My Year of Un-Gilded Quiet

Grief is not eased by material possessions and luxurious distractions, nor is grief drowned in wine, nor muffled out by mindless noise and superficial, furious activity. Living with the death of a child requires inner strength, which cannot be borrowed, purchased, or negotiated from the universe. Only the human grit within our own bones can give us the courage to seek our own robust measure of contentment in the heartbreaking and beautiful world in which we live. Likewise, solace does not come in a package wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a shiny bow. Solace only exists within the confines of our own beating hearts, and we can only tap its healing powers when we possess for ourselves the strength and the courage to find it.

All this truth converges upon me on first-day January air, with the struggle of past months barely quiet but with a fresh set of new days brightening my doorstep. All this truth I now know as intimately as the breath in my lungs, but the full meaning of all this truth I cannot yet fully comprehend. Still, I have stuffed it all deep into my pocket like a good luck charm at the ready for what comes next. The big what comes next—a dream of establishing a writer’s retreat in a spacious historic home—is still just a warm feeling in my hopeful heart, still a glimmer in my expectant eyes, and still a dream whispered to me from across an unknown landscape far, far away in the future. But for now, baby steps forward. Always forward, and that is the important thing on the cusp of a fresh new year. Right now, I still have much important work on myself to do; and the aspiration to a better human me is the current value of that charm of truths tucked away within my pocket.

In December, I read in the New York Times an opinion piece entitled “My Year of No Shopping” by the author Ann Patchett. In the article, Patchett describes her year of minimalist consumerism inspired by the country’s turn at the end of 2016 “in the direction of gold leaf, an ecstatic celebration of unfeeling billionaire-dom” that kept her up at night. I share Patchett’s political anxiety, but mine is also grounded in my current historical research on the excess and inequality of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era of America’s sordid past. The political ascension of an old-fashioned robber baron in America’s second Gilded Age keeps me up at night, too. And like Patchett, I have, in middle age, come to question the mindless consumer culture that lulls us into complacency and false contentment and now carries with it such unwieldy and untenable political freight, as well.

Since reading Patchett’s article, I have not been able to quiet its inspiration for my own personalized version of her experiment. It seems to me brilliantly pertinent to my life at this moment when I need so desperately to break free from false contentment. Therefore, I have formulated my own plan for a year of un-gilded quiet, which I believe might actually feed two birds with one small pack of seeds. It will help me focus my attention on making a better human me out of the riches inside my own head, within my heart, and from my own cherished circle of human beings. A happy bonus of the project will be extra money saved for my big what-comes-next dream. More importantly, however, pulling back from the frenzied consumer culture of our society will help me rediscover what I already have, teach me what I can do without, reinforce for me what is truly important, and inspire meaningful quiet time and space unburdened by the broken promises of frivolous pursuits and material possessions.

I want to spend the next year becoming more comfortable being alone with myself without noisy, meaningless props, like Netflix, which I have these past four bitter years used like drugs to distract me. I want to work on my human self, concentrating on reading and writing, exercise and nutrition, and peaceful living. I think this relatively simple plan for my un-gilded year of quiet, is just what the doctor ordered (or at least it is what this particular doctor of philosophy has ordered!). Over the coming year, I will purchase only necessary consumables and used books required for my professional work and scholarship; and I will only replace broken household or worn-out personal items I absolutely need and use (like a toaster or running shoes). I do not expect my plan to solve my problems, counsel my heartache, or fix my human deficiencies, but I do hope the living out of the plan will simplify my daily life and enrich the experiences that come along the way.

My survival is a work in progress. My life is a work in progress. My life, like any life, is a lifelong journey, and 2019 will be just another path along the way. I still need my sweet Savannah and my family to be healthy and hopeful roots, grounding me to the earth. I still need the broad and generous shoulders of old friends upon which to lean on my bad days. I still need the sweet, daily devotion of my beloved, cuddly dogs to soothe my troubled soul. But I also need to get a little closer to making my own inner peace, building up my own quiet strength, defining the parameters of my own survival, and finding contentment in the world standing on my own two feet.

