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.

Mack’s Pack

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

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

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

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

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

14 August 2016 198

Maggie and Meagan in Columbia

14 August 2016 204

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

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

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

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

 

Penguin Pete

If Mack had conducted interviews for potential best friends, Jackie would have aced a Mack-best-friend compatibility exam:

Mack: Do you giggle easily and often?
Jackie: Yes, and I squeal, too.

Mack: If you could, would you eat sushi every single day of your life?
Jackie: Yeah. Duh.

Mack: Is watching TV more important than doing homework?
Jackie: What’s homework?

Mack: Do you love playing sports?
Jackie: Yes, soccer is my life.

Mack: Do you live in sports shorts and t-shirts with writing on them?
Jackie: Yes. And dresses suck.

Mack: Do you own at least five pairs of Nike athletic shoes?
Jackie: More like ten. Or maybe fifteen.

Mack: Does your mom buy Choco Pies, and will you bring them to me at school?
Jackie: Yes, she buys the good Korean brand. And yes, I will keep you supplied.

Mack: Do you love penguins?
Jackie: Penguins are the love of my life.

Jackie—or “Yackie” as Mack frequently called her—was a fast friend and a permanent presence in Mack’s life since the very beginning of sixth grade at Franklin Middle School. They were both unapologetic tomboys who could the rock basketball shorts in a sea of girls in summer dresses. Basketball teammates and after-school TV buddies, those girls giggled more than they talked, likely consumed more junk food than any other two athletes on the planet, and were in constant competition for the title of “Most Accomplished Procrastinator” in the history of Springfield High School. Mack would always claim the title for herself, but she was very quick to give Jackie her props for being a “terrible Asian” because homework was such a low priority. Being called a “terrible Asian” would send Jackie into a fit of giggles; and then she and Mack would watch TV or goof off instead of doing their homework…again.

Mack and Jackie had a lot of goofy in common, but I observed pretty early on in their relationship that they had a bond based to a large extent on their individual comfort in defining femininity in their own damn way. Neither had any personal qualms about balancing her inner girl with her inner boy, but I believe that having each other to walk that unique girly-tomboy path emboldened their individual spirits and gave them extra strength to navigate the gendered dramas of junior high and high school. With Mack in her basketball shorts, Jackie in her soccer shorts, and both of them in sports t-shirts and over-sized sunglasses, they faced the world on their own terms. And, together, they always had a blast doing it.

The hijinks never stopped with Mack and Jackie, but the story of a Penguin named Pete takes the prize. Senior year of high school, Mack took a glass-works class, and for an early project in the course, she created a tiled mosaic of an adorable cartoon penguin. She was wide-grin proud of that penguin she named Pete, showed it to all of her friends, gave it personality traits, told stories about its life, and kept it in her locker all year. From the moment Jackie laid eyes on that penguin, she wanted it for herself. She asked Mack if she could have it. Mack said no. Jackie, however, was a determined young woman. And a somewhat sinister one, as well. Repeatedly, throughout the school year, Jackie stole Penguin Pete from Mack’s locker. Repeatedly, Mack would hunt him down and reclaim him, always dramatizing the emotional scars wrought by the separation. The girls laughed and fussed over that penguin all year long, turning their senior year into an entrenched battle for the love a hand-made, tile penguin. Mack finally brought Penguin Pete home in order to keep it safe from Jackie’s frequent heists, but that child even tried to steal Pete from Mack’s room, too, during her graduation party!

For whatever reason, maybe just because Mack had made it, Jackie loved Penguin Pete. In a lot of ways, Jackie was Mack’s little penguin. Not at all in a condescending way, but in a loving and endearing way that perhaps only Mack could have expressed. In Mack’s mind, it was simple. Jackie loved Penguin Pete. Mack loved Jackie. And so in June 2012, Mack presented Penguin Pete to Jackie for her birthday with this note: “Me giving you my dear friend Penguin Pete is a true test of our friendship. It hurts to part w/ my buddy, but I know you’ll take good care of him. Treat him well & make sure he remembers me fondly. Love, your bestest friend EVER, Mackenzie.”

