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.

finish your milk

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.

Cabin Fork

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.

kindergarten bio
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?

 

Mack, Me, and Dorothy Parker

For nearly twenty years, I have had this funny set of four coasters. White ceramic. Annoyingly useless for absorbing condensation formed and dripping from tumblers full of icy beverages. No matter, though, because I did not keep them for their utility. Rather, I kept them for the quatrain printed neatly upon them, one line of the punchy verse per coaster. Since I received the set, a gift from a close friend, I have kept them stacked, in order of the verse, easily accessible on prominent tables in my home for the enjoyment of any visitor who dares to use or to inspect them. Over the years, I have often been delightfully rewarded for my brazen display of these coasters; because so hilarious have been the scenes of unwitting visitors, especially innocent teenagers, who have picked up the stack and shuffled through each coaster, reading each one out loud:

I’d like to have a martini.
Two at the very most.
At three I’m under the table.
At four I’m under the host.—Dorothy Parker

While I always enjoyed the shocked, wide-eyed and gaping-mouthed horror of teenagers who walked right into this little trap, Mack enjoyed it even more. For surely we were the me and mackonly house with children that kept such scandalous literature out for all to see. As soon as a friend would pick up the stack of coasters or take hold of the top coaster to employ it, Mack would issue a deep “heh-heh-heh-heh” and wait for that friend to start reading. If necessary, she would encourage the visitor to inspect the verse, and then she stood back and let the magic happen. I was witness to several such encounters in which innocent teens read the verse loudly and dramatically, belting out each line; the rhyme taking hold of their good sense and rendering them powerless to stop the punch line from passing across their lips. These scenes sent Mack into fits of giggles, and she and I shared knowing glances. That stack of coasters was a shared prop of plotted good humor in our old Springfield house. An inside joke with Mack, me, and Dorothy Parker.

Today for me that stack of under-performing but delightful coasters is a humorous artifact of my life with Mack; and that erroneously attributed ditty printed upon them has become something of a little legend in my mind. A legend of Mack. A legend of Dorothy Parker. A legend of a couple of smart and witty dames who made me laugh…who make me laugh. You see, when Mack and I enjoyed our coasters and used them as a prop for evil, we believed that Dorothy Parker wrote those delicious lines. We had no reason to doubt. It certainly sounded like something she would have written or said. Besides, Dorothy Parker’s name lent credibility and elevated the brow of the joke, which made it all the funnier to us both. We were not pushing dirty limericks. We were dealing in fine literature. And that made us laugh all the louder.

A couple of months ago, I picked up a musty old first edition of the Viking Portable Library’s Dorothy Parker, published in 1944. I paid $1.95, and I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth, as I have been toting it everywhere I go. It’s about four inches wide and six inches tall, the faded brown, hardcover binding is pliable from wear, and the pages when flipped fill the air with the pungent yet pleasing fragrance of a used book store. I’ve been carrying around this little book, reading the poems and prose within it, laughing and crying, imagining Parker holding court at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, and imagining Mack holding court in our Springfield living room with our coasters. In the reading and through my emotions in that reading, I have been feeling connected not only to Dorothy Parker, but also to Mack. Because I don’t think Mack read much if any of Dorothy Parker, and I am so very sorry about that.  I think Mack would have loved Dorothy Parker. Mack would have understood the quiet reflection and hint of sadness under the brash style and sharp wit. Mack would have marveled at the melody and tone of a charming and imperfect woman who lived life. She would have appreciated Parker’s ability to cut to the heart of a matter and not waste a person’s time with frivolous details.

I think Mack was a little bit like Dorothy Parker, who was intelligent and wise, an astute observer of humanity and the wonder and absurdity of life. I have been hearing Mack’s voice within Parker’s words on the page. Spending time with my worn little volume of Parker’s work (and learning that Parker did not write that quatrain on our coasters!), has made me see that I have actually been reading as much for Mack as I have been for me. Sometimes the life experiences we have—in this case my discovery of Dorothy Parker’s poems—can, indeed, be shared with the dear people whom we are missing. So if you’ve wondered where we’ve been, Mack and I have been away together on a little journey with Dorothy Parker, drinking martinis and talking about life.

And here is a little Dorothy Parker for you:

My favorite for Mack…
Inventory
Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

My favorite for Dorothy…
Unfortunate Coincidence
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying—
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

My favorite for me…
On Being a Woman
Why is it, when I am in Rome,
I’d give an eye to be at home,
But when on native earth, I be,
My soul is sick for Italy?
And why with you, my love, my lord,
Am I spectacularly bored,
Yet do you up and leave me—then
I scream to have you back again?