I hope, and I think I am right to believe, that in spending the next twelve months living life with more deliberate purpose, by slowing things down a bit, and by relying not on material comforts but on meaningful experiences, I might just unravel some of the mysteries of personal contentment. I am going to try to help myself get stronger and healthier in my body, in my heart, in my mind, in my confidence, and in my very being. I think all of this is good work, and no matter how successful it may actually be, I think it will lead me a little closer at least to finding my own, more permanent solace. The poet David Whyte defines solace as “the beautiful imaginable home we make where disappointment can go to be rehabilitated.” During my year of un-gilded quiet, I intend to make that home in the chambers of my very own heart, fueled by the power of my own inner strength, and contented enough within myself to let the year unfold as it may.

P.S. Dear Mack, as with each and every single thing I do, you are the inspiration.

January

The Missouri Botanical Garden has been for me a sanctuary for peace. It will no doubt continue to play a role in my survival during my un-gilded year of quiet.

Mack’s Back to School

The milestones faced on the journey of grief generate profound feelings of loss and longing. Emotionally and physically painful are holidays, Mack’s birthdays, and the anniversaries marking the last day I saw her and the terrible day that I lost her. But as parents across the country are celebrating the First Day of School and marking important academic milestones in their children’s lives, I am celebrating the First Day of School, too. August back-to-school season stirs in me more joy and gratitude than sadness, because it marks the beginning of a new academic year for another talented recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship at Truman State University.

As fragile mortal beings, our time on the planet is limited, and there is so little time to make an imprint on the world. The best that most human beings can do over the course of a lifetime is be true to themselves, be kind to others, and apply their particular talents for some sort of greater good. In just twenty short years, Mack accomplished what it takes most of us sixty years or more to understand and to achieve. She was always true to herself, comfortable in her freckled skin and confident in her definition of herself as an athletic, nail-polish wearing, goofy intellectual. She was never mean-spirited, judgmental, or unkind. She used her talents of humor, charm, and unconditional love to make a significant and lasting impression on the lives of her family members and friends. And because of the impact Mack made on the people who had the good fortune to know her or to make her unforgettable acquaintance, an endowed scholarship in her name at her alma mater perpetuates her beautiful spirit. Therefore, every August, Mack goes back to school, too, making a difference in the life of another special young person who is preparing to share their talents with the world.

Laurie Shipley, a senior from Kansas City, Missouri, is this year’s scholarship recipient. Laurie, who will earn a BFA in the spring, is a creative writing major, a Spanish minor, and a member of the Truman State Color Guard. Her Spanish minor led her to a study-abroad term last summer in Costa Rica, where she took classes in Alajuela. After graduation, Laurie will be staying on at Truman to earn a Master’s degree in education. She plans to become an elementary school teacher and is anxious to share her love of literature and writing with students.

The reason why back-to-school season is special for me should be abundantly clear, and I am sending big-Mack hugs to everyone who is celebrating a milestone First Day of School this August. For me, the season will always be a time to celebrate Mack’s beautiful life, to rejoice in her spirit alive in the world, and to feel gratitude for all of the people who have contributed to the scholarship these past four years (a special shout-out to the Sunrise Rotary Club in Springfield, Illinois, for their renewed annual contribution). Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for loving Mack. And thank you for helping us to immortalize the impact of Mack’s beautiful life, one beautiful student at a time.

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

Laura Shipley

Mackenzie’s Rainbow

I find myself standing in a curious landscape. My travels through grief have brought me here. For much of the journey, the weather was foggy and misty and so much of the traveling progressed during the darkest of nights. A return to wherever it is I was before is impracticable; and besides, to this unexpected new topography I find myself profoundly drawn. The contours of the land are as yet unknown to me, and the lightness of the atmosphere in this new country unfamiliar. Yet I recognize the historical landmarks and the precious human faces of this peculiar place. The breeze here rings bells in my memories. The sunlight stirs in me warming hope. The fresh air gives buoyancy to aspirations I now feel strong enough to embrace. And, strangely, I am not a stranger here. I am home.