I love this Mack-best-friend story because it reveals the multi-layered aspects of one special friendship. This story represents shared interests, silly fun, cherished memories, and the tangible and priceless mementos of life. The tale of Penguin Pete should also serve as reminder to all of us all how important it is to tell the people who are central in our lives how much they matter to us.

Penguin Pete gift

IMG_1581

The birthday presentation of Penguin Pete (Mack, Ali, Jackie, and Sierra)

 

The Ali-Mack Frouple

Mack once said that of her best friends, she knew Ali “the weirdest.” Although they were never elementary-school classmates, the girls first met all the way back in kindergarten at Dubois Elementary. After a few years, Ali moved to a new house and a new school and disappeared for a spell. A year or so later, Ali was assigned to Mack’s summer softball team. Those girls were reunited as giggling teammates on the Izzles and as friends over the course of several summers, although Mack teasingly disapproved of Ali’s affinity for the Cubs. But when summer faded, so did their friendship, as they lived in different neighborhoods and attended different schools. Yet during their preteen years, these two social butterflies had so many friends in common that they frequently ended up at the same birthday parties and sleepovers. Summer softball always reunited them. And an easiness between them ever fostered a quick resumption of their friendship after time spent mostly apart.

In August 2008, Mack and Ali were reunited for good at Springfield High School, and their friendship flourished. They were still leading somewhat separate lives due to involvement in different extracurricular activities and sports; Mack was so very annoyed that Ali chose soccer over softball! But for the first time, they were classmates. For the first time, they were reading and learning together. For the first time, they had a steady connection to each other. For Mack, Ali was one of those easy friends that luckily kept bouncing in and out of her life; and each time they bounced into each other, Mack became more attached. By the end of sophomore year, Mack bounced Ali into a Big-Mack, forever hug and “collected” Ali for keeps.

The British television show Skins, intellectual late-night discussions about television and books in Ali’s basement, and heart-to-heart talks about friend drama, travel abroad, and the future elevated the Mack and Ali friendship from high school buddies to best friends. Ali called them a frouple—two inseparable friends who completed each other’s sentences, accepted and adopted each other’s quirks, and married each other’s families. High school friends are the friends that help shape the adult underneath your awkward and uncertain teenaged skin. Ali and Mack bounced into each other for good at the perfect time; and they were so very perfect for each other. They accepted and loved each other unconditionally, but they opened their hearts and minds to learning from each other, as well. They served as each other’s best role models. Ali was a studious and goal-oriented model for Mack’s far too leisurely and haphazard approach to school work and to life in general. Mack was carefree and an unapologetic goofball model for Ali’s serious nature and more circumspect interactions with the world. By the end of junior year, I noticed a bond between Mack and Ali that had the character of a lifelong friendship. And I am certain that by then, Mack already understood that she and Ali would be silly old ladies together.

Since losing our Mack, I have mourned for my sweet girl, for myself, and for my family, but I have also mourned for Mack’s best friends. Life has dealt them a cruel and painful blow, and I feel such sorrow for them all. But where the best friends are concerned, I have shed the most tears for Mack’s dear Ali, and I have long searched for some understanding for the depth of my emotion in this regard. Over these past months, reflecting on my grief and grappling with the meaning of Mack’s death for all of us, a story of Ali’s personal loss continually pangs my heart. When Ali boldly applied for an adventurous study-abroad program in Budapest, Hungary, Mack was the only person she told; and when Ali learned of her acceptance into the program, Mack was gone. This story haunts me. It is a bitter reminder that life as we know it can change in an instant, and it illustrates the high stakes of our human connections. But it also reveals to me the significance of Mack’s life in the lives of the people who loved her.

Just weeks after losing her best friend, Ali bravely accepted the challenge of that daring study abroad. She knew it would be hard to leave family and friends during such an emotionally difficult time for her, but she went to Budapest for herself, and she went to Budapest for Mack. She embraced the experience with courage, with humor, and with Mack in her heart. I have no doubt that Mack’s spirit provided Ali with important emotional support during those months abroad, and I am absolutely certain that Mack was a constant, giggling whisper in Ali’s ear, reminding her to laugh too loud, drink too much, and have way too much fun.

