I am traveling to New Jersey this weekend. On the one hand, it will be a fun trip. We are taking Zoe down the shore for the whole weekend and good God I miss the shore. I understand that a Cape May/Wildwood outing might be in the offing and I have not been to either of those places in for-freaking-ever, so that is very exciting. And on Tuesday I will come back with more of how awesome New Jersey, and the Jersey shore specifically, are, and we will have a super-fun post that all of you (I think there might be 25-30 of you now) will enjoy.
But part of the trip is not about fun. It’s the one-year anniversary of my stepfather’s death. It still feels inconceivable to me that he is gone. Sometimes when I’m thinking of him in a roundabout way, that doesn’t have to do directly with the fact that he died last year, I hear his voice in my head – he had a very distinctive way of speaking – and then I have to concentrate, very hard, to remember that I’m only ever going to hear it in my head ever again.
But I don’t want to be morose, and I don’t want to be angry. It is time to turn away from mourning his death, and turn toward celebrating his life. (Or at least, it’s time to shift the balance from the former to the latter.) My husband keeps saying that people don’t really die when we remember them, and when we remember them to our children and to our children’s children. And as cheesy as that sounds, there are those I feel I know – my great-grandfather, Sam; my mom and dad’s dog Hugo – whom I actually never met. And I know that, for instance, my husband’s grandparents and my grandmothers will always be known to my daughter because of the way we talk about them, even though she’s never met them. So when I think about celebrating Mackie’s life, I think about the things I want Zoe to know about him.
1. His name wasn’t Mackie. His name was James McNaboe. I started calling him Mackie, I guess, from the moment I met him. Nobody remembers why – I was only about four at the time – but our best bet is that it has something to do with the song “Jimmy Mack.”
2. I called him Mackie my whole life, but one year, when I was maybe seven, on his Christmas card, I put Macy, not being really sure how to spell “Mackie.” That kind of stuck and became a constant alternate spelling on all cards and gifts.
3. For a while, my sister, Kate, his daughter, started calling him Mackie in imitation of me (because she was young enough to think I was cool). He didn’t much like that.
4. When Kate was little, she called an umbrella a “bellello.” I, in my 12-year-old snottiness, said to her, “You know it’s an umbrella, right?” She never said “bellello” again. I don’t think Mackie ever forgave me.
5. He wanted Zoe to call him Pop-Pop. He even had a t-shirt that said Pop-Pop on it.
6. Of course he had a t-shirt that said Pop-Pop on it. He had scads of t-shirts. He had t-shirts from every festival he ever attended (and he attended A LOT of festivals), every beer he ever liked, every vacation he ever took, and every vacation everyone else ever took and brought back for him. He even had a t-shirt from the hospital where he was being treated for the cancer that killed him.
7. He especially had a lot of free t-shirts (which I should hope the one from the hospital was), and a lot of swag in general. Swag was one of his favorite things.
8. Although his t-shirt collection is impressive, it’s probably not worth anything to anyone but us. He has other collections, though, principally (to my mind) records and trucks. The first thing we bonded over was trucks. I was maybe three or four when he and my mom started dating. My mom brought me over to his apartment and he set aside some of his trucks for me to play with, including one he eventually granted to me, a Sea World truck with a little dolphin floating in water in the trailer. Interestingly, trucks would also bond Zoe and Mackie, albeit posthumously. After his funeral, we all headed to the shore house, and Zoe took some of the trucks he had there and arranged them very carefully and precisely atop an empty fancy-popcorn tin. Mom has kept them in Zoe’s design.
9. When he came over to my mother’s house, before they were married, he would build couch pillow houses for/with me. Sometimes they were very elaborate, and incorporated the dining room chairs and bar stools into their design. One time, when we had built a really elaborate one – it had, like, a second floor – I started moving stuff into it when someone accidentally let our dog, Alfie, out of whatever room he’d been sequestered in for the duration of the construction, and Alfie knocked it all over, including the little jar of scented powder I was moving in. From that day forward, I insisted that the white hairs on Alfie’s nose were not marks of age but reminders of this incident.
10. Our dog after Alfie, Curly, was extremely the rough-and-tumble type. And Mackie would rough-and-tumble right along with him, getting down on the floor and rolling around. And he was 6’2″. And not an extremely young man. So let that be an image in your head.