I have finally, thankfully, perhaps evenly blessedly, arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

I am relatively certain that I have not been in this new place for very long, and I have only just noticed my arrival on this bold frontier. Last week at home after a therapeutic four-day weekend with old and dear friends in Minnesota, I cried. And cried. And cried. Every day the tears falling like rain in the springtime. I hadn’t cried like that in many weeks, and I had become very worried that my tears had dried up forever. I had been feeling cracked and hardened by their absence, but now the clouds had opened up and these tears poured down, refreshingly different, less bitter, more cleansing. It was through these new tears that I first saw the beauty of the very different landscape in which I now find myself. What is most curious, and wonderfully unexpected, is that this fresh landscape of my life is a whole new place under the sun, created and settled by all of the people, living and dead, who are critical to my survival in this world. It is a landscape planted with all of my tangible and emotional needs for a livable, breathable environment that is not only healthy and whole but also full of possibilities I thought gone forever.

This place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow is not a paradise in which my pain and sorrow have vanished or where I possess total clarity and feel no fear. Instead, it is a place where I can walk hand-in-hand with grief and with happiness, in security and in uncertainty, and through all of the pain and the joy of being human. It is a place that allows me, simultaneously, to inhabit two separate pasts, to define a new and brave present focused only on the things that bring me peace, and to curate a future of my own making. Innumerable, varied, and terrifying uncertainties remain, but I have some pretty good ideas about what life here will look like and, most importantly, I know I have the strength to face whatever experiences life might bring me and to go wherever life might call me. Mack will continue to guide me and my sweet and sassy Savannah is here to keep my feet upon the earth, but as terrifying as life still is and as hard as I know it will continue to be, I feel like I have emerged from a fog.

In life somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow I have:

