Donuts

Mel-O-Cream donuts are as much of an institution in Springfield as Abraham Lincoln and Illinois state government, and I raised my girls on them. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Those glorious, sweet and pillowy, sugary delights were a nearly weekly treat for all of us, but my Mack was a certified donut monster. She loved all Mel-O-Cream donuts, except the ones with nuts; but her favorites were the glazed donuts featuring a generous dollop of lemon curd, Bavarian cream, and all of the varieties that were covered in powdered sugar. On Sunday mornings, we would get a dozen donuts (three for every member of our skinny little family), and we would eat ourselves into sugar comas while drinking black coffee and reading the morning newspapers. It was not a healthy family tradition, but it was a cherished one.

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Not only did Mack exuberantly participate in the McDermott weekly three-donut tradition, she added to it whenever possible. We took donuts to weekend team practices for various sports, she chose them over cupcakes for school birthday celebrations, and once she was able to drive, she frequently got up a little early so she could swing by Mel-O-Cream to collect her favorite portable breakfast. The floor of her junky Jeep was littered with those small, square, old-fashioned napkins with the Mel-O-Cream logo.

When we moved to St. Louis, we were sad, and Mack particularly so, to leave Mel-O-Cream behind. Giving up that special family donut tradition was a disappointment. However, if we had not moved, a nutritionist intervention would likely have been necessary.

Yesterday, I was in Springfield for work, attending a staff meeting. As editorial meetings at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln are always ponderous and protracted, a favorite colleague told me he was bringing a dozen Mel-O-Cream donuts to get us through the day. In route to Springfield that morning, my mouth watered and my eyes glazed as I anticipated the sugary goodness that awaited me. I thought about Mack, too, and how much she always craved those donuts. When I got to work and opened the lid of that beautiful donut box and gazed upon the lovely assortment of breakfast treats, I sighed deeply, smiled broadly, lifted a perfect glazed donut with a generous dollop of lemon curd, and toasted Mack by taking a Mack-sized first bite. And then I ate two more donuts! Mack would have been proud.

I felt fat and ashamed about my three-donut day until this afternoon, when my Mack whispered in my ear and said, “It’s ahhright, Momma Bear. If I’d have been there, I’d have eaten four.” As usual, Mack was right, and it was perfectly alright that I had detoured from my usual healthy diet. I had nothing to be ashamed of because dammit, I enjoyed those donuts. They were delicious, and they made me happy. While I do not plan to revive the McDermott three-donuts-per-person plan any time soon, I had to admit to Mack, to me, and now to all of you, that I loved those three donuts with gleeful abandon, that maybe I even needed those donuts, and that I will harbor no shame for paying homage to an old McDermott family tradition from our Springfield days.

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Cousins’ Weekend

In the McDermott family, Cousins’ Weekend is a cherished family tradition that has had a magical impact on the personal connections that eighteen McDermott cousins, now ranging in age from five to twenty-seven, feel for each other. In 1989, Bill and Dianne, Mack’s paternal grandparents, took the first two McDermott cousins—babies Jacquie and Savannah—to their Wisconsin cabin for a weekend; and that trip became an annual event around which five McDermott families planned their summers. Mack attended her first Cousin’s Weekend in 1995, and for the next eighteen years it was a highlight of each summer for her. During those weekends, she became a strong swimmer, failed at water skiing (the only sport she never conquered), lived on hot dogs and chips, fell in love with all of her cousins, and became the magnetic ringleader of the little ones.

On the south bank of Fish Lake, just two miles or so southwest of the Wisconsin hamlet of Hancock (population 417) the McDermott family cabin sits nestled among giant and fragrant pine trees. The humble, two-bedroom, wood-frame house, which is perched high up over the lake, accommodates the large and boisterous McDermott clan for one long weekend every August. There is a multi-level deck, a long wooden staircase down to the boat dock, an inflatable pier, a tree house, a private loft for the teenagers, and a small patio and yard. Therefore, the large group can spread out a bit, but it’s always crowded, ever noisy, and a raucous good time. Now in its twenty-sixth year, Cousins’ Weekend is a chaotic, full-blown McDermott party to which nearly all of the some thirty McDermott clan members make annual pilgrimage to central Wisconsin to share food, to spend time on the lake, to take impromptu walks and bike rides, to loudly talk over each other, to tell bad jokes and to laugh, and to roast marshmallows around a small fire on the beach at night.

Although she generally steered clear of large and loud gatherings, Mack enjoyed the hell out of Cousins’ Weekend. She loved the water, tubing, the late-night card games, the walks to the neighboring campground snack bar, listening to her Uncle Brian play guitar, organizing various ball games in the yard, teasing her grandpa and her uncles, and sharing her electronic devices with the youngest kids and teaching them tricks with a basketball. Mack adored each of her crazy cousins, and the feeling was mutual. And although it is probably wrong for me to say it out loud, let alone to put it into writing, Cousins’ Weekend never officially began until Macko arrived. The younger cousins would eagerly await her arrival, as Mack was frequently delayed by a basketball tournament, and there were always squeals of delight when their tall and smiley big cousin walked through the cabin’s front door.

This weekend, the cousin gathering at the McDermott cabin is underway. It is the same chaotic, fun, and magical time it always has been. Mack’s grandparents and father are there, as are three uncles, two aunts, and fifteen McDermott cousins. Those rambunctious cousins are swimming, boating, playing silly games, and laughing. Cousins’ Weekend is about fun and time together, after all. Yet there is also a dark little cloud that has settled over the cabin and the lake and the woods. Macko is missing and, in many ways, Cousins’ Weekend will never be the same again.

But it is absolutely true that Cousin Macko would be so very happy to know that the tradition continues and that far too many people are crammed into that cabin, together once again, catching up with each other before the summer ends and all of them are busy with their own lives. Mack would be excited to know the little ones are learning how to water ski. She would chuckle to learn that Grandpa Bill is still trying to shake the older kids off of the tube into the cold water behind the boat’s wake. She would be happy that hot dogs and toasted marshmallows are being consumed with reckless abandon and that someone (probably Cousin Sam) is telling a very bad joke that has made everyone laugh and at least one little cousin fart.

But Mack would want her cousins to know that Cousins’ Weekend was “da bestest,” that they were all—each and every one of them—important to her, and that she always enjoyed her time with them, even though it was often too short. And, perhaps most importantly, Macko would want her cousins to know that much of what she understood about people and the world around her she learned from them; and she gained most of that useful knowledge during those magical meetings with them at Fish Lake in the middle of Wisconsin.

Cousins’ Weekend, 2005 (Mack is in the middle in white t-shirt, sporting her corn-row braids)…

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Cousins’ Weekend, 2011. No doubt, Mack is telling one of her uncles “what’s up” as Kevin and Grandma Dianne look on…

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Here is Mack (in a blue tank top) leading the pack of kiddos in the yard and on the beach…

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Fun on the inflatable pier and slide. Mack’s back is to the camera, as she gets ready to jump into the lake…

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In this photo, Sam is hanging on tight to Macko to keep her from leaving…

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And, finally, a picture that for me sums up the value of Cousins’ Weekend. Here Mack is on the right with Kelty on the left, and little Zachary sandwiched in between his two adoring and fun older cousins…

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