Remembering her little big sister
By Marie A. Sutton
Today is a hard day for Lisa McNair. Every year, on September 15, she has to rise out of bed, put on her clothes, apply her makeup and ready herself to walk into a church that was the site of a mass murder.
“The whole thing is surreal,” said the 54-year-old.
Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is where Lisa’s oldest sister, Denise -- a chocolate brown, baby-doll-eyed 11-year-old -- was blown to bits at the hands of a dynamite-wielding Klansman. She was one of the Four Little Girls killed that day in 1963 with Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley.
“Without question, it is a sad day,” she said of the anniversary date. “I often don’t feel like attending [church], but I do so out of respect for Denise, and the other girls and my parents.”
On this day, Lisa will have to speak and smile and hug and greet. The world knows her sister’s name and she has to be the one to stand in the light even when her heart is breaking.
“It is still hard to grasp that my family was a part of history in that way,” she said. “It is something you never get used to.”
At home, though, after the service and ceremonies, it is typically a quiet day.
“We often didn’t do anything special,” she said. “I suppose you can say we suffered in silence.”
And who could blame them? Both of her parents, Chris and Maxine McNair, had to identify Denise's little body after the bombing.
“I can imagine they can never get that out of their heads,” Lisa said. “You can’t unsee it. To move on for them after that took great courage.”
It was especially heartbreaking because for a long time, her parents had tried to have a baby and couldn’t. Denise’s 1951 birth had been an answer to prayer. When they lost her, they feared that was the end for their family.
But in 1964, almost a year to the date of Denise’s death, Lisa was born on September 19. Four years later, her baby sister Kim arrived.
“I think I am here because she died,” said Lisa, who is a public speaker, professional photographer and an outreach coordinator for a nonprofit. “Now, as I travel the country speaking about her and our family’s loss, it has become my life’s work.
Lisa’s mother, Maxine, is 91. She is legally blind and living with Alzheimer's.
“You would think she was unhappy and miserable, but she is a joy to be with and talk to. Just as loving and delightful as she always was. It’s a blessing she is that way and to still have her.”
Sadly, Lisa's father, Chris, passed away on May 8. It’s still raw.
“It is almost too much to bear at times," she said. “He was such a force of nature. It is weird living life without him.”
“Once he knew the end was near, he was very much like he was before, full of life and he had joy,” Lisa said. “I am grateful for that.”
While clearing out some things in her parents’ home, Lisa found Denise’s diary. It was a worn brown leather book with a gilded gold lock. Inside, Denise scribbled about her day-to-day life as an active little girl, who was a Brownie Scout and student at Center Street Elementary School. On her last entry, she remarked about having had hernia surgery.
"It gave me a window to who she was as a person,” Lisa said, “which was very much like who family members said she was."
On today, Lisa hopes that people will set aside some time for reflection.
“I would like them to pause in their day and think about Denise and the other girls and how and why they died,” she said. “But more importantly if they will remember that hate never solves anything; only love can conquer hate. Make amends and find peace. It is very hard to do, but the alternative is worse. It is actually easy; Denise, Addie Mae, Carol and Cynthia along with their parents, did the hard part.”
Lisa recently launched a website (www.speaklisa.com) where folks can go to learn more about her and her sister as well as request speaking engagements.
“I feel I can share with others through my family’s loss, and can hopefully bring people together with the goal of eliminating deaths like hers with love, friendship and finding common ground. It can and must happen in order for us to live together in this world.”