Four Years On

Dear Mackenzie,

Exactly four years ago this morning, I kissed that glorious giant freckle on your left cheek and watched you pass through the airport security line and disappear through the gates. I was bursting with happiness for you on that pre-dawn Sunday, as I watched you leave for Spain. You were so bright and so brave, even with the tiny twitch of nerves you revealed as you tried to calm my own by telling me you’d be alright. Because you knew “hola” and “cerveza” and probably wouldn’t need to learn too many more words beyond those. Liar. I could never have imaged the extra tight big-Mack hug you gave me at the last minute would be the last. We could never have known you only had one month in front of you. Four years ago that was. Four years. Four long years without you, after twenty too-short years with you.

Today is a really bad day, honey. I know you would not like it, but these milestones practically undo me every time. Sometimes the pain of your absence feels like a freight train coming on fast, the panicky whistle growing ever more shrill, and I am paralyzed on the tracks with no power to get out of its way. I am still, and always will be, profoundly sad without you. And, whoa, some of the days along the way are as painful as the first day without you. It’s just the way it is. We all miss you. Even Pepper, who, by the way, went to the puppy spa yesterday (she got her hair did, as you would’ve said). Did you have something to do with the groomer choosing for her a deep purple bandana? Anyway, she is delightfully fluffy you’d be happy to know, and she knows I need extra cuddles right now. You told her to take care of me when you left, and she does a pretty good job of it.

Tomorrow will be better, I promise. I’ll be in Chicago with Sissy and my dear friend Bridgett. We are going to take a yoga class with pygmy goats. Can you believe yoga with pygmy goats is a thing? You’d even do yoga with me if there pygmy goats, wouldn’t you? We will also visit the new American Writer’s Museum, and you know we will eat some amazing food and enjoy overpriced drinks in the windy city, too. How about I promise to find happiness tomorrow and you check in to make sure? At the end of what I know will be a good day, we will settle in for drinks at a cozy bar, and I will offer four toasts to you: The first to Mack the animal lover. The second to Mack the writer. The third to Mack the bratty baby sister (that one for Savannah’s sake, of course). And the fourth to Mack the bright spirit who continues to shine a light upon my life, four years on.

Pep Dog

Time

At 6:19 a.m., Sunday, September 7, 2014, Mack left St. Louis on a plane to Spain. It was the last time I saw her. Three years later, and those last moments with her at the airport are so clear and close in my mind and yet so foggy and far away, as well. Time plays its tricks, but time has lessened neither my love for Mack nor my longing for her. If I have learned anything at all from my sorrows, it is that time is no elixir, nor do I wish it to be. Some wounds are ours to bear for a lifetime, because they are the proof that we have lived.

Time

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time.

Time heals not
the souls of grieving mothers.
Time fills no
holes in hearts, yearning for lost daughters.
Time rests never
for weary travelers on roads of grief.

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time.

Time plays tricks
cruel and bitter on broken hearts;
Speeding forward,
no mercy for seekers of happy pasts;
Caring nothing
that some of us need to linger.

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time,
nor grief, nor mothers and daughters, nor love.

 

 

Comfort Food TV

In the past few months, I have spent perhaps hundreds of hours watching the Food Network. While I have always been familiar with the power of comfort food, I am now of the very strong opinion that comfort food TV is even better where missing my Mack is concerned. It occurred to me the other day that on particularly sorrowful and lonely evenings, I find myself settled in on my brown leather recliner in my cozy bedroom, watching the Food Network. Some nights I come out of my comfort food TV coma and realize I have just watched four episodes of Chopped and two episodes of Cupcake Wars! For this, I blame Mack, and here’s why…

Like most kids, Mack was a TV addict. Like most millennials, she was raised on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. But my little Macko was also a little weirdo, and she spent more hours watching the fledgling Food Network than she spent watching SpongeBob SquarePants. And that, my friends, is saying something. Mack watched the Food Network way before the Food Network was cool, and by the time she was eight-years-old, Mack had favorite celebrity chefs. Now, I ask you, have you ever known a kid who could name even one celebrity chef? Among Mack’s favorites were Bobby Flay because he was “cute and rocked the spicy food,” Rachel Ray because she was always doing a “Mack happy-happy dance,” and Paula Dean because she used such generous quantities of Mack’s beloved bacon and butter. Mack also had opinions about chefs she did not like so much. She called Giada de Laurentiis “Dinosaur Lady” because of her large head and teeny body; and to my Mack, Ina Garten, aka the Barefoot Contessa, was “The Boring Contessa.”

