a spell on a bench in the woodland garden, enjoying the soothing sound of the water gently falling over rocks on its way down the stream. Everywhere we walked, we listened to the songs of the birds and took in all of the colors and shadows that a glorious pre-Spring day in the Midwest has to offer.

I did not think about the past. I did not worry about the future. I did not think about the end of my completed project. I did not contemplate the challenges of my new one. I just walked, with Mack, breathing easy and settling my mind upon the present. When I finally made my way to the exit, the in-between space in my mind had closed. I whispered my gratitude to Mack and to the garden, and I headed for home, basking in the satisfaction connected to rewarding work and the successful completion of a creative project and happily looking forward to a new creative project on the horizon.

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More Freaking Forks

This summer, Jacquie, my niece and Mack’s oldest cousin, traveled to the UK on vacation with her boyfriend Jon. One evening, in casual summer clothing—perfect for daytime wandering upon the cobbled London streets but less ideal for upscale dining—they popped into an appealing eatery for dinner. Upon escort to their table, Jacquie felt under-dressed and very uncomfortable, as she realized she found herself in a fancy restaurant. As she was seated, however, Jon noticed the decor behind her, which immediately put her at ease. Shining boldly on the wall was a giant dinner fork. Suddenly, Mack appeared to tell her to chill the fuck out, to remember that the clothing one is wearing should not dictate the quality of the food that one should eat, and to order well and enjoy it.

Jacquie Forks

Jacquie and the London Fork.

For those of you who do not remember or do not know about Mack and forks, particularly ginormous freaking forks, I point you now to an old blog entry that will enlighten and entertain: https://macksmommabear.com/2014/11/06/forks/

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Mack and a Fork at Pier One Imports.

Oh, and recently a friend of mine ran into the enormous flatware below and she paused to remember Mack fondly and share a laugh with her; and, of course, she sent me a picture to share the memory. It is heartwarming to me that people who loved Mack have these moments in their daily lives to spend with her, to keep her memory alive, and to continue reaping the benefits of her wit, her joy, and her wisdom.

Nina Forks

Nina’s Found Flatware.

Cabin Fork

Mack Memorial Fork on a wall in the McDermott family cabin in Wisconsin (that’s a picture of Mack underneath it).

Mack Memo #4: Nothin’ You Can Do About It Now

One Sunday many years ago, Mack, her dad, and I headed home from a youth basketball tournament just like we did on so many Sundays during Mack’s competitive basketball career. We passed through the University of Illinois campus, where we had spent the weekend. We traversed nearly the entirety of the twin towns of Urbana and Champaign. We drank leftover Gatorade and engaged in some small talk, perhaps about the basketball facility, a bad ref, or a Mack-crazy assist to one of her favorite inside targets. But soon we settled in for the ninety-minute drive home to Springfield, and then Mack tuned out with her headphones, ear spray wafting up to me in the front passenger seat. It was a typical afternoon in our basketball lives. But as we were cruising at 75 mph on Interstate 74, nearing the town of Monticello, a soft little voice, quiet and matter-of-fact, whispered from the back seat: “Hey, mom, do you have my basketball bag?”

Of course, I did not. Of course, I yelled a few obscenities, demanding answers as to the said bag’s whereabouts. Of course, Mack feigned investigative effort, leaning over the back seat of my Honda Element to search the trunk, but knowing full well that the bag was sitting on the sidewalk outside of the recreational center on the University of Illinois campus, so many fucking miles behind us. As I loudly recited a list of the bag’s contents, offering appraisals as to each item’s monetary value, Mack maintained the resting heartbeat of a person who was sleeping. As I frantically, and maybe even a little hysterically, called coaches who might have stayed behind after we were gone, Mack was cool and composed in the face of the unfortunate situation and in the path of her Momma Bear’s wrath. While I raged at her about responsibility and warned about consequences of the lack thereof, Mack’s easy breathing in the vicinity of my stress over her lost basketball apparel, would have been the envy of even the most secluded Buddhist monk. As she always did in unfortunate situations, Mack remained perfectly relaxed and serene even in the knowledge that she might never again see her beloved and perfectly broken-in Nike high-tops. As she frequently said, and certainly uttered in some form or another on that day as well, “Oh, well,” shoulders shrugging, “nothin’ I can do about it now.”oh-mack

