There were eighty-five people coming to our house for a three-day campout. Some of them I hadn’t seen since the last family reunion, twelve years ago. Some of them I hadn’t seen for thirty years or more. The rest I had never met at all. Folks from L.A., Montana, Canada, and beyond.
Our family, like all families, has its share of baggage. Along with the good there are grudges held, wounds unhealed, feuds sustained, etc. And on top of that there’s just the way we all live nowadays, always on the go, scattered to the ends of the earth, pulled in a hundred different directions, distracted by all our screens and such.
It was a lot of work getting ready, and a lot of money we didn’t really have. And there were times when some of us wondered whether it was worth it. Wondered why anyone would do something that seemed like it belonged to some bygone era, and not to the fast-paced cyberworld of digital relationships we live in today.
But we were going to give it a go. We went digging through the closets and storage sheds, and collected a half dozen big boxes of old photographs, going back to the 1800s, and we put them all in one big pile on a long table surrounded by chairs. We also found sixteen carousels full of slides, that our grandparents on Dad’s side had taken over a period of many decades. We got a projector, and set it up with a big screen so anyone could run it, right in the same room as the table full of photographs.
We also hung a four by eight foot dry erase board on the side of the house, with a big can of colored pens, and my Mom and Dad’s name written right in the middle, so everyone would draw in where they fit on a family tree.
We had lots of games and activities – horseshoes, cornhole, badminton, etc. – but the thing that really drew people in were those pictures. Over the three days, different assortments of relatives would come and go, from pre-teens to our oldest elders, sorting through the piles, clicking through the carousels, smiling, laughing, sometimes gasping at what came up.
Young people, leaning in, asking who this or that was. Elders, leaning in, telling stories we’d never heard before, about relatives we didn’t know much about, or couldn’t remember at all. One kid saying, “I wish I’d known her.” And an elder answering, “I wish you had, too.” After sometimes hours, people would get up from the table, go to the dry erase board outside, call their close family over, and start drawing lines and writing names until, eventually, the whole board was covered.
And gradually, as each day and night passed, you could feel something growing. Something hard to describe, but just as real as the burgers we barbecued or the wood we put on the bonfire at night. It was a whole bunch of connections happening, affinities kindling, a weaving together of distant and disconnected lives by the threads of shared stories, of common blood. A dawning awareness of the deep, solid and enduring foundation that we all stood on together, no matter where we might happen to be.
A whole bunch of stubborn boundaries, replaced by common bonds. Awkward unfamiliarity, replaced by something we all could use a lot more of: Love, and the feeling that we are all in this together.
And on the third day, as people were leaving, the stilted handshakes and hesitant greetings of the first day were replaced by long hugs, tears and laughter. Sorrow because it was ending, all mixed up with joy that it had happened. And promises, even actual plans, to not let it be so long ‘til next time.
That pile of pictures. That stack of slide carousels. That family tree board. All those harbored stories and endangered memories. That, friends, is what museums are.
Museums have the power to do for a community exactly what those artifacts did for our family, no matter what longstanding baggage and animosities there may be. And every family, every community, has a choice to make about whether to honor the measureless importance of our shared heritage, our common stories, or to just let all those dusty boxes, full of our irreplaceable collective memory, rot in a closet or shed somewhere, until they are lost forever, and a powerful source of both fellowship and healing is gone.
Now is the time for us to make that choice. Please vote Yes on Measure 18-111.