  1. Family members and friends who have traveled with me on this journey, people who knew and loved Mack, who each share with me the agony of her absence but also carry the light of her beautiful life within them. Last week while I was crying my eyes out I was reminded once again of how Mack’s spirit shines out into the world. Mack’s best friend Justice (with the help of another best friend Elyse) and Project Mack hosted an inspiring gathering of community in hometown Springfield, Illinois. The two-day Take Back the City event, featured a concert and all-star basketball game, raised awareness about gun violence, supported scholarships for city high school students, and directed a positive spotlight on local talent and an incredible group of young people making a difference in the world. In these people that Mack collected, I am incredibly proud, and I am so grateful that Mack brought them into my life. All of Mack’s best friends are as important in my world as my family and my cherished Springfield friends who helped me raise my daughters. All together, these people represent my past with Mack, they are of my life with her, and they are now and forever, collectively, my family.
  1. I can be the Stacy I was before Mack and the Stacy I was with Mack and the Stacy I am now without Mack. This might seem very obvious, but I assure you it escaped me, and I cannot express how liberating it is for me now to know that it is true. After Mack died, I could only conceive of life and memories with her; to my mind there was no past, no present, and no future without her. But six beautiful and beloved growing-up friends—three from high school and three from college—wrapped me up so tight that they have, finally, squeezed this ridiculous misconception out of me. It took me too long to get it, but I get it now, even if I only just figured it out last week in Minnesota with two of these friends at my side. None of these women knew Mack, but they reached out and were willing to bear witness to my grief, to be old friends who knew me happy, and to be new friends willing to know me sad and dramatically different. They turned out to be life preservers and guides—Bridgett, an immediate and enthusiastic cheerleader of my blog, encouraging my writing and helping me find my way back to reading; Kathy, a keen observer of what my intellect needed to stay alive during some very dark days; Carol, an earth mother who gave me her heart, her family, and a dog; Michelle, who always cheerfully offers unconditional love, no matter what; Julie, a delightful imp who dared me to laugh and lets me laugh through my tears if that is what is required; and Diane, who faced cancer at the precise moment I faced the loss of Mack and whose quietly brave, matter-of-fact, ass-kicking of the disease was an inspiration to me when I thought all inspiration was lost. These women represent my past before Mack, and vital as they were to my formative development, they are ever so more vital to me now.
  2. My life in the present is up to me to define and to narrate. A mother’s grief is bone-shattering, life-altering, and permanent. I am coming to grips with this reality, and I am learning, as well, that I can bear no people or circumstances that make me feel my grief must pass. Part of my recovery is wearing the badge of that truth on my forehead and refusing to apologize for it. As well, I need to do a much better job of surrounding myself with the people and the things that bring me peace. I deserve peace wherever I can claim it, and in this new landscape I can see more clearly the roads I need to take to claim some of that peace.
  3. I am strong, but that does not mean I don’t sometimes need a little help. During the past nearly four years of life without Mack, there have been countless days when I was the only person who made me get out of bed. I had Savannah and good work to draw my broken spirit out from under the covers sometimes, but I have come to rely mostly on own my stubbornness to live. Throughout my grief, my mom kept telling me that I was strong, and I’m sorry to say, it made me angry. I didn’t want to be strong. I wanted to curl up into the fetal position and let somebody or something else be strong for me, to bear the weight for me, to fix me. But now I understand that it is OK to be strong, because I am, actually, really strong. But mostly, I understand that being strong does not mean that Mack’s absence somehow matters less or is easier for me to bear. This realization in the learning curve of grief is, perhaps, the most significant lesson I have learned. Just because I get out of bed every morning and function and dare myself to be productive does not mean I don’t miss Mack and struggle to breathe without her. It simply means that I am strong enough to survive it with a little grace and enough of myself intact that Mack might still recognize me. In this weird and wonderful new place in which I now find myself, I no longer feel guilty for being strong. But I am also no longer afraid to lean a little bit on people who will prop me up if I need to renew my energy, to regain my own strength.
  4. My brain is still alive, thank goddess, although its resuscitation has been a terrible trial. When Mack died, I quit reading books, I stopped taking online classes, and I abandoned my Pimsleur Spanish and French lessons, too. I gutted out the reading and research for my job, but my former life of the mind, my voracious reading, and my personal scholarship were casualties of my grief. Because you know what no one tells you? Grief is a monstrous, devastating destroyer that shatters so much more than the heart. I could no longer concentrate and for better than three years I faded as my eyes stared blankly at Netflix. My brain went offline, and I did not expect it to return to active duty. But thanks to all of the brilliant book-loving women in my life, I am a reader again. Thanks to an amazing new editing job, I am a scholar again. Thanks the lifting of the fog that smothered my brain, I have taken one online class and am in the middle of another. My brain is coming back, and that means in one really big way, I am coming back, too. And as I stand here in this bright new landscape, I’m smiling because Mack would be so damned happy and very relieved to know that my brain is not dead after all.
  5. Today, along with being Savannah’s mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a professional historian, I am a creative writer. Since attending a two-week creative writing camp at Indiana State University with my dear Bridgett in 1984, I have been a creative writer. But while I enjoyed a successful career of historical writing, life often intervened and my creative pen was idle. In October 2014 I started this blog, a desperate attempt to capture in words my memories of Mack, to celebrate her life, and to work through my sorrow. This blog was the first non-scholarly writing I had done in years, and it sustained me through many dark and very lonely stretches of depression. In March 2018, the urge to be creative again bubbled up anew, and I purchased a thick blue notebook with a wide green strap, and I became a creative writer again. Every single day in my notebook, I jot down thoughts and observations about the world, copy a paragraph of beautiful writing from the latest book I am reading, compose a poem, or frame dialogue gleaned from eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants. Since March, I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, and in my less lucid moments sharing that poetry with poor people who have no choice but to accept it. I’ve also written character sketches and short pieces of prose; I’ve conjured up ideas and taken copious notes for a book of essays and two novels, and I’ve written nearly 100,000 words for a memoir about grief. At some point I will explore the publication of some of this writing, but publication is not the end game. In my new life it is the process of the writing that matters, it is the good therapy it does me, it is the solace it brings me, it is the journey of curiosity and exploration and the rediscovery of me.
  6. BKS=01

    Me with Bridgett and Kathy, present for my epiphany in Minnesota.