Mack critiqued, mimicked, and mocked most all of the Food Network chefs, but she was also a cute little fountain of food knowledge, thanks to the Food Network. She frequently asked me why our humble Springfield kitchen lacked pancetta, truffle oil, or an immersion circulator. I think Mack might have been about ten when she announced that she well understood the Food Network show formula, that she had her own food “point of view,” and her show Mack’s Mackin’ Bacon was sure to make her the next Food Network star. She made a very good argument, too, that food TV viewers wanted to watch chefs cook unhealthy ingredients. She was absolutely certain, as well, that her own humorous and creative approach to a beautiful slab of bacon was certain to result in international chef celebrity, culinary endorsements, and her own line of bacon and bacon-related products. And, most importantly, she promised to outfit my kitchen with that immersion circulator just as soon as she had achieved her culinary dreams.

Mack was never very good at keeping her obsessions to herself, and she chose me to share her love of comfort food TV. Her bait was Iron Chef America, as I suppose she thought I’d dig the sporting aspect of the show. At first I thought cooking competition shows were ridiculous, and the weird “chairman” master of ceremonies and the frenetic pacing of Iron Chef made me anxious. But Mack persisted, frequently begging me to sit on the end of her bed and watch the unveiling of the “mystery ingredient” or the judging of plates at the end of the show. To entertain me further, Mack impersonated the food-nerd-host Alton Brown, who played the role of a sideline reporter, and she cackled every time the show employed instant replay when the chefs flipped an omelet or tossed a strawberry-basil granita base into the blast chiller. Mack’s giggle always did bring me around. As well, I marveled at her knowledge of the cooking techniques employed by the chefs, and her infectious enthusiasm for watching them prepare creative and beautifully plated dishes under absurd time constraints finally wore be down.

My favorite activity with Mack was watching sports, but my second favorite activity was, ultimately, watching the Food Network. Late at night we would sit up and watch Mack’s favorite shows and talk about cooking and food. During those three precious months before Mack left for college (and her dad was already settled in St. Louis), we watched episode after episode of Chopped. Mack had used Iron Chef as the gateway drug to get me hooked on comfort food TV, and now I’d rather waste an hour watching an episode of Chopped than doing almost anything else. It should not have surprised me that Mack enjoyed food competition shows. I should not have been shocked that I lined up right behind her to consume so many myself. I guess the foodie nut does not fall far from foodie tree.

But what I would never have guessed then and only fully recognized a few days ago, is that one simple joy of Mack’s is now a simple and comforting lifeline for me. I can settle in to taste some good comfort food TV and escape my sorrows. I can easily imagine Mack sitting next to me as four talented chefs try to make a tasty appetizer out of Chinese celery, fresh chickpeas, preserved lemons, and country-style pâté. I can see Mack Googling preserved lemons on her IPhone and suggesting some creative way that the chefs might integrate them into a dish without overwhelming the chickpeas. I can hear her evil little giggle when one of the chefs inadvertently omits one of the basket ingredients. And I can feel her excitement as another chef haphazardly splatters a wine-reduction sauce across the plates just as time expires.

I find myself now wondering if Mack’s addiction to butter, bacon, and spicy food and her own cheerful and kooky food-nerd personality had less to do with her parents and her own family food traditions and more to do with the hundreds of late night hours and school holidays she spent consuming the Food Network. I also now ponder the prospect that Mack may have spent her life after college pursuing some career that married two of her great passions: TV and food. But there is one thing I know for certain: my girl gave me the gift of comfort food TV, it was a simple and silly pleasure we enjoyed together, and Mack is using it now as her own mystery ingredient for Momma Bear coping on my more sorrowful nights without her.