11. To say he was a music aficionado would be to seriously, seriously understate things. He knew everything about every piece of popular music that came out between, oh, say, 1950 and 1980. Roughly. And he was always learning more. When I was in college, he called me into his office (literally) to listen to a song he thought I might get a kick out of. I did; I still listen to it all the time. It’s called “Eighty-Eight Lines about Forty-Four Women” and it’s by The Nails. It came out in 1984. He also had me listen, I think during our Christmas visit which would be his last Christmas, to songs by the Texas Tornadoes, which I enjoy pretty well.
12. His favored styles, however, ran more along the lines of R&B (actual R&B, not regular pop ballads that happen to be sung by black people), Motown, and Doo-Wop. And he very much enjoyed singing them. Loudly. With any audience at all. And with any provocation at all. He particularly loved singing songs such as “Come and Go With Me” (to my sister, mostly), or “Chantilly Lace” (because I think he was the Big Bopper in his fantasy life, except without, you know, the dying young in a plane crash), or “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (when dinner was about to be served).
13. The first Christmas that I brought Jason to was also the last Christmas my Grandma Edith – my mother’s mother – would attend. Jason brought his guitar, and played songs while Mackie and my uncle Jeff sang. My grandmother, who didn’t usually get along with Mackie, was totally charmed by this. She said she’d never seen that side of Mackie before.
14. He pretty much worshiped the ground my mother walked on. They were pretty affectionate with each other, which is interesting, because neither of them are very affectionate or mushy in general.
15. I loved all of the oldies that he played all the time. At one point in high school I made myself a series of mix tapes (Cassette tapes, for the youngsters in my audience, were what we listened to music on before there were CDs, and mix tapes were what we made before recordable CDs were readily available. CDs were what we listened to music on before mp3s.) from his Time-Life CD collection that had the hits of each year of the fifties and a lot of the sixties. One time I was in my car with a boy I was friends with, and this boy liked to think of himself as very sophisticated and an aficionado of things out of the realm of most high schoolers. So when I put on one of these tapes, he looked at me all flabbergasted, and said, “You’re not old enough to like this music!” I pointed out to him that a) I was only a year younger than him, and b) I had parents, too. But I realize that, for these particular tapes, I didn’t have “parents,” I had him. My mother and father were a little young for this music; through them, I knew The Rolling Stones and The Eagles (my mother), and The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel (my father). And of course Bob Dylan (both of them). Mackie taught me about Buddy Holly and Berry Gordy. So thanks for that, Mackie.
16. He was extremely tender and protective of Zoe. When we came out for her first Christmas, he gave a literalness to the term “hovering” that I have never seen before. He would walk around me, his arms in a sort of protective cage that surrounded me and Zoe, whenever we walked outside (where it was icy! Very icy!) or even up and down the steps in our house. And he was of course fascinated by her every gesture and mood.
17. He liked to walk around in t-shirts and boxers with his socks pulled up to his knees and loudly drum on his belly.
18. He had a pose he would adopt when he was giving advice. He would sort of slump and spread in a chair, with his elbows on the arms and his legs apart. Then he would steeple his fingers and look down, like he was gathering inspiration. Then he would look up and begin to expound on the topic in question, with lots of sharp, fast hand gestures and a voice – remember I said he had a distinctive speaking style – that would rise in volume very suddenly and then fall back to normal. Topics ranged from what to look for when buying a condo, to what we should buy Mom for Mother’s Day, to what route we should take to get to wherever we were going. Even at my sister’s graduation, which was the last time I would really see him, he went into that pose to extoll the virtues of Ocean City vs Wildwood as a place to take Zoe.
19. Directions were very big in his life. He liked knowing seventy-two different ways of getting somewhere, and his directions always included information like, “You’ll pass a building on your right that is now abandoned but was a pizza place that one of my college friends used to claim had the best pizza. I didn’t think much of it. Before that it was an auto garage that specialized in foreign cars, and before that, it had insurance offices.”
20. It’s important to remember people for the whole of who they were, not just the good stuff. My sister and I were pretty pissed off at his funeral, when the priest, who didn’t know him and had already behaved bizarrely and annoyingly in a number of ways, declared that “Jim was a kind man, always with a kind word to say about everyone.” We said to each other afterwards that if that was true, we never heard any of them. He always had a sarcastic word to say about everyone. How you knew he loved you was, he’d say the sarcastic comment TO you, ABOUT someone else.
