Last week, I called my sister Mindy Lyle to tell her that Margaret McMillan — “Miss Mac” to just about everyone who knew her, except the people who called her Aunt Maug — had died. Mindy was weepy, but I could only rejoice at the life this woman lived for nearly 100 years. What a woman. What a life.
Miss Mac, who was born the year women got the right to vote, blazed trail after trail. A state champion swimmer by the time she was 12 years old. A superhero with a caftan instead of a cape. Metalic gold sandals instead of black boots.
Many know that I spent nine summers, nine hours a day, teaching swimming in Miss Mac’s back yard, and later subbed in on some of the offshore survival training dates. I was the queen of the baby pool. They all came through my territory: Ainsley Roy Gordon, Hunter Roy, Charlotte Busch Cryer, Lacey Young LaHaye, Lanien Theard’s kids and others, including Dave McAllister, a private student with Down Syndrome, whom Miss Mac assigned to me. She really loved Dave, who learned to swim well and went on to be a Special Olympics competitor and swim coach.
Anyone who taught or took swimming at 111 Leonie St. — the location of her home and pool — can all tell you about the sound of the patio door sliding open. Either there was a problem she was going to solve or praise she was going to dole out. She was not afraid to show who was boss and dropped many a reluctant student off the one-meter board, but always in a carefully thought-out way.
She loved a beautiful swim stroke. We taught children and adults how to swim the MacMillan way, which was like a waltz: graceful arms, long body, with a relaxed flutter kick. One, two, three. One, two, three. Her face glowed when her students — children and adults — got the confidence to swim, jump and dive without fear.
Everyone remembers the backyard snow cone stand, which dished out a went-all-the-way-under-water reward for newbies, or was a summer job for kids who were too young to teach, and which seemed to always need repair.
I remember the day I heard Miss Mac announce that something had to be done about men dying in offshore accidents. And she did it. She blazed that trail around the world and continued to be an international resource in the survival world, even after she moved into the nursing home. I was visiting with her when she received a call from someone in Scotland wanting a recommendation for a survival consultant.
Some of the most important relationships I have and a good part of my professional success I owe to Margaret McMillan, whom we secretly began to call Triple M (Mary Margaret McMillan), thanks to the leadership of Louise Billeaud, who is believed to have coined the nickname.
Her presence was commanding, but she had a very girlie side many never saw. She loved the designer Pauline Trigiere. That closet of hers had Salvatore Ferragamo shoes — which did not make the move to the nursing home — and St. John knits, which did. Can we ever forget her trademark handbag, the one with metallic gold MMM identifying its owner?
When she was hospitalized after her lower left leg was amputated in 2015, I stopped in and found her irritable, watching the evening news and unable to do anything for herself. “I know, I can’t do anything about it,” she said. I reminded her that there was something she could do something about: She could put on some lipstick, something that she reminded me to do fairly often. The next day Janet Wood and I arrived at Lafayette General with a tube of Kevin Aucoin lipstick and a bunch of paraphernalia pooled together by Gail Romero and Nancy Broussard Prince. We got her spruced up, smelling sweet and left her in a pretty happy state.
Her greatest love, though, was reserved for her nephews and niece — John, Wikoff, Haas, James and Robin McMillan — and she was a combination Auntie Mame, disciplinarian, mentor and motherer to that gang.
I wish I could find the invitation from her 80th birthday. Guests came from everywhere, and those who couldn’t show up sent flowers, letters, cards and gifts. The cover was a photo of the movie star Esther Williams in a swim suit, with a thought bubble coming out of her head, saying, “If only I could have been like Margaret!”
[Editor’s Note: Margaret McMillan was honored as a trailblazer by this media group in 2005.]_