Family Fest 2021

The Secret Sign of the Buffalo (I made it all up for the occasion): Ellie and her uncles TL and Michael now make an exclusive group of three family members who all have degrees from the same university. (It’s a C and a U — work with me here, people.)

My niece had a birthday last week. Two days later, she graduated from my alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder. Sunday was Mothers’ Day. My mom’s birthday is later this week. That made this past weekend Family Fest 2021 up in Arvada. (Or maybe it’s down in Arvada. Down in altitude, up on a map. “Over there.”)

So Lynn, Oz and I headed “over there” Saturday afternoon, after Lynn finished work. On the way up/there, we tried to remember when we last traveled thataway. Perhaps it was Christmas 2019, but we really couldn’t remember. It had been awhile, that’s for sure.

Just getting to that point was more arduous than remembered, too. It took me a literal five hours to prepare for this 28-hour lowland visit — 28 hours including about eight hours of travel and a night’s sleep. Maybe in the old days we would have reveled all night, but those days seemed in the past for everyone. As it was, we burned the 10 o’clock oil and all felt a bit worse for it on Sunday.

Exiting a pandemic isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Ellie, for one, was completely disheartened by her actual graduation ceremony, which wasn’t actual but virtual. And while I didn’t attend in either body or spirit, it sounds like a sidebar for social media postings was provided on the screen, scrolling throughout the commencement addresses, meaning no one was paying attention to the speakers.

Although I don’t know that this is limited to virtual presentations overrun by commentary. At Family Fest my sisters both decided they were fonder of their graduations from Gunnison High School than their colleges. In Terri’s case, that may have something to do with the boozy haze of the alliterative commencement from Colorado College (technically, as she likes to remind us, it’s THE Colorado College, but I’m sure I digress), and Tia’s, from the University of Denver, was so stinking hot, especially for enrobed graduates, that any time a speaker paused, the graduates erupted in applause, trying to encourage the speaker to end right there.

I barely remember Terri’s graduation, even without a boozy haze, and all I recall of Tia’s, where I wasn’t paying an ounce of attention to a speech that everyone else told me later had been quite good, was watching a life-size inflatable Gumby wilt on a chair across the way from me, just like I wanted to do myself. My own college graduation I don’t recall at all — mostly because I didn’t go.

I didn’t see the point, then or now. Because CU is such a giant place, there is no way to walk that many graduates across a stage to receive individual diplomas, so — I’m told — the graduates stand up by major for their less-than-a-moment of recognition. I’d done the work; I had the degree; I bought the souvenir tassel; why waste a day on speeches that probably weren’t any more memorable in my pre-social-media day than they were last week for Ellie?

In fact, the only commencement address I recall with any sort of clarity was one at Western Then State that I covered for the newspaper. Former Senator Tim Wirth stood before these graduates about to burst forth into their adulthood and harangued them with everything that was wrong with the environment and how they needed to go out and fix it or the world would come to an end. I’m sure it was meant to be inspirational, but as a thank-you letter I received in the aftermath of my reporting noted, it was a very dark and depressing message on a day that is supposed to be filled with glad tidings.

I don’t think, despite a regular presence in Crested Butte, that Sen. Wirth was ever asked back as commencement speaker.

So Ellie didn’t get much of a real graduation, but we tried very hard to make up for it at Family Fest, where she marched down her aunt Terri’s long hallway, escorted as she never would have been at the real ceremony by the family dog, Odin. And then she was plunked in a chair as Terri and her husband Michael presented a commencement speech written by everyone in the family with their memories of Ellie.

Ellie’s mother Tia wanted to start a pool, giving Terri 25 seconds into the speech before she started crying and couldn’t talk. We think Terri made it about five seconds. So it seemed a touch more meaningful than the generic virtual ceremony.

My favorite Ellie memory dates way back to just yesterday, when she was 2 and a fan of many red characters: Santa, Elmo, Clifford the Big Red Dog. Ellie and I, Michael, Terri, and her parents were on vacation in San Diego (this was before Lynn and nephew Justin), and Tia wanted Ellie to use her manners at the breakfast table but wasn’t making much headway. “Clifford would want you to do this,” Tia tried. Ellie thought about it for a minute, and then, using the logic that I’m sure will help her if she pursues her plan for a legal career, replied, “Well, Clifford’s not here right now.”

Ellie’s mother, the day before Mothers’ Day and watching her strong daughter who is now a woman in her own right head out to make her way in the world, had an entire lifetime of memories, including how Ellie thrived in middle school despite her mother’s concern about mean girls. And the way Ellie stuck it out in club basketball with the world’s worst coach. She never quit, even as the season got worse and worse for her, and she was always the last one out of the locker room.

Tia also remembered: “How empty her room was when she left for college,” and “When I watched her walk away in France [as she started her covid-shortened semester abroad] . . . She did great over there.” And she drew on a mother’s comfort: “All the times I would go lay with her and fall asleep when I couldn’t sleep. She was so warm and snuggly.”

Hm. Maybe there’s a reason Terri didn’t get very far without waterworks in this most personal of commencement addresses.

And, as Ellie gets older and perhaps follows through on her plan to move to California, establishing residency before applying to law schools, and Justin takes up his apron for at least a summer at Starbucks here in Gunnison [this is what I want to know: why does Fairplay, at probably half the size of Gunnison, now have two dollar stores when we couldn’t keep one?], chances for my mom to get everyone together for Family Fest may lessen.

So we made what we could of it, with our graduation/birthday dinner and Mothers’ Day/birthday brunch, and just a general celebration of everyone vaccinated and in one place all together, and it felt like a marvelous weekend indeed.

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