As it turned out, Mack’s basketball bag made its way into the car of a coach of another team who recognized the Predator logo upon it. There was no hard lesson for Mack to learn and, in fact, the good luck only reinforced Mack’s perspective on the whole sordid affair. When the bag with the entirety of its contents returned to her, Mack sweetly reminded me of how much energy I had expended in the car that day. Mack knew that sweating and fretting and carrying on was of no use. It could not change the fact that Mack, distracted by giving hugs to parting competitors and teammates, had left the bag sitting on the sidewalk in the first place. It did not cause a coach who knew Mack’s team to recognize the bag and pick it up for safekeeping. And even if the bag and those beloved Nikes had been lost forever, Mack knew that sweating and fretting and carrying on had no power to change that either.

For years, this Mack story was just one of dozens of illustrations of the peaceful and lackadaisical quality of her nature in striking contrast to the frenetic and worry-wart quality of my own. But during this past year, I have been practicing meditation and the basic principles of mindfulness in an effort to quell my anxiety and to lead my restless mind to some peace. In this personal journey, Mack’s natural sense of peace has been my guide, and this particular Mack story is now an inspirational one for me. Though I am still very much a novice, my practice is beginning to make a positive impact on the health of my mind, I now understand better how Mack possessed such a healthy and happy spirit, and I am finding some clues about how to make my spirit happy, as well. While I know I will never achieve Mack’s level of calm, because of her and with her as my guide, I am working very hard to one day be the kind of person who might inadvertently forget a bag of necessary and favorite items on a sidewalk somewhere and shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well, there’s nothin’ I can do about it now.”

Mack Memo #4: Let it go, people. Relax. Have some Gatorade. Nothin’ you can do about it now.

 

Mack’s Pack

When my Mack collected a best friend, she spread out those long arms of hers, enveloped the lucky new person in a Big-Mack hug, and adopted her as a sister. Mack’s individual relationships with each member of what I have come to think of as Mack’s Pack were, of course, special and unique unto themselves. Yet for Mack, this group of amazing young women was more than just a random circle of her closest female friends. Almost as if she saw herself as Momma Mack, she created a little family out of those best friends. For her it was important…no, it was essential…that her hand-picked collection of best friends be friends with one another and that they feel the bonds for one another that she felt for them. I have come to believe that deep in Mack’s soul was the sweet knowledge of the good those best friends of hers might one day be able to do for each other.

The night before Mack’s memorial service in Springfield, her family of best friends assembled to grieve together, to draw strength from one another, and to share their memories of Mack with each other. Mack’s happy spirit was with them that night, and I know in my heart she would now be profoundly grateful that two years later the lifelong bonds of Mack’s Pack continue. Two of those women— Maggie, a childhood best friend, and Meagan, a college best friend—were recently together in Columbia, Missouri. During their brief but happy reunion, in the town where Mack first introduced them, a friendship between them has blossomed and the happy chances of life, realized through our human connections in the world, are on full, beautiful display.

Just a couple of months ago, Maggie, who has lived in Columbia since arriving there as a college freshman, was working at an internet ad agency, her first post-college job. Meagan had just moved to Columbia to take her first job, working on the Democratic campaign of senatorial candidate Jason Kander. Because they had Mack in common, they got together. They shared meals, beers, and funny stories about their lost friend. Maggie and Meagan also discovered that Mack was not their only common bond. Although not surprisingly, given that Mack had collected them as best friends, Maggie and Meagan also learned that they had similar world views, shared many interests, and enjoyed the cultivation and practice of very quirky senses of humor. As if those common bonds were not enough, they are also both fun-loving but serious-minded woman, and as feminists and politically astute new college graduates, both are enthralled with this season’s fascinating politics and the exciting election year of 2016.