So once again we see that Mack collected the best and the bravest of best friends. We can see how Mack enriched the lives of her best friends, too. And, perhaps equally important, we can see and pay homage to the magical power of friendships in life and for an eternity. Just ask Ali, she’ll be bouncing to the beat of the Ali-Mack Frouple many, many moons from now when she’s a silly old lady remembering a cherished best friend.

graduation

Brand new Springfield High School Graduates, June 2012.

softball with Ali2

TruWomen

Mack arrived at Truman State University on August 18, 2012, to find the scholar and the writer inside of her soul. Within her first hours on campus, engaged in organized activities with students assigned with her to Grim Hall, she met her soul mate, Meagan. Neither Mack nor Meagan could exactly pinpoint or describe their first introduction, as their fast friendship was so effortless and so comfortable that it was as though they had known each other all of their lives. They initially bonded over a shared love of television, musical theater, food, sarcasm, humor, and feminism, but the depth of the connection between these two sweet girls went far and away beyond dorm acquaintances, college companionship, and coed mischief. This was a friendship that quieted insecurities and doubts. This was a friendship that inspired dreams. This was a friendship that empowered the women within them.

During their first semester at Truman, Mack and Meagan settled into college life together with exuberance and with humor. Both had an abundance of each of those qualities all their own, but together they blew off the lid of tiny, old Grim Hall. As the months flew by, they also drew confidence and strength from each other as they adapted to their coursework and to life on their own. They formed the foundation of a little family of friends on campus, they embraced new freedoms and young-adult fun, and they settled into their new lives in Kirksville, a small town in bucolic northern Missouri. Very soon after arriving at Truman, Mack provided regular commentary to me through text messages and phone calls, and I was surprised but pleased about an uncharacteristic new tendency in her for chatter. While she enthusiastically shared details about her classes, laughed about getting lost or oversleeping, and relayed comical details about the dorm, the dining hall, or the golf team, most of her excitement centered on the people she met. On her new friends. On her new college family. And at the root of Mack’s happy, contented self far away from home was that girl named Meagan.

I first met Meagan when I visited campus a couple of weeks after moving Mack into the dorm, and I was smitten with her, too. She is smart and silly, just like my Mack, a skeptical liberal with the second-best giggle I have ever heard. She is feisty, a little kooky, a whole lot of witty, and she sings her sentences, lilting the syllables melodically across her full lips. She is what I like to call a good egg. Mack had a long history of collecting special friends, so I was not at all surprised she found Meagan. Mack knew a good egg when she saw one, and Meagan was a keeper. In October of her first semester at college, Mack sent me this picture…

will you be my roomie

In case you cannot tell, the candies on the partly eaten pizza spell out “ROOMMATES,” and Mack was not only thrilled with Meagan’s proposal for sophomore roommate status, but was also delighted with the panache of the delivery itself: on a pizza topped with M&Ms alongside a cheesy picture of Meagan, promising Mack a bag of her favorite Warhead sour candies.

Mack and Meagan were inseparable at Truman. During sophomore year they shared a square college apartment, and they lived together as friends, as sisters, and as confidants. Mack cooked for Meagan, and Meagan helped keep dirt and wine off of Mack’s white armchair. Meagan provided the big screen TV, and Mack taught Meagan to love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and My Cousin Vinny. Their shared academic interests in writing and in gender studies made them frequent classmates, so they frequently studied together, probably mostly while watching TV. And certainly, on more occasions than I would care to know about, Mack probably convinced Meagan to skip the studying altogether and watch more episodes of Parks and Recreation instead. Meagan brought out the talker in Mack, and the two of them shared ideas, always finding ways to connect their gender-studies readings to their unique observations about the women in their favorite shows. Over two magical years, they dreamed. They laughed. They watched TV. They talked about the future. Together. Always together. Even when they were home for break—Mack in St. Louis and Meagan in nearby Fenton—they were together.