IMG_1670

In this photo, Mack and I were eating Thai food and watching Chopped. Mack loved this photo because she and Pepper (in the shadows, bottom right) “look like twins!”

cooking with sissy

Comfort food in our Springfield kitchen. Notice our dogs at the bottom of the picture (Hops, left, and Barley, right) begging for a taste.

olives

Olives are a favorite McDermott comfort Food, and Olive Fingers was a favorite Macko tradition. I am not sure about the blue stain on her lips, but I suspect markers!

Roll Down the Windows and Let It All Out

Mack loved to sing. She sang in the shower in the mornings before school. She sang in her bedroom while dancing on the bed. She sang to music blasting into her ears through her headphones in the backseat on car trips, oblivious to the existence of fellow travelers. She sang on the school bus on her way to out-of-town sporting events, leading her teammates in song and distracting them from the homework they should have been doing instead. But when Mack got her driver’s license, her old Jeep Wrangler became her favorite stage. She would roll down the windows, crank up the tunes, and sing with enough volume to overcome both the music and the Jeep’s rumbly engine. Mack was happy to serenade anyone within earshot. Carefree and unbothered about how people in the surrounding cars might judge her singing voice or her song choices, she would belt out her favorite tunes in Mack-crazy style.singing

I loved to listen to Mack sing. I loved how she would hum a pop tune while brushing her teeth or rap to Eminem in the grocery store. I loved pressing my ear against her bedroom door to listen to her sing and strum one of her guitars. I loved her singing with friends in the backseat of the car when I chauffeured them to the movies or to summer basketball tournaments. It was always a hoot to listen to them giggle and sing to twangy country songs like “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” or croon like divas to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable.” I loved it when Mack’s exuberant voice filled our loft with Broadway show tunes on weekend trips home from college. When Mack sang, I was always entertained and amused, but singing with Mack was one of my favorite pastimes with her. She had a magical ability to pull people along for a warble; and when you sang along with that kid, she carried you with her to her Mack-happy plane of existence.

Over the years, Mack and I did a lot of singing together. When were alone in the car, I shared my favorites from the 1980s, and she got me hooked on Taylor Swift and Kanye West. We would sing so loudly that we couldn’t even hear the music. In the kitchen while chopping vegetables or doing dishes at the sink, we would sing Disney songs (“A Whole New World” was one of our favorites), and every crescendo featured Mack dancing with veggies or the dishes. We sang our own stupid original songs, we sang to our pets, and our birthday serenades were the stuff of family legend.

After losing Mack, I stopped singing. During work commutes from St. Louis to Springfield, I kept the dial on NPR, not at all tempted to blast my special ‘80s mix created especially for those weekly trips. Even during two long, solo driving trips to North Carolina and Nebraska this summer, I did not pass the time with music or singing. Grief has a way of stifling your enthusiasm for the things that used to make you happy, and singing in the car was one of those things I just stopped doing. But last week, on the way home from Springfield, when I was about fifteen miles from home, I changed the dial from St. Louis Public Radio to KSHE 95. The NPR story did not have my attention, and without thinking about it I hit one of the programmed buttons on the car stereo. Just as soon as the station changed, the familiar piano introduction to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” sucked me in, and before I knew it I was tapping my foot and preparing for the introductory lyrics. I turned up the volume, and I sang the entire song at the top of my lungs…just like Mack and I always did.

After the song was over, I remembered how much I loved to sing in the car. I remembered how much Mack loved to sing in the car. And I remembered that Mack had written a music blog for her college radio station that offered her top ten list of songs to sing at the top of your lungs. It is a very good list, complete with several of the favorites that she and I shared as well as a couple of more obscure Mack-like selections. Singing with Mack was a joy to me, and singing with Mack is also a cherished memory for many of her friends. Therefore, I offer up that top-ten list, complete with internet links below, so that anyone who wishes it can sing along with Mack in spirit. And since I can now sing in the car again, I will keep all of Mack’s favorites at the ready, sing them at the top of my lungs, and let Mack transport me over and over again to her Mack-happy plane of existence.