Just weeks after arriving in Columbia, Meagan had the opportunity to take a job on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Maggie was there to counsel and encourage Meagan to make the move, even after so short a time in her first job; and Meagan was there to convince Maggie, who studied political science at Mizzou and interned with a Democratic Missouri legislator, to follow her political passions, as well. Meagan lobbied her boss at the Kander campaign to hire Maggie as her replacement, and Maggie accepted the new job just as Meagan was preparing to move to her new job in Omaha, Nebraska.

Today, Meagan is settled in Omaha. Maggie has begun her new job back in Columbia. And both women have a new best friend. It is absolutely natural and happy and good that Mack’s Maggie and Mack’s Meagan would come together at a perfect time in their new lives as adult woman. It is a beautiful testament to their personal friendships with Mack that they would so easily forge a friendship with each other. It does honor to Mack’s good work in the creation and sweet maintenance of her special pack of best friends. And it is amazing and such a blessing to me that Mack’s spirit was once again party to all of the good her best friends can, and will forever do, for each other.

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Maggie and Meagan in Columbia

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I had the pleasure of sharing drinks and a meal with Meagan and Maggie in Columbia before Meagan moved to Nebraska.

The serious and silly sides of the Mack-Maggie friendship (https://macksmommabear.com/2016/02/21/macks-best-friends-m-maggie-margaret/):

The serious and silly sides of the Mack-Meagan friendship (https://macksmommabear.com/2016/05/07/truwomen/)

Epilogue: Yet another Mack best friend, Ali, helped Meagan pack up her belongings in Columbia! (https://macksmommabear.com/2016/05/19/the-ali-mack-frouple/)

 

Savannah

Savannah Arya McDermott is the one thing…the one person…who inspires me to get out of bed every morning and face another day without Mack. She is my amazing older daughter, and she was an amazing big sister as well. Today is Savannah’s 27th birthday, and I want to brag on her a little. She is an intelligent, feisty, and adventurous young woman, and she really does inspire me. She was an inspiration to her baby sister as well. Mack was very lucky to have had Savannah as her “Sissy,” and here are just a few of the wonderful reasons why…

Unconditional Love: Savannah was an only child for six years, and for most of that time she begged for a baby sister. She was a precocious child (talked at nine months!) and she was an adorable little drama queen. She skipped and twirled through her life, always playing the role of a Disney princess. She was the center of my attention, spoiled rotten, and happy. But she was lonely for a sister. So Mack’s arrival in the world was a big day for Savannah, and she was the happiest little Kindergartner in the world when Principal Hathaway came to her classroom to deliver the news that her sister was born. Savannah cuddled and loved her new baby sister and looked after her like a little momma; she was thrilled to play the role of big sister.sissies

Mack—a goofy comedian and a tomboy with a quiet disposition—grew into a very different person than Savannah—a studious girlie-girl with an outspoken personality. My girls were as different as night and day. Yet their love for each other never wavered, and the guidance my big girl provided my little one never faltered. They fought and fussed like all siblings, but Savannah always loved, respected, and accepted her sister for who she was, what she wanted to do, and who she wanted to be in the future. I have no doubt that a large part of the reason Mack was so accepting and tolerant of others was because Savannah was so accepting and tolerant of her.

Studious Role-Model: Growing up, Savannah was a conscientious student, a voracious reader, and a gifted writer. She was always writing poems and stories, and one of her stories won her a trip to the prestigious Illinois Young Author’s convention in 1999. As a young adult, Savannah was a shining example of the importance of a life-long commitment to reading and to learning. Mack’s dad and I provided evidence of that, too, but a sibling’s example in this regard had much more impact. Mack grew up with a sister who placed importance on school work, always had her nose in book, and at the dinner table and on long car rides enjoyed talking about what she was reading and learning in school. Mack spent much of her life focused more on sports and less on academics, but Savannah was a persistent (non-adult) reminder that there was a world beyond basketball and softball.

babiesSavannah often chided me for letting Mack coast in academics because she was so busy with sports; and she always pushed Mack to choose more challenging books, to study harder, and to take full advantage of her academic opportunities. I am sure there were many times when Savannah believed that her advice was drowned out by the incessant dribbling of basketballs. But by the time Mack finished her freshman year of college, I clearly saw the impact of Savannah’s example. Whenever she was home from Truman State, Mack talked with me about her coursework with the same enthusiasm that Savannah always did about her own. I frequently heard the cadence of big sister’s tone in Mack’s voice, and I well recognized the keen argumentative style she had clearly learned from her as well.