Very early on in their friendship, the girls arranged a meeting for their parents, almost like an anxious engaged couple eager to put the in-laws in a room together. They were excited for all of us to hit it off; and hit it off, we did. Kevin & I and Tony & Mary had the pleasure of dining with Mack and Meagan several times, both in Kirksville and in St. Louis. Mack had adopted Meagan and her folks in a package deal, and so did we. Since losing our Mack, the three of them have provided me a great deal of comfort with their easy friendship–drinking, eating, and talking about politics–and their generous support of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship now endowed at Truman State. I am certain they know how much Mack loved them, but I also hope they know the depth of my own connections to them, as well. Mack’s friendship with Meagan was forever, and so it will now be with me.

Recently, Meagan told me she admired the power Mackenzie possessed to ignite the passions of the people around her, to share her infectious joy for life, and to quietly demonstrate the meaning of true friendship. Meagan’s time with Mack was too short, and her memories of college will always be bittersweet; young people should not have to suffer the tragic loss of a friend. But Meagan is a wise and brave young woman, and she believes that two years with her cherished friend was a far better bargain than never having had the pleasure of knowing Mack at all. I am beyond grateful that Meagan found her way to Truman State and that she was Mack’s best friend for the wild and wonderful adventure of college. Today, as Meagan graduates with the Truman State University Class of 2016, I take some comfort in the knowledge that Mack’s spirit lives on in Meagan’s heart and in life she will live beyond college.

And so, dear Meagan, go out in that world and make your dreams come true. As Mack would say, “you’re a grown-ass woman now,” but don’t forget to laugh and to stop to be silly along the way.

Mack’s Best Friends: M-Maggie-Margaret

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

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

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

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

backpacks

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

silly words

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

in StL 2

in St. Louis, summer 2013

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

Mack’s Best Friends: Justice

By the time Mack was ten and fully immersed in competitive basketball, she knew every player her own age and she was very aware of all of the best older players in the region. At tournaments, she enjoyed watching elite older players, and on the drive home she talked about them, analyzing their shooting styles, ball-handling skills, and prospects for playing at the college level. But after one tournament in the summer of 2006, in Bloomington, Illinois, it was a younger player who caught Mack’s attention; and all the way home she could not stop talking about her. Mack was in awe of this younger player partly because her approach to the game was so different. Mack was a pure point guard, a methodical executor of an offensive game plan and a skilled passer, who was more tickled by a slick assist than by hitting her own deep, three-point shot. In contrast, this younger player demanded the ball, relied on her athletic instincts, and was fast and fearless; and Mack respected her athleticism and full-throttle style. But mostly, Mack connected with this player’s joyful exuberance, as she saw a kid who shared her own passion for basketball and for life. Mack not only wanted to play ball with this player, but she wanted to make her a friend, too.

That player’s name was Justice; and little did she know in the summer of 2006 that she was in Mack’s sights, hand-picked for Mack’s impressive collection of best friends. But when Justice arrived at Franklin Middle School as a seventh grader in the fall of 2007, Mack—the big, confident eighth grader—immediately scooped up the new kid in her long arms and “collected” her right away. Justice probably did not know what had hit her; and it took about two minutes before those crazy girls became two peas in a pod. Mack made friends effortlessly, but I never saw such a fast and easy friendship as the one between Mack and Justice. They were soul sisters from the start and had more fun than any two girls in the history of American middle school. Together they were loud and joyful, took advantage of every second to breathe in and experience the world around them, and left a trail of mischief and merriment in their wake. Some of my favorite life moments were spent driving between our house and Justice’s house on the opposite side of Springfield with those high-spirited and noisy girls in my backseat.

In that first magical year as friends, Mack and Justice were still very different basketball players, but that was about the only real difference between them. They were both confident and mentally tough, cheerful, unfazed by popularity and preteen drama, smart but lazy students, witty and sarcastic. In the hallways at school, on the volleyball, basketball, and track teams, and after school and on weekends, Mack and Justice were joined at the hip. Justice became a part of Mack’s eighth-grade friend circle, and Mack spent time with Justice’s group of seventh grade friends as well. And, finally, those girls got to play some basketball together—at Franklin basketball practices (although Coach Bitner would not let them guard one another because they giggled way too much) and on a winning Gus Macker team one summer.

gus macker champ

Mack, Mariah, Corrine, and Justice

But most of the growing-up memories Mack and Justice made together had absolutely nothing to do with sports. They teased and pushed one another, looked out for each other, and accepted each other unconditionally. They were just kids together, acting like fools, making messes, and laughing…so much laughing…loud, hysterical laughing. I could fill a dozen or more blogs with Mack-and-Justice stories, but I will now offer three that reveal something of the nature of the relationship between these special kids.