Top Ten Songs to Scream at the Top of Your Lungs (for KTRM Radio website) by Mackenzie McDermott

There is great music with amazing lyrics, music with really awesome beats, and super artsy and unique music. What kind you enjoy is completely a matter of taste. However, there is a certain type of song that magically creates an insatiable need to roll down the windows of your car and scream every lyric, even if you only know the chorus. It might not always be the best music—sometimes it’s even pretty bad—but this is the music that unites us all.

  1. “Bohemian Rhapsody”—Queen. I have never met a single person who can hear this six-minute rock epic without bursting into song. It’s inevitable, and it’s even better when there are multiple people rocking out to it in a car so that someone can sing every part, and no one is allowed to leave. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9rUzIMcZQ)
  2. “Oops I Did It Again”—Brittney Spears. Call this a “guilty pleasure” all you want, but there are two kinds of people in this word: those who admit to jamming to this whenever it comes on and liars. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CduA0TULnow)
  3. “No Scrubs”—TLC. This song is like listening to the ‘90s, and not singing along to its impossibly awesome chorus should be against every law. Roll down the windows and let it all out, because you don’t want no scrub. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrLequ6dUdM).
  4. “Hold On”—Wilson Phillips. Here’s one that isn’t necessarily a conventionally “good” song, but when you hear it you can’t help but sing the three lines of the chorus you know and mumble along to the rest. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIbXvaE39wM)
  5. Don’t Stop Believin’—Journey. ‘80s rock ballads will always be the perfect road trip music. With its up-beat music, super catchy lyrics, and awesome notes that everyone can totally hit (haha, Mack…not!), Don’t Stop Believin’ is an all-star screaming-in-your-car-song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k8craCGpgs)
  6. Sweet Caroline—Neil Diamond. The uncontrollable urge to scream BUM BUM BUMM during this song is overwhelming. It’s almost as if Neil Diamond has taken over your body and you are no longer in charge of your actions. It’s awesome. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vhFnTjia_I)
  7. Livin’ on a Prayer—Bon Jovi. Whether it’s in the shower, a commute to work or just jamming out in your bedroom, Jon Bon Jovi knows how to make people want to jump around on their bed and sing at the top of their lungs. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDK9QqIzhwk)
  8. Tainted Love—Soft Cell. This cover is so ‘80s that it hurts. And it hurts so good. Synthesizers and ridiculous lyrics make this song get stuck in your head in the worst possible way. You can’t help but drum along to this one. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsMz9vIaLwQ)
  9. Bille Jean—Michael Jackson. Michael is great for so many reasons that don’t involve how much people like to sing along to his songs at the highest possible volume. Billie Jean is just one of the many of his songs that are perfect for this list and every other list ever. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi_XLOBDo_Y)
  10. Say My Name—Destiny’s Child. Last, but certainly not least, is ‘90s girl band awesomeness. Similar to “No Scrubs,” this is a rock-out jam that makes you happy to be a woman, and you just can’t help but sing along. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQgd6MccwZc)

And some additional links for your listening pleasure…

A Family Birthday Serenade recorded for Savannah (https://youtu.be/dy2_eVr_JrM).

“Irreplaceable”—Beyonce (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EwViQxSJJQ)

“Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”—Joe Nichols (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj2700em-JQ)

“A Whole New World” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kl4hJ4j48s)

Ok people, now go sing at the top of your lungs…It is exactly what Mack would want you to do.