This blog entry is a meandering mess, but my strict rule of raw, vulnerable, quick release forbids editing and, thus, I apologize for the density and the disorder. But, I hope, it is clear enough, dear reader, that a mist has cleared for me or I have emerged through a portal into the light or come to some proverbial crossroads. Or, perhaps, I really have arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow. Still grieving. Still a speed bump away from a straight-jacket. But better. More vibrant. Less afraid about where life will lead me in the coming year. And, I think, looking a little more like the Momma Bear Mack knew and loved for twenty precious years of my life.

Mackenzies Rainbow

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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Mack Memo #6: Eat Until It Hurts

Sometime between Mack’s I’m-on-kiddie-speed-get-outa-my-way phase and her tenth year, we went to an oyster bar for a family dinner. It was in Florida or southern Louisiana, I think, during one of our family escapes from a cold, Midwestern holiday. The restaurant was a cheesy, corporate-shack kind of a place with fish nets hanging from the ceiling and long communal tables covered with crisp white paper, fat paper towel rolls on metal spindles, and silver buckets for discarded seafood bodies. That is about all of the detail I remember about the time and the place, and I have no photos from the meal; but this seafood joint somewhere in the deep South was the setting for one of my most vivid (and horrible) Mack food memories.

This particular restaurant sold all varieties of seafood, but we had come for the oysters. Despite the numerous pounds of crab legs consumed on birthday dinners at Red Lobster and the crappy fried shrimp platters at Barrelhead, the Springfield bar and grill that helped raised my girls, Mack and her sister had never had oysters before that night. We ordered copious quantities of Rockefeller (the “gateway” oyster) and steamed and raw oysters on the half-shell. While Savannah first cautiously picked around the creamy spinach and cheese of the Rockefeller oysters, Mack dove right into the hard stuff. She starting shooting those raw oysters like a drunk springbreaker trying to win a round of free drinks for her friends. In between slurping down those little suckers, she made funny little food-satisfaction noises and praised the existence of oysters in the sea. We all laughed, congratulated Mack on her courage, enjoyed her delight in the feasting, and nibbled, mostly on those wimpy Rockefellers. I do not remember advising Mack to slow down and, in fact, I think we ordered another round.

And then Mack turned green.

Her brow was wrinkled up and her thin white lips were pursed together in a disheartened grimace. She sadly looked across the table at me and expelled a little whimper before abruptly pushing her chair away from the table and bolting across the dining room to the restrooms at the back of the restaurant. Savannah made some crack about how she knew that was gonna happen, and I went to check on the oyster queen. Mack was, of course, puking out her guts when I announced my arrival in the bathroom. Between heaves, Mack kept saying, “I’m ok, I’m ok. I’m ok.” When she emerged from the stall, her big brown eyes were bulging but she was no longer green. She washed her hands and splashed cold water on her face, and we returned to our table.

And then Mack took a big slurp of her coke and recommenced the eating of the oysters.

Undaunted. Seemingly impervious to the ghastly events of the previous ten minutes. Unwilling, I suppose, to let a little vomit come between her and good food. Determined as well, she later reflected, to make a good food memory out of those first-time oysters, to remember the deliciousness and not her rookie mistake.

Mack Memo #6: Eat Until It Hurts, baby! And then go back and eat some more.

