It was surreal, weird, sometimes confusing to grow up in the shadow of an iconic, almost mythical spirit. When ladies in the community would hug them a little too tight or long, or cling to their hands and say they were praying for them, the McNair girls didn't know what to make of the attention.
They knew their sister Denise had died at their church in a bombing and that it was a significant event in history, but their parents refused to share details. Any questions they had were given one- or two-word answers. Maybe it hurt too much to talk about the past. Their father would later say he didn't want to push it in their faces.
"Relatives said Daddy didn't cry for six months, maybe a year," says Lisa, who was born a year and four days after the bombing.
"If he did, he did it where we didn't see it," says their mother.
Kimberly, born four years after Lisa, says she was 8 when the ugly truth began to come out. They were visiting their grandmother; after someone mentioned Denise, the older woman fetched and opened a mysterious box.
From inside, she pulled the chunk of concrete that had been lodged in Denise's head. Her shoes, her purse, the drops she had used that day for her allergies. Their mother sat by and cried while the girls sat spellbound and listened.
"She felt we needed to know," says Kimberly, "because it was a part of us, too."
But it wouldn't be until their parents were interviewed by Spike Lee for his Academy Award-nominated 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls," that the McNair sisters fully understood. Everything their parents had kept to themselves came out. As Kimberly puts it, the film made Denise "three-dimensional." Their father would travel to different cities to attend the film's premieres and sob at every one of them. It was, they believe, the purge he'd so desperately needed. Now, whenever the sisters see the film, they start crying as soon as the opening credits roll.
Their mother, Maxine, was in the church's choir loft when the bomb exploded. She jumped up to try to find her daughter, not knowing she was buried in the rubble. She wouldn't see Denise again until, at the hospital, she and her husband later identified their only child's lifeless body.
"I couldn't stop screaming for several days," Maxine says. "They had to give me an injection to calm my nerves."
The couple, who had tried to have more children ever since Denise was born, came home to silence.
That they had another daughter almost exactly a year later, and then another, felt like a miracle.
Today, Lisa and Kimberly look at their mother with awe and admiration.
"No one would have blamed her if she'd crawled into bed and cried for the rest of her life," says Lisa. "Mama said a minister friend of hers told her, 'Maxine, God has a divine plan, and you just have to follow it.'"
As an evening summer storm pounds the living-room skylights in the Birmingham-area home the family shares, their rescue dog Banjo vies for lap space.
Maxine, now 85 and suffering from Alzheimer's, swats the mutt away -- "Get that thing on the floor." She closes her eyes but never stops listening. As the conversation turns to what Denise might have been, Maxine's eyes open.
"She would have been awesome," says Lisa, who remembers stories of Denise standing up for others. "A doctor or lawyer or politician."
"I think she would have left Birmingham. I just think she would have been adventurous," says Kimberly. "And I'm sure she would have given my parents the grandchildren they wanted."
"We have granddogs," says Lisa, giving Banjo a squeeze.
"You two are crazy!" Maxine howls with laughter.