Finding a Coin is the Best: – Amanda Savage
When we were in Italy with Mac, he told us that the best artifact an archaeologist could find was a coin because that provided definitive evidence of the date of a site.
The thing I found most endearing about this conversation was that Mac told us that every time he passes by a construction site, he tosses a coin from his pocket into the site in hopes of providing a future archaeologist a “dream find.” Such a nerdy, kind, and forward-thinking thing to do.
It’s something I’ve thought of often as a way that we can carry Mac’s legacy into the future by giving a little nugget of good fortune to future scholars long after we have left this place, we call home.
When we had concrete poured in our driveway last November, we had each of our girls place a coin from their birth year in the wet concrete.
From long-time friend, Peter Savage:
We attended college together in Montana. After college, my direction was towards Chapel Hill, where I’d start a graduate program in Acting. Mac’s was to head back to Minnesota and figure out what a college grad does with a degree in the Classics. In July, when I had made my way to Chapel Hill and had an apartment, I called Mac and suggested he move to Chapel Hill. He did.
Mac got a job teaching Latin at McDougle Middle School in Chapel Hill. I don’t know why he initially chose the Classics. I really think it started with Latin. He liked the puzzle aspect of it. Taking something written 1000’s of years ago and translating it to your own voice appealed to him. I think that job really put him on the road that eventually would lead to his Italian dig.
While teaching at McDougle, Mac ended up going to Grad School at UNC-Greensboro. We moved out of our first Chapel Hill apartment into a house. Over the years, I’d come to learn why McKenzie was living alone when I first moved to Missoula. He was a stubborn one and liked things in his particular way. He was not easy to live with. Dirty in the places that needed to be clean (the bathroom) and clean in the areas we didn’t care about were dirty (organization of our liquor cabinet). We tried roommates—a few times. The house was big enough for 3. But somehow, it never worked. And yet, for some reason, he and I lived together just fine. In all those years, I never recall one argument over anything.
I graduated and left Chapel Hill for NYC. Amanda, who I had dated for not a year yet, moved into the downstairs room I had vacated. This was perfect. Whenever I’d come to visit, I could stay with my girlfriend and my best buddy. It was ideal. But them living together had an impact I wouldn’t understand for many years to come. During this time, Amanda and Mac developed their own relationship. She had whatever gene it took to be able to live with McKenzie, and they were great roommates. Their friendship grew into its own thing. They had their own inside jokes.
And it was at that time that McKenzie’s influence turned Amanda on to the Grateful Dead. Every time I’d come and visit, Amanda was infinitely cooler because Mac was rubbing off on her. To this day, that is the thing I think I’ll cherish most about our friendship… he was and will continue to be a glue for Amanda and me. We both knew him SO well and so often we hear a lyric from a song or a quote from a movie and just look at each other and smile in acknowledgement that we were both thinking of Mac.
After NYC, I moved to Asheville. Nearly every weekend, I’d drive to Chapel Hill to see Amanda. On Monday, September 10th, 2001, I drove to Mac’s. Tragedy would strike on the morning of September 11th, and I can recall with such clarity sitting in the downstairs room watching the 2nd plane fly into the World Trade Center tower. We were all together, sitting on the couch watching the fallout of this unforgettable event. While the Coronavirus is not a moment that can be pinpointed like 9/11/01, I do find it… ironic maybe… that with Mac’s passing, the world is dealing with another event the likes of which none of us have ever seen.
Since 9/11, the last 19 years had seen unbelievable changes for the three of us. Some more schools (A Ph.D. for Mac), some kids (for Amanda and me), and a lot of teaching. Through all those years, we kept our friendship a priority. Mac would regularly come to Asheville to see us. He said seeing the Savage’s really “recharged his batteries.” I know every time he was with us, I felt like Amanda and I were complete. And every time he left seemed too soon.
Perhaps McKenzie’s most significant personal accomplishment, aside from all the degrees and accolades, was supervising his own dig in Montelupo, Italy. I was so proud of him. How cool. Fricking Indiana Jones was my best friend. But it was also a bummer because he was ALWAYS in Italy when the summer tour for our favorite bands happened. Amanda and I talked about going over for years, but you know… kids and life, and all sorts of excuses. And yet, without fail, sometime during the school year, Mac would give us about four days’ notice and show up in Asheville for a long weekend of deep conversations and middle-school bathroom humor. He was such a damn good friend.
As fortune would have it, Amanda had a Pharmacy Conference near Florence in 2018 and close to Mac’s dig. We went sans kids, and McKenzie couldn’t have been more excited about showing us around.
He sent one of his grad students, Laney, down to Rome to meet Amanda and me and give us a personal tour of the city. The next day we took the train up to Florence and Mac came down, very late I should add, to meet us for dinner and a walk around town. He took us all around the old Roman parts of Florence, telling us the city’s secrets.
Two days later, the plan was for Mac to pick us up and drive us around Chianti. He picked us up infuriatingly late. But the second he arrived, and we got in his dumb little European rental car, and he sped off like a bank thief, I immediately forgot I was angry. We ended up having one of the most beautiful days of my life.
- He took Amanda and me to his dig site.
- We ate lunch in Radda overlooking the vast Chianti hills dotted with vineyards.
- He showed us the remains of Etruscan Burial mounds and explained in detail what archaeologists did and didn’t know about them.
- We went wine tasting and bought Chianti Classico and Tuscan Rosé at Badia Coltibuono.
- We had dinner at Il Papavero on the side of a cliff in the town of Barbischio. I so wish Amanda and I had bought the painting of a cypress tree done by the reclusive artist living in a tower above the restaurant.
The warmth of our friendship that day (Amanda, McKenzie & I) was palpable. I think we were all keenly aware of what a special relationship we shared.
Our last night in Prato, where the conference was, I told Mac that we had to go to a Pharmacy Conference dinner, and we’d be back late and no need to come down. We’d see him back in the States. But NO!!! The kind of friend who helps you move your living room into an acting studio is the kind of friend who drives down from the Italian hills at 11 pm to have one last drink and one last hug.
That was the last hug. The last time I’d see him. Maybe it was fitting. We were finally all together in Italy. Our circle… our “Wolfpack” (to quote a more contemporary movie that McKenzie loved) was complete. It was glorious and lost on none of us what a special moment it was. Little did we know that goodbye has now become one of the most significant moments of my life.
If you’ve made it this far, I hope it’s beyond obvious how much this person meant to me, my wife, & my family (Mac was Harper’s Godfather). But these are all stories of my physical time with Mac. But maybe more important are how he lives in my head. Before he passed, and certainly every day since, I think of Mac when a Simpsons or Adam Sandler quote perfectly sums up a moment. Maybe a Grateful Dead lyric jog a memory, or someone on TV says the word “Balls” and I can hear Mac respond in a dumb 4th grader voice… “He said balls.”
He brought laughter to Amanda and me daily, whether he was with us or not. When people say, “they continue to live on in your memory,” I know this will be true in a very real way. I’ve heard his voice in my head for years and will for the rest of my life.
Just yesterday, as another father and I, were trying to corral our kids into the car after a play date, my friend says to his kids, “come on, you’ll see them in school tomorrow,” and without even a thought to Mac, I said out loud… “See you tomorrow Indiana Jones”… a quote I had heard McKenzie, and only McKenzie, say a thousand times. He is such a deep part of who I am, I have already begun to blur the things he gave to me (to all of us) and accepted them as mine.
Thank you so much, McKenzie. I love you. I will miss you every day. I promise to laugh at the dumbest of jokes.
“Going home, going home, by the waterside I will rest my bones. Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul”
– Broke down Palace by The Grateful Dead