Ergo, from Mack to me, and from me to you, this is Thanksgiving message 2017: Eat until it hurts, people. Let it out if you have to. And then drink some coke and go back in for some more. Enjoy the gorge and savor the delicious. Be brave. Try something new. And don’t you dare miss out on any oysters that might be hiding in your stuffing.

Oh, and at the end of the feast, don’t forget to construct that Mack-style perfect last bite.

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Is this baby Mack eating crayons and drinking beer?

Where Hope Lives

Three years ago this day, Mack slipped away from us, quietly, unexpectedly, and so very far away in Spain. She was a towering, colossal presence in the lives of her family and her friends, and the holes in our hearts from her absence are deep and wide and Mackenduring.

Recently, my dear friend Bridgett, who is both a writer and a gifted listener for wisdom on every breeze, wrote a blog about hope and an Emily Dickinson poem I once loved but had long forgotten: “Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” Deconstructing the image of hope as a delicate bird, my friend wrote: “hope is dogged and rough and resilient. Hope resides in the dimmest doorways and the darkest corners of our lives. Hope grows up from the disaster and the dirt, the fertile floor of grief.”

That passage got me thinking about the residence of my hope, along the path of my grief. Perhaps once…before…hope was “a thing with feathers” that perched in my soul. But when a soul is grieving, there is no room for the perching; and along the way these past three years, hope’s song has sometimes gone silent. In missing Mack’s giant presence in my life, in longing for her love and her laughter, and in lamenting all that a short life denied her, I have spent thirty-six months reflecting on loss, on life, and on learning the human balance of both. What I have been chasing all along, I now understand, is hope. Hope is the fire of our expectations, aspirations, desires, simple plans, and grand ambitions. Hope resides in that space between loss and living. Hope is food for a life worth living; and like all food, Mack would want us all to consume it, to take delight from it, and to appreciate the nourishment it offers.

In those bitter first days in early October 2014, I witnessed the flight of hope from my soul. Yet in the early fog of my grief I somehow knew, wondrously and thankfully, to reach out and grab it. When such a force of nature as Mack takes her leave, hope flies away with her. Hope was no longer within me, but I instinctively knew that I needed to keep it within sight. Hope came first in the face of my daughter Savannah, for hope resides, for mothers at least, in precious children. But since my mother’s hope for Mack could no longer reside in her body, I needed to find a way for hope to reside in her spirit, instead. The establishment of the Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship at Truman State University, where Mack learned to fly, provided a residence for my lost hope for her. Now hope resides in that scholarship. It resides on a pretty little campus in northern Missouri. It resides in the students who have benefited already and will continue to benefit in the future. It resides in an enduring legacy of Mack’s passion for writing. Even though I will sometimes fail in my grief to see it, hope will always reside there, waiting for me to reclaim it.

Today, as we mark the third anniversary of Mack’s passing, I am so proud…and bursting with hope…to announce that the scholarship that bears her name has its third recipient, a small town, Missouri girl named Athena Geldbach. The scholarship will help this studious, serious-minded young woman minimize her college debt and play a small role in her hopes of writing books and pursuing a career in publishing so that she can also help other hopeful writers. Athena has some charming characteristics that remind me of Mack. She has a passion for books, a devotion to pets, and is a liberal arts dreamer who is also, oddly, a math whiz (Mack did calculus just for fun; Athena is a math tutor at Truman). Mack always said she had a super-powered, two-sided brain; and, apparently, Athena has one of those, too.

Today, while you are all, like me, grieving for Mack a little more tearfully, missing her a little more terribly, and feeling the hole she left in your hearts a little more keenly, I send you love and a big-Mack hug. And I send you hope. Because in loving Mack and keeping her spirit always with you, some of my hope resides in you. I have learned that it really doesn’t matter where hope resides; it simply matters that it lives.

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

To read more about the scholarship and the hope it has brought me, see:
Honoring Mack, 2014 (Endowment of the Scholarship)
Magical Medicine, 2015 (First Scholarship Recipient)
The Happiest and Most Enduring of Memorials, 2016 (Second Scholarship Recipient

To learn about why Mack chose Truman State, see:
A Purple Bulldog

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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.

