The cultural fair gets me every time.
Every few years it creeps up on me. The school project dedicated to exploring family trees and genealogy. Our school calls it the cultural fair. I call it my personal minefield chock full of memories and mixed emotions.
When the assignment comes home, we start by filling in all the information on our family tree. I notice how far and wide the branches extend but also how many of them now lack the greenery of life. It is lopsided, with my family side of the tree missing so many of the wonderful people that once filled it. My husband Joe has died. My mother, my only brother and all my grandparents have also passed away. It’s now just my dad and I representing as the lively branches hovering above my kids on the Lewis side of the family. Although I have done several of these family trees over the years, I have yet to become adjusted to seeing all those names with both beginning and end dates. The visual impact is a jarring reality. I am extremely happy, however, seeing my date still open-ended.
Once the tree has been completed there are photos to be pulled. Pictures of the beautiful people to go along with their names requiring me to look through and pull these faces from the numerous albums where they reside. The overwhelming search begins as we scan through hundreds of family photographs looking for just the right one. After a while, it becomes less about filling the tree and more of a kind of treasure hunt for my kids as they find new undiscovered pictures of their daddy to incorporate into the sentimental artwork collages that will proudly be displayed in their school halls.
I remember the first time this assignment came home. It was way too soon in my grieving process. I resisted, but couldn’t avoid. My kids needed help completing this project so I had no choice but to immerse myself into yet another situation of incredible discomfort. Every photo of my late husband Joe held a wealth of memories. Each one took me back in time: a relaxing anniversary weekend in Palm Springs, an amazing road trip to San Francisco for Thanksgiving or — their favorite and my biggest emotional trigger — our wedding day. A few photos in, I became an emotional wreck having to stop and take a break from the deep grief that accompanied these visual reminders. So much has been lost. Regaining composure and going back in for more, I began noticing how much joy and delight these photos brought to my children. I know they held sadness and loss in their hearts, but they were also curious and entertained by the funny faces, silly haircuts and outfits of times gone by. They wanted to know more. I quickly realized what a beautifully natural way this was to share with them a few wonderful stories about their father.
Along with a family tree and photo collage, this year’s cultural fair required gathering family artifacts and heirlooms that might “capture the essence” of our family history. A museum was set up in each classroom to display and share these symbolic items. Each student sharing a piece of their unique family story. I glanced around the room at the vintage items now placed alongside what might one day become some of their children’s displayed antiques: iPads and smart boards. The slightly musty and dusty smell of old stuff coming from all these items so lovingly pulled from storage boxes and shelves reminded me of my grandparent’s garage. A 100-year-old military medal from WWI, a great-grandmother’s prized locket and a vintage railway sign from the 1920’s were just a few of the items delicately placed on the desktops along with a brief, handwritten description and tribute to ancestors of long ago. Or…maybe not so long ago.
Assigned to bring an “heirloom,” my thoughts immediately went to finding things “way older than me.” I started reeling off a list of items to my daughter that I felt would be appropriate: her great-grandfather’s wedding ring or great-grandmother’s music stand, maybe the silver framed photo of my great-grandparents? Nope. My daughter already had something in mind: a pair of shoes. Nothing dusty here but rather a pair of diner-inspired Converse high top sneakers with an old-fashion glossy menu exterior and red gingham tablecloth pattern interior. A pair of shoes passed down to her from her father. These vintage looking shoes may have appeared to have come from the 1950’s, but were actually rather new, probably circa 2005. To her, age didn’t matter as these shoes were vintage enough and every bit a family heirloom. Sandwiched in-between fraying military garb and a delicate quilt of an entirely different era, these shoes gave many observers opportunity for a double-take in their “one of these things is not like the other” standing. Proudly displayed in all of their 10-year-old glory, this young artifact of retro-whimsical charm held strong and did its job capturing the essence of an important part of our family history.
But that’s not what got me. I have been participating in these events for a few years now and can usually anticipate and dodge the major triggers if need be. I know how to steel myself up to avoid embarrassing my kids from having to explain why their mother is bawling like a baby during a joyous school function. This year it snuck up on me from behind, swiftly taking me off balance. Sitting at the table with a plate full of shared heritage-inspired potluck delights, the class members began standing up, one-by-one giving their well-rehearsed and obviously pre-prepared toasts. When my daughter stood up, I could feel an emotional swell building. Major trigger alert. Unaware this would be part of the program I sat waiting in anticipation for the other shoe(s) to drop. “I would like to raise my glass to my creative dad Joe.” She began with confidence and a smile. “Even though I didn’t get to know him that long, I still love him with all my heart. He inspires me, and even though he has passed away, he helped me with this project.”
And there it was. I was able to hold back my emotions while looking at the colorful family tree and beautiful photo collage and even while looking at Joe’s cool shoes but that toast was entirely unexpected…and totally got me.
Noticing a few classmate’s extended family members glancing over at me with that distinct look of sadness and sympathy, I was reminded that not everyone knows our family situation. We no longer wear our personal loss so clearly on our sleeves as it has become a part of who we are and how we live. I forget how others sometimes take in the news upon first hearing. I could almost see the thought bubbles bursting above their heads: “She’s such a young widow,” and “So sad they’ve lost their father.” I could feel their pain feeling my pain. Once the emotional landmine had been fully activated and the toasts completed, I quickly retreated to the furthest restroom I could find and made use of all it’s remaining tissues. Yep, the cultural fair got me and got me good.
While these moments stirred thoughts of grief and loss, they also reminded me of the incredible strides we have made. The confidence and pride my daughter exuded in her ability to talk about the memories of her father in such a loving way along with the laughter and joy we shared together from our impromptu photographic story-telling session are precious milestones to be celebrated. I wished once again that Joe could be here to see his children thriving, but am comforted knowing that he still “inspires her” — inspires all of us, really, and through that will always be right here with us.