Mack is Everywhere

Early last Saturday morning on my weekly trip to Trader Joe’s, I paused a moment in the floral department, and my eyes settled in on a lovely pot of fall chrysanthemums. The small plant I noticed first was just one of dozens of potted flowers and fresh-cut arrangements, many of which commanded far more attention than the demure and jewel-toned flowers on which I had fixed my gaze. The deep maroon petals and contrasting yellow centers were smiling brightly at me; and there in the floral department, I smiled back at them. mums

I had awaken that morning feeling a little more sad and a lot more empty than usual, and the short drive on a deserted I-64 stretch of highway to the suburban shopping center had made me weepy. But there I was, standing among those flowers, smiling, my spirit lifted in one beat of my heart. Mack was in that little pot of flowers that were, like her, reserved on the outside and vibrant in the middle. Mack was there in the store, daring me to smile away my gloomy demeanor and begging me to welcome the simple joys of a Saturday.

Because my Mack is everywhere.

Mack’s freckled face is in the clouds. Mack’s impish giggle floats upon the wind. And Mack’s happy, carefree spirit is an essential element of the air I breathe. She wanders around in my mind, always in t-shirts and over-sized basketball shorts. She sits upon my shoulder when I prepare her favorite foods or as I cheer for our Cardinals to beat the Cubs. And she sings those infectious yet saccharin Taylor Swift songs in my ear whenever a dreadful silence threatens to overcome me. Mack was on Cherokee Street when an empty Funyuns bag blew across my path as I walked between antique shops one Sunday afternoon. funyunsShe was at the intersection of Gravois and MacKenzie roads as I waited for that interminable traffic light to turn green just a couple of weeks ago. And she was in those chrysanthemums last Saturday, one of my bad days, when the simple task of grocery shopping challenged my shaky resolve.

I am not a religious person, nor am I spiritual in any way. Wish that I did, but I do not believe that Mack is watching over me from some heavenly plane. Yet I have come to consider my Mack “sightings” as real and essential and true. Real because they happen daily. Essential because they have strength to catch me when I falter. And true because they perfectly reflect what Mack was to me in life and must continue to be for all of the days I must live without her.

Mack is alive in my memories. Mack is ever in my mind’s eye. Mack is in my heart, in my soul, and in the world around me. Mack is everywhere.

Macko in hato

And who wouldn’t want to see that face in the clouds?

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Forever and For Always

Dear Mack,

Today’s is Mother’s Day, and I just wanted you to know that I am still your momma bear…forever and for always. I think you always knew how much I loved you, but I hope you also always knew how proud I was of you…how proud I am of you. I am proud to my bones to be your mom, and that is forever and for always, too.

mothers day 2 mothers day 1 mothers day 4

Momma bear loves you, Mackadoodle. Forever and for always.

Mack and Abraham Lincoln

Mack, the poor little devil, spent her entire life with Abraham Lincoln. She grew up on Lincoln Avenue in Abe’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, made very frequent visits to all of the Springfield Lincoln historic sites on school trips and with out-of-town relatives, and practiced with her high school golf team at Lincoln Greens, where Lincoln’s face is plastered on the golf carts. Springfield kids have a hard time escaping Lincoln, but Mack had it worse than most, because for most of her life I was an editor at the Lincoln Papers.

Mack always told me that I knew way too much about Lincoln, that I talked about him more than was normal, and that I really needed to get a life. Mack and her friend Justice called me a Lincoln stalker, and they had a lot of laughs at my expense. From a young age Mack had a healthy amount of skepticism about Lincoln; and like she did with most things that were a tad kooky, she viewed the whole Lincoln mania thing with a great deal of humor and dramatically raised eyebrows. Lincoln 1She was always quick to point out the absurdity of seeing a Lincoln impersonator on the Old State Capitol Square in downtown Springfield, even though it was a very common occurrence. She cackled whenever she saw ludicrous advertising using Lincoln’s image to sell some modern product like a car or bag of potato chips. And she relentlessly teased me when I talked about Lincoln in the present tense. “He’s dead, Mom,” she always reminded me. “He. Is. Dead. You know that, right?”