21. He had a temper which would explode with a lot of yelling and shaking of the head. But it always banked very quickly and then he would act like nothing had happened. That was fine with me; I usually like to deal with conflict by acting like nothing happened.
22. Because of his temper, he was on occasion a rather aggressive driver. But one time we all went to Staples (probably back-t0-school shopping) and when we came out there was a note on the windshield which was yelling at him for being so aggressive and dangerous a driver. The weird thing was, that particular night, he had not been at all. He’d been in a good mood, nothing had happened in the car that struck anyone else as an incident. And yet the note. Very weird.
23. But back to the good stuff. Before he married my mother, he traveled everywhere and he tried everything. For a man who would barely eat a green vegetable or an unknown spice at home, you’d be surprised to learn that he ate bugs on safari in Africa and shark-fin soup in China. But he did.
24. This is one of my favorite stories about him. When we were in San Diego, we went to the San Diego Zoo (naturally) and we read that moose put leaves and moss and grass on their antlers to attract mates. For the rest of the trip, Mackie kept picking up bits of grass and stuff and putting them behind his ears and going, “Honey! Honey! How do you like me now?”
25. My mother and stepfather almost never called each other by their first names (except when speaking to others about each other). They called each other endearments. “Dear” was my mother’s term for Mackie, and “Honey” or “Hon” was Mackie’s term for my mother. Although sometimes when speaking to us she was “Connie-Mommy.” Again, these were two very much non-mushy people. Sarcasm was/is their default mode. But then there was this. (By the way, this is one of the reasons I have trouble with parenting books sometimes. Because so many of them advise against sarcasm. And yet sarcasm is what I grew up on! I think the key is, you can be sarcastic with your kids, but not to your kids.)
26. When he’d call the house and I’d pick up the phone, because I sound exactly like my mother, he’d call me “Hon.” Then I’d correct him and say it was “Hon, Jr.” He liked that.
27. His favorite story about me was that when I was six or seven someone asked me if I were Jewish or Christian, and I said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I’m a little Christmas-y, too.”
28. He was very silly. He would crack me and my sister up at the dinner table or on car trips. Mom would roll her eyes and look annoyed. That was because us cracking up was about three seconds from Kate doing something that Mackie would object to, such as waving her hands too close to her juice glass, and then they would fight a bit because, well, Kate comes by her stubborn streak naturally. But the thing of it is, I don’t even remember what we were laughing over. He was just silly.
29. Another of his great loves was beer. We always had a fridge stocked with microbrews from everywhere he went. (They’re probably still there, as I’m the only other person who’d be inclined to drink them, and I don’t live there.) When my sister was in first grade or so, someone came to her class to talk about alcoholism and such. My sister announced loudly to the class that her father drank “beard” and ate corn chips every night, making him sound like an alcoholic, which he wasn’t. But it made for a good story.
30. It was not possible for anyone to back out of our driveway without his assistance. He would stand and watch you and make gestures with his arms.
31. There were certain things in the house that he was in charge of, namely, the mail, and phone messages. Mail would always be placed at your seat at the dining room table. He took care to note any especially creative spellings of any of our last names. (Oh, and he was fond of the fact that a household with four people could have three last names.) He also loved deals and frequently got me magazine subscriptions for dirt-cheap and surveys which, if I filled them out, I’d get free samples. (My uncle, my dad’s brother, does the same thing, only with internet savvy.) If there was a phone message for you, he played it first, and then called you in to his office to hear it, frequently commenting on the nature of the message and the message-leaver. He was always particularly amused by my stepmother’s phone messages, which could run for several paragraphs, with the only actual content being, “Call me back around 7.”
32. My college graduation was a traumatic day for me (though not as traumatic as Kate’s college graduation turned out to be). In addition to the leaving-college blues, I got very upset when I realized my dad and my stepmom had fled the premises with my brother immediately after the ceremony, instead of sticking around to talk to me, take pictures with me, etc. I was really pretty upset and hysterical. So Mackie took me aside and hugged me for a while. Just hugged me. Didn’t say anything, didn’t try to talk me out of being upset or calm me down. Just hugged.
I hate to end on that note for Kate’s sake and I hope she can forgive me because I know how awful her graduation day was for her, because of Mackie’s extremely advanced illness at that point. But like I said at the beginning, I want to remember him to Zoe, and that’s definitely one of the moments I want to be alive in her mind about him. It’s one of the moments that will always be alive in mine.