And, while Dorothy did not pen the verse on my coasters, she did, in fact, pen this:

News Item
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

coasters

Our delightful coasters!

Mack Day Pledge

Just three months after losing Mack, I made a pledge to honor her by being more Mack-like. I made that pledge, in the form of a New Year’s resolution, in the early fog of my grief; and it proved far too ambitious for someone struggling just to breathe. But today, I am a stronger, less devoured by my sorrows, more resilient against the anxiety and hopelessness and self-pity that settle deep within the bones of a grieving mother. I am not now, nor will I ever be, whole again without my Mack, but I am a million miles away from the place I was in January 2015.

Therefore, today, March 17, 2017, on what would have been Mack’s 23rd birthday, my third Mack Day without her, I am renewing that pledge to be more like her, to emulate her best qualities, and to honor her life by living a better life. Happy Birthday, Mack. You are missed. You are loved. You are an inspiration.

The Be-More-Mack-Like Pledge:

Enjoy life: Mack possessed a happy and joyous spirit. She lived in the moment, never letting worries or doubts interfere with living. She cherished time with her friends, saw humor in the darkest corners, and always experienced her favorite pastimes with the enthusiasm and wide eyes of a young child. She delighted in life’s simple joys like food, for which she was always appreciative, paying her special kind of homage with a perfect, memorable last bite. Her philosophy was to slow down and breathe in what you love, never wasting a moment that might turn out to be your very last one.

Be a good friend: Mack did not just make acquaintances and good friends, she collected amazing people who became best friends. I think that people were, in part, drawn to Mack because she exuded a quiet, unpretentious confidence, but I think they held on tight to her because she accepted people for who they were. Once you were in Mack’s heart, you were in there forever, and she never judged, second-guessed, or questioned your worthiness to be there. She made good use of her beautiful open mind, her tender and open heart, and her capacity for a whole lot of unconditional love.

Try something new: Mack was fearless, and she either hid all evidence of her doubts or she never harbored them in the first place. At six, she played tackle football with boys. She signed up for discus in middle school track unconcerned that her noodle arms might fail her. And in a final act of courage, she moved all by herself to remote Burgos, Spain, where she knew no people and absolutely no Spanish. Mack was brave and bold, unafraid to put that fresh, freckled face out into the world.

Relax: No one who ever took a nap in the history of the world was better at relaxation than Mackenzie. She wrote the book on kicking back and taking it easy, and she suffered no serious. Why worry when you could lay flat on your back, eat junk food, and watch Sponge Bob? Mack was calm, cool, and collected by nature; and she passed out prescriptions for her own medicine like candy. Her presence in a room kept the nervous and restless demons at bay for everyone. Mack always told me to “simmer down and chill out” and frequently reminded me that it is hard as hell to enjoy spicy Thai food if your insides are riddled with ulcers.

Laugh: Mack laughed, chortled, snorted, chuckled, cackled, tittered, hee-hee-ed, and guffawed constantly. She was a professional giggler who understood that laughter is nature’s tonic for almost anything that ails the human heart. She was a master of the bad joke, she saw humor where most might only find tears, and her goofy wit was an important quality of her charm. Her laughter cured the world around her, medicine to all who had the privilege to hear it. I believe that laughter, more than any other gift that she left us, is the one she would most want us to keep.

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I have survived to take another stab at my pledge to be more Mack-like because I have my sweet Savannah to give me peace, perspective, and perseverance. I have my supportive husband and family to give me love and strength. I have my dear friends to nurture me, my puppy dogs to calm me, my writing to ease my suffering, and the scholarship at Truman State to carry Mack’s legacy far, far, far into the future. As well, thanks to Mack’s best friend Justice, I also have the gift of Project Mack, which makes being Mack-like look so damn easy…and fun. Just like Mack.

Mack would call me lucky. So on that good note, you good people, I am celebrating this year’s Mack Day by renewing my pledge to be more Mack-like. I am asking all of you to be more Mack-like, too. Go ahead, now; make a pledge to enjoy life, to be a good friend, to try something new, to relax, and to laugh. Concentrate on one or two of those plays out of Mack’s own good-life playbook or dive right in and tackle them all. Mack would call this an easy-peasy request, and Project Mack would agree. And if you find being more Mack-like makes you feel too good to keep it all to yourself, free to make a donation to Project Mack to spread the love.

For my Springfield, Illinois, friends, there is also an opportunity to combine your own Mack Day pledge with a special “2K17 Mack Day Celebration.” On March 25, from 2-4 p.m., Project Mack is hosting a party at Southeast High School to recognize thirty high school students in District 186 who are making a difference and living a life of impact. There will be music, cake, and a memorial balloon launch. I will be there to honor my girl, soak up the health-giving love of Project Mack, and publicly acknowledge the pride I have for my Mackenzie Kathleen—my joyful, impish, dancing, Irish leprechaun—and the breathtaking imprint she left on the world.