Over the years, Mack, like hundreds of other school kids in Springfield, created artwork and essays for school projects each February in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday. I was always particularly enthusiastic about seeing those projects when they made it home. Mack’s adorable kindergarten drawing and essay occupied a prominent spot in my Springfield office at the Lincoln Papers for more than a decade and it now hangs in my home office in St. Louis. Lincoln2But a project for fifth grade was particularly exciting to me. One of Mack’s fifth-grade teachers at Dubois Elementary conducted an annual living history program in which the students studied various aspects of Illinois history throughout the fall and winter. In the spring, the kids chose one of those topics to research in depth and then they created skits, dramatic readings, or historic re-enactments to present their findings at an outdoor living history event, which was open to the public.

On the day the students selected their topics, Mack arrived home from school excited to tell me that she had chosen the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. “That’s so perfect,” I said, and then I asked: “so who are you going to be?” She looked at me like I was a gigantic idiot who had just uttered the most stupid question ever in the history of mom questions. “Well, DUH,” she answered, annoyed. “I’m Lincoln, Mom. Like anybody else could be Lincoln? I told them I had to be Lincoln.” And so, in May 2005, Mack played Abraham Lincoln to her friend Anna’s Stephen Douglas. I was so tickled to watch Mack Lincoln enacting the debate on that spring day in the historic Lincoln neighborhood, just a block down from the Lincoln Home. Hands down, she was the best and the absolute cutest Lincoln I had ever seen or will ever see again.

Lincoln3Lincoln4

I have spent most of my professional life with Abraham Lincoln, and I was always happy to share him and my love of history with Mack. She indulged me…a little…feigning interest while I rattled on about a Lincoln document I was editing or a new book about Lincoln. And, frankly, I needed her sharp wit to yank me out of the nineteenth-century when I went a little bit too far. In middle school and high school, Mack habitually chose Lincoln for her essay or research paper topics. While I am sure she mostly did so because it was easy and because we had a lot of Lincoln books in the house (which saved her a trip to the library), I was always giddy about helping her. She even used Lincoln as a college essay topic; and her humorous take on Springfield Lincoln mania set the stage for a memorable interview with her admissions counselor at Truman State, who met with Mack just a few months after giving birth to her son, whom she had named Lincoln! Good old Abe even followed Mack to northern Missouri.Lincoln5

My most treasured Mack and Lincoln memory was made in the summer of 2012, when I had the honor and the privilege to call Mack a colleague. The Lincoln Papers had a little grant money to process digital images of Lincoln documents that we had received from the Library of Congress. Mack was one seven teenagers selected to do the work. Her quiet, sweet charm and her dry wit with my colleagues and our project’s group of volunteers made me proud, and I beamed at her success with the work as well. She learned quickly, multi-tasked brilliantly, and ended up processing more documents than anyone else that summer. It was a lucrative summer for Mack, but it was an expensive one for me. I had to buy two rounds at Starbucks every morning, but it was so worth it. I am not sure I ever told Mack how much it meant to me to have her in the office every day that summer as I prepared to give her up to college. But…oh…how very much it meant, indeed. Sometimes now when I am using our project’s database, I will come across a document that Mack processed, and there is her name. It forces a little air out of my lungs and frequently results in some tears; but mostly, it makes me smile. It is like having a little piece of her connected to my professional work; Mack, Lincoln, and me, together forever at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.Lincoln database

I am really happy that Mack knew something of what I do for a living, and I am so grateful for her playful indulgence of my historical interests, even though they were not her cup of tea. Always a trooper, Mack let the Lincoln thing fly; chiming in with her brilliant comedy, yes, but accepting Lincoln as an important part of her upbringing as well. In one of her college essays Mack wrote: “The weight of Lincoln’s legacy is a heavy burden to bear,” but I know that she was just exercising her deft hand with sarcasm and hyperbole. Deep down, Mack appreciated that Lincoln gave her hometown a little pizzaz, and I am confident that she believed it was kinda cool that her mom made a living studying the guy who made her hometown so special.

Mack with her summer colleagues at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln…

Lincoln kids

Psst…in case you can’t figure it out, Mack is the one behind and slightly to the left of Mr. Lincoln.