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

First Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeahhh, It’s Brrroken

A couple of weeks ago on my lunchtime walk, it was hot, my bare shoulders burned in the direct sun, and I was a little sweaty. However, the stunning architectural view looking east up Market Street toward the steely Gateway Arch, glistening in the afternoon sun, negated any physical discomfort. The sky was brilliant blue, my brain was taking a much-needed break, and my eyeballs were relieved to see something other than my computer screen. My cellphone buzzed in my brown and black Coach satchel, strapped across my shoulder, and shattered my serene respite from the workday. I stopped walking and dutifully pulled the phone out of the bag and squinted at it in the bright sunshine. Nothing important. Of course. Just a junk email. As I began to replace the phone into the usually convenient side pouch of the satchel, it slipped from my sweaty fingers and crash landed, face down, on the smoldering sidewalk. It was one of those times when a few seconds unfold in slow motion right in front of your eyes, but you are paralyzed, unable to intervene, powerless to prevent the unfortunate consequences you know are coming.

I stared down at my poor little IPhone, Snoopy on the back of the phone case starring back up at me, beaming cuteness that belied the shattered glass beneath it. I cringed as I replayed the sound of the cracking the phone had made when it smacked down so hard on the pavement. I just looked at that damn phone, unable to face the truth, unable to rescue it from its pathetic position at my feet. And then I heard Mack giggle. And then I heard Mack quote Monalisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny as she was finally admitting to her fiancé that the drippy faucet in their crappy hotel room was not functioning within normal parameters. I heard Mack’s voice loud and clear, cutting through my stunned silence, mocking my failure to keep my cellphone safe from the cruel world on a hot and sweaty day in St. Louis. I closed my eyes, I shook my head from side to side, and Mack, in her best, oft practiced, nasally Brooklyn accent, said: “yeahhh, it’s brrroken.” And then she giggled at me once more.

In 20 years or whatever it’s been since I have been using a cellular device, I have NEVER, before now, lost or broken a cellphone. Mack was the lucky beneficiary of my good cellphone record; because that kid had more broken and lost phones than working and found ones. Mack was the kid whose cellphones were always cracked, scratched, disfigured, missing parts, or on the fritz. Mack was the kid who dropped a cellphone off the railing of our front porch into the late summer foliage below, where while preparing the yard for spring plantings months later, I found it, crusted with soil, rusting, and wedged into the dirt among the Hosta sprouts. Mack was the kid whose friends provided backup phones because she had lost or broken yet another of her own. Mack was the kid who used every single one of my cellphone upgrades and her dad’s cellphone upgrades (as well as her own) for nearly a decade. I mean, seriously, during Mack’s reign of terror on her cellular devices, I used one flip phone for SIX years!

For those of you who did not know Mack and may suspect that I am engaging in gross hyperbole or perhaps even slandering my dear sweet girl, just read the following series of Facebook posts from one year in the life of “Mack with a Cellphone”…

February 11

March 22

August 22

October 17

As you can guess, in 2009 (and every other year, really), I yelled and screamed and carried on about Mack’s irresponsible cellphone ownership. I also frequently set myself up as a model example of responsible cellphone ownership, bragging about my perfect record and flashing a pristine cellphone screen and a shiny cellphone casing with all of its corner’s and its back intact. Yet Mack was never impressed. In fact, she thought it was absolutely ridiculous that I was so careful and so perfect and so smug. And do you know what? I think maybe that little imp nudged my phone from my sweaty and precarious grip that day on a St. Louis sidewalk when I so spectacularly shattered my phone as well as so spectacularly shattered my superhuman streak of responsible cellphone ownership. But, whatever and no matter. By the time I had found the strength to pick up my phone and to inspect the carnage, I fully understood why Mack was giggling at me; and I had to giggle at me, too.

Here is my phone and my girl. Don’t you think she at least looks a little guilty?