Instead of a large family gathering by a northern Minnesota lake, here we are in small town St. Peter, enjoying smaller gatherings. Since we arrived over a week ago from Virginia, we have gathered most days in groups as small as four and up to eleven. We gather with masks on screened porches, a back yard patio hemmed by tall bushes with red berries, a large cool garage, and around a fire ring by an old corn crib on Jim’s farm where we see deer running up the dirt road and pausing to assess our group before taking a sharp turn west by a corn field. We always sit in pairs or trios of family units, spaced over six feet apart due to COVID.
At first, it seemed like the three brothers did all the talking, and we wives could only find space to contribute a few remarks. I wondered if it was because of the strict groupings. However, in smaller groups that included a newly graduated niece, she did most of the talking as we plied her with questions about her college learning tour in Ghana and about her take on Black Lives Matter. And last night, we were all more equally given voice as we shared about the lives of our absent children or other significant family members.
Photos have also played a significant role in these days. At the first gathering in a garage, Johnny (a caregiver nephew) brought out boxes of old photos for us to peruse. Some were of family in earlier stages of life, some long deceased, and some were of elegantly clothed nineteenth century Swedes and Norwegians that no one remembers. Tomorrow, we’ll have old family movies night in that garage–certain to draw out stories and giggles.
I brought my own boxes of photos to organize during quiet times alone in our airbnb–away from the distractions of home in Virginia. When we returned from China in 1995 after living there for five non-consecutive years, I had stashed these boxes away with the nostalgia in my heart and had not looked at most of the pictures since. Determining what to keep and what to discard, pasting these pictures on pages, writing notes, and inserting them in plastic covers to collect in a notebook has been a delightful journey of memory and imagination. I have been reminded of my Chinese students and colleagues whose visits opened up Chinese culture in significant ways–whose friendships were priceless then. I pray they have lived their lives well. I relived trips to Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand, amazed at the hospitality and protection I received. And I renewed memories of the slow development of friendship with my Minnesota-born husband through weekend visits and long train journeys throughout China.
I sometimes ask whether these mementos of the past are worth keeping, worth organizing, but for me they have provided a delicious banquet for the mind and imagination in these days when news can be depressing.