Mack Day Celebration

Mack Memo #5: Just Be Cool

A very cool math teacher Mack had in middle school assigned his students to construct an item that he could stand on without breaking. He was a big fella with a big sense of humor, and Mack thought it was just about the coolest homework she ever had. It was one of those rare school projects that she did not procrastinate, and she immediately engaged her Papa Bear and his carpentry skills to meet the challenge.block I cannot now recall the particular details of the assignment, but there were rules about dimensions and weight and solid objects did not qualify. Mack and her dad dug through the scrap wood in the basement, did some measuring and sawing, and came up with a hefty little step (measuring in at 11¾” x 5.5″ x 2¾”) with a big hole in the middle of it. Not satisfied that the bare wood did the successful design justice, Mack personalized it in Irish-green spray paint and some stick-on letters.

That green, math-teacher-holding block of wood sat around in Mack’s bedroom in Springfield for years (responsible for at least a couple of stubbed toes and a few creative screams of obscenities) and got packed up and moved to her bedroom in St. Louis, too. She displayed it on her desk, a funny reminder of a cool teacher. Now it occupies a corner of the bureau in my bedroom, a funny reminder of a cool kid. Every day, this unique artifact of Mack’s life catches my attention, and memories of her cool persona make me smile. When Mack applied those letters to write “Mack is Cool!” on the block, she was just being silly, putting her witty mark on a witty school project. But now those letters preserved on that green block of reclaimed wood forever encapsulate the spirit of Mack’s cool. Mack really was always so damn cool. But not just the too-cool-for-school kind of cool. Mack was also cool in the cool-as-a-cucumber kind of cool. And it was the refreshing combination of those seemingly contradictory cools that contributed so much to Mack’s charm and magnetism. It was also that healthy combination of cools that gave her astounding inner and outer peace. Mack exuded a cool confidence and lived her life with the easy calm of a warm, ocean breeze. Mack’s be-cool-because-it’s-all-cool attitude kept her even-keeled and happy and it also rubbed off on the people in the room with her. Mack-cool had a way of diffusing tension, lowing blood pressures, and making fast friendships.

This morning as my eyes rested on that green block of wood and the “Mack is Cool!” lettering, I said out loud: “You know what, Mack? Everyone in the world could use a whole bushel basket full of your brand of cool in 2017.” I could picture a crooked smile forming on Mack’s lips as she said: “Well, then just be cool, Momma Bear. It’s super simple. Just. Be. Cool.” But while cool came naturally to my sweet girl, I do not possess that gift, and I have lived long enough to know that it does not comes so naturally to most people, either. Because it is, actually, very difficult to be cool when the disagreements between people are fundamental. It is very difficult to be cool in the face of the political, economic, and social chasms that divide us. It is very difficult to be cool with people when there is no foundation of assumed facts and shared values to build bridges across such wide divides. I believe that all of these difficulties will become increasingly harder in 2017, because the incoming president thrives on those divisions between us and seeks so readily to maintain them. Since November, I have found it extremely difficult to keep my cool. But anger stands in where cool should be, and as is so very often the case, anger has accomplished nothing. In fact, my anger has settled into my bones and it has been making me sick. I really do not wish to spend 2017 angry and sick, so I need to get me a whole bushel basket full of Mack-cool. Like me, Mack would have been disappointed in the 2016 election and the divisive words and actions of the president-elect would have startled her. But Mack would have stayed cool. She never would have let anger settle into her bones and make her sick. “Just be cool, woman,” she would have told me. “Just. Be. Cool.”

So being Mack-cool in 2017 is gonna be my goal. I will no doubt fail at various points along the way and occasionally scream an obscenity or two at the news or Twitter, but I promise to emulate Mack as best as I can. I will try to get me some cool and keep the anger out of my bones. This does not mean that I will accept the political propaganda, the divisive rhetoric, and the hateful lies that have been so successful in robbing me of my cool. It just means that I will try to manage my responses the way Mack would have managed hers. Because holding onto anger really does make you sick; and all I really want to do anyway is just be cool like my Mack. I suppose it is entirely possible that if I find a little success in this cool endeavor, I might be able to make some small difference in the world. But at the very least, though, my weary bones will thank me for giving them a lighter load to carry.

Mack Memo #5: No matter what happens, no matter what is said, always be cool. Cool looks good on you. Cool influences friends and wins restful slumbers. Just. Be. Cool.