Musicals Make the World Go Round: Two days after Mack was born, Savannah auditioned for her first play. Neither Kevin nor I could bear the thought of missing her audition, so we schlepped the brand-new Mack and all of her brand-new baby accoutrements to the Springfield Theatre Centre in the early morning hours on Saturday, March 19, 1994. Mack spent that second full day of her life in that theatre, and at the end of that long day, her big sister landed a coveted role as a bean person in Jack and the Beanstalk, a musical. I guess all of that singing got into her brain, because Mack, like her sister, adored musical theatre and musical movies for the rest of her life. Every summer, Savannah attended a theatre camp program at the Springfield Theatre Centre, and as soon as Mack was old enough to attend, she joined her big sister. The girls had a blast singing, dancing, acting, and preparing for the final show at the end of the summer session. Savannah was always the ham in these productions, but one time she convinced her sister to audition for a solo part. That summer, Mack sang “Build Me up Buttercup” all by herself in the 1950s-themed final show. We were all proud, but Savannah was particularly thrilled.sissies 2

Savannah’s influence did not stop at theatre camp. From the time she was tiny, Savannah loved musicals. In fact, she WAS Ariel from The Little Mermaid almost every day of her toddlerhood; and for many weeks when she was just two years old, she scooted up the stairs on her little butt, just like Gretl did in The Sound of Music. “The sun has gone to bed and so must I,” she sweetly sang, as she went off to bed each night. Savannah was happy to have a sister with whom to watch her favorite musicals; and my little girls watched and re-watched, always singing aloud. As Savannah grew up, she added to the rotation more adult shows—like Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge. Together my girls spent hours and hours watching these shows, sometimes singing way into the night. Mack’s interest did not stop when Savannah went to college. After that, she became a devotee of the TV show Glee and she was crazy for the Book of Morman and Next to Normal. Yep, Savannah was single-handedly responsible for Mack’s love of musicals.

Inspiration for Travel and Adventure: Savannah started dreaming about studying abroad and living overseas when she was in junior high school. She worked very hard in her Spanish classes, was always reading about new places, and talked nonstop about where she wanted to go and what she wanted to see. When she left for Indiana University to major in Spanish and International Studies, we all began to realize that she was dead serious about pursuing her dreams. As a college junior, she made the bold choice to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was proud of her, but worried; and Mack thought it was cool that her very own sister was brave enough to live in a place that was so different and so far away. After Savannah graduated from college, she applied for a teaching program in Spain; and once she was accepted, she never looked back. Always determined, prepared, organized, and courageous, my little mermaid left in July 2010 for the adventure of a lifetime. After a month-long trip with a college friend, she moved to southern, rural Spain and began her life as an ESL teacher.

By the time it was Mack’s turn to consider studying abroad, Savannah had lived in southern Spain, spent eighteen months living and working in southern Thailand, and was back in Spain, this time in Madrid. At first, Mack talked about the UK, because she was obsessed with British culture and television. As she told me on many occasions in the months preceding her decision, “I already speak the language, momma bear, and besides, I got that accent down.” But when Savannah weighed into the conversation, challenging her baby sister to choose a location where there would be a language barrier and real culture shock, Mack listened. And you know what? I was not surprised when Mack decided to go to Spain. Savannah had been an inspiration to Mack for her entire life, and it was only fitting that big sister’s influence here would win the day. Savannah was right, and I am pleased that Mack chose Spain. It was the correct decision. And I am so very grateful that she had that short time in Spain, living an adventure, just like Sissy.

So you see, Savannah was an amazing big sister. She made an indelible mark on the life and character of Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott. So much of the person Mack was pays tribute to the sister who loved her and helped her grow into the amazing young woman she became. To know Mack was to know that she was lucky in the sister department. Savannah always loved and accepted her, challenged and inspired her. And I am so proud to have raised them both.

Happy Birthday, Savannah. As Mack would have said, “yous the best.”

sisters in spain