Good-natured teasing: One weekday evening as I was preparing dinner, Mack came rumbling down the stairs and into the kitchen. She called for my attention, turned around, and bent over slightly, sticking out her rear end. She pointed to her butt, wrinkled up her brow, and asked: “Is my butt big?” I chuckled and told her that she had inherited some booty from my side of the family. Mack smiled and said, “Dang, I guess Justice is right. Today she was behind me going up the stairs between classes and super loud she yelled ‘Mack! You got some cakes!!’” Mack and I then laughed our big asses off; and Mack forever acknowledged that she did, indeed, have some cakes. It was a favorite expression she employed whenever she was shopping for a new pair of American Eagle jeans. Mack and Justice were always able to engage in such teasing, and I always admired that about them.

Well-placed loyalties: After just one year of attending school together at Franklin, Mack went to Springfield High School; and a year later, Justice went to rival Southeast High School across town. They competed against each other in basketball, and they each embraced the ferocious spirit of their respective schools. Mack was a true Senator. Justice was a true Spartan. And those girls talked a whole lot of smack to each other. But even though they were competitors and lived their school rivalries, they remained fierce supporters of one another, often cheering for each other from the bleachers when they were not in direct competition. They had only been school chums for one year, but their friendship not only survived the school separation, it grew stronger during their high school years. One year at the boys’ basketball City Tournament (which is a huge deal for school spirit and town sports’ rivalries in Springfield, just so you know), Mack made a “dangerous” decision to sit in the Southeast section with her friend. When I questioned her intent, Mack said something like: “City is so much fun, and I just gotta do one with J.C.” Justice provided a Spartan blue t-shirt and Mack joined the Blue Crew on one of the three nights of the tourney, only to be caught “blue” handed yuckin’ it up with Justice in a photo that was posted on the school district website. Some people were appalled that Mack would cross that line, and her basketball coach was horrified by the photo, but when Mack saw it, she shrugged her shoulders and without any tone of apology at all, she said: “oops.”traitor

Friends for Life: Mack and Justice worked hard to spend as much time together as they could over the years. Justice was a frequent weekend guest in our home, Mack hung out in Justice’s basement during the summer, and they included each other in various outings with their own friend groups.  Yet sometimes their busy teenager lives interfered, and weeks might pass between face-to-face visits; and then Mack would get lonely for Justice (or vice versa) and say, “I need me some Justice time.” What always amazed me about those girls is that no matter the distance, no matter the time, together they were always at ease. It was as if no time had ever passed at all. Even after Mack went off to Truman State, we moved to St. Louis, and Justice went to college in Kansas City, the girls enjoyed an easy and comfortable friendship that never faded. They really were two peas in a pod. They were life friends. They were sisters.

Many people we meet in life pass by us with little notice. Others play an important role for a time and then fade away. If we are lucky, we will know a few that grab onto our hearts and stay forever. Justice was one of those friends for Mack. Mack was one of those friends for Justice. And that is a beautiful thing.

p.s. I am so very grateful that Justice was a part of Mack’s life, and, in some ways, I now believe that Mack collected Justice not only for herself but for me as well. Justice’s spirit and strength at Mack’s memorial service brought me some solace in those terrible first days without Mack. Her random text messages over the past year have been precious to me, providing humor and support. And the way that she has chosen to honor her best friend by living a good and joyful life is an inspiration to me and should be an inspiration for us all.

Justice’s beautiful and funny eulogy to Mack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9e2NIGnbww

#Projectmack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKd5NWQm9ss

And some social media exchanges that make me smile:

justice bad grammarbest friendsIPad 2014 818 (2)justice calling out of the blue 1