Like a lot of you, I spent this past Christmas close to home, with my family. Normally, an Ontario Christmas with family means that there are ten of us; me, my wife and two daughters, my sister-in-law, her husband and their two kids and then, the matriarch and patriarch of my wife’s side of the family, Gramma and Poppa. My own family (my mother, my sister and her husband and my cousin, Morah) are all in the Maritimes. Although I am far from my own family, I have always considered myself lucky to be a part of my Ontario family. They are all good people and Christmas time is usually a very memorable and enjoyable experience for us all.
Like all family gatherings at Christmas, there are jobs and responsibilities handed out. Someone does the cooking. Someone brings dessert. Someone takes care of the drinks. Someone tidies up the debris after the presents are all open and so on. The children are tasked with looking cute and having fun and reminding us, as adults, about the magic of Christmas. As for me, I have an important job. I am the person who creates the family calendar. For the better part of the last decade, I have been telling the story of this family each year via the creation of a calendar. This calendar is comprised of family photos from our home, my sister-in-law’s home and my in-laws home, too.
The calendar cover always goes to the person who had the biggest event happen. For instance, the year that Poppa retired, his first day of retirement photo graced the front of the calendar. On the downside, when my wife’s Grandfather passed away, we honoured him with the calendar cover. Rest in Peace, Grandpa Slim! I made the cover when I retired. The kids have made the front cover at various times, as well.
As a family, there have been many accomplishments and interesting moments; all of them, “calendar-worthy”. That phrase, “calendar-worthy” is now the defacto term that we all use throughout the year, any time a good photo is taken of any of us doing anything for any reason. If it is a photo that merits the term, “calendar-worthy” then, it must be a good shot. Luckily for me, there are always many “calendar-worthy” shots each year to choose from which makes telling the family story that year a pleasure.
As for how the calendar is organized inside, as it turns out, the ten of us all have birthdays spread out throughout the year so, I usually dedicated each month to the person who was having a birthday. Leah always was featured in April (her birthday month), my nephew, Heath always had July, Sophie always had September and so on. The ten of us all had our birthdays during the first ten months of the year, too, so that always left November and December to my discretion. Most often, I opted to use December for Christmas-related photos, which meant that November was always a catch-all month that I used to highlight the best of the rest of that year’s photos.
In the grand mayhem of the opening of the presents when all ten of us were gathered together, the Davis Family Calendar, as it is known (after Gramma and Poppa Davis), was always accorded a special place in the process; going first or else, being saved until the very end. The calendar has always been well-received, which makes me feel good. My wife’s family has always been good to me so, to be able to honour them in this way leaves me with a sense of satisfaction and pride.
So now, travel back in time with me to mid-november, 2020. Canadian Remembrance Day has just passed. My wife and daughters have left for school for the day. I sat down at my desk and began the task of compiling this year’s calendar so that it can be sent off for processing. With the traditional format in my head, I began to search through the photos I had to work with. In all, there were 289 photos. But a funny thing happened as I began to sort the photos out by each person…..there weren’t too many individual photos this year that were solely about the person in the photo. Instead, almost all of the photos depicted some act that was influenced by the same thing: COVID-19! It didn’t matter who the subject person was, what the event was that they were featured in, what the setting was, nothing! The story of the Davis Family Calendar was almost entirely about survival and adaptation, not personal accomplishment! So, instead of focussing in on each member of the family and giving everyone their own shining moment, I opted to tell the Davis Family story of 2020 in chronological order. I am sure that in the photos I am about to share below, you will see echoes of your own experiences as a family this year, too.
January was a fairly ordinary month for everyone. My sister-in-law and her husband went away on a trip. We had a bowling date with my niece and nephew while they were gone. But, the most unusual thing happened in our garage when we made a strange discovery.
Yep! That little fellow was dead on leftover wine, inside of the bottle. So began 2020.
The events of February seemed very important at the time. My wife is a teacher. I am a retired teacher. Our children are still in the school system. February was the month of labour unrest in the Public Education sector. Our provincial government was trying to change the terms of collective agreements to eliminate class size caps and to pave the way for the introduction of online learning as a regular part of the school system. Teachers were fighting back to protect their jobs and their working conditions and, in the end, there were a series of rotating strikes. Needless to say, our family supported the teachers in their fight and showed that support by walking with them on their picket lines. We walked with Keri on her picket line. We walked with our neighbour, Leslie, on her picket line and, in this photo, Sophie is standing alongside her own teacher, Miss Bondy.
February gave way to March and, life as we knew it changed for everyone. School was cancelled for the time being. Stores and businesses were told to shutter their doors. The Covid-19 virus was in Canada and we were all told to change the way we lived. So, we did. We stayed home….a lot! We walked around the neighbourhood for exercise…a lot! We tidied and organized our home…a lot! At first, the tidying up revealed interesting an unusual things. For instance, Keri began going through her own photo collection and discovered that she has 92 (!) photos of herself from her school days.
Upon seeing these 92 photos spread out on our living room floor, I remarked that it reminded me of every crime drama I had ever seen regarding stalkers and serial killers; specifically, that moment when the police finally search the killer’s house and discover the room where his obsession with the victim is laid out and is plain for everyone to see.
As much as we were being productive and finding things to do, the first month or so of lockdown was off-putting, in the sense that our world became so quiet. Our social life was put entirely on hold. We didn’t visit with Gramma or Poppa. We didn’t see our friends. We didn’t go for dinner anywhere. I was the designated shopper so, most of the family didn’t even go into stores for mundane things like milk or bread. But, in the quiet of our home, we began to read of other places in the world and how people there were coping with isolation and loneliness. We heard about the people in Italy, singing on their balconies. We heard about New Yorkers who were clapping their hands and banging pots at 7:00pm each night to show support for frontline workers. So, we decided to engage in symbolic acts of solidarity, too. The girls wrote messages and jokes in chalk on our driveway. Keri made art for our front window. Sophie donated stuffed toys for the front window, too.
Not long after that, on our neighbourhood walks, we counted 20 other homes in our school community area that had art and/or toys in their windows. While this knowledge didn’t change how we were living, it did change our attitude a bit and made it our isolation feel less harsh.
All of that acrimony that went into the teacher strike gave way to the acceptance by most people that education was in the process of changing. The COVID-19 virus, while terrible in so many ways, was a gift for our right-wing government when it came to educational reform. In the words of one politician, “Covid provided an opportunity to re-imagine how education could be and should be delivered for a modern age.” Since Covid-19 had wiped out the social aspect of our family life, it was not that much of a stretch to see it wipe out the social aspect of school life, either. Soon, Keri was teaching from home and the girls were learning from home.
I’m the only one who wears socks in my family, I swear. We were lucky to have enough access to technology to enable everyone to do what they had to do to complete their assignments each day. Going to school was different now for all concerned.
I have to say that regardless of what happened throughout the year, we were very lucky because we maintained our health and Keri always had her job as a teacher. Not everyone was as lucky as we were so, I am thankful for the blessings we have enjoyed.
That having been said, Covid-19 impacted us the most in the sense of opportunities that were lost and disappointments that were endured…..and which continue to be endured to this day. At the epi-centre of those disappointments has been my Leah.
Just prior to the March Break, the girls went shopping and found a dress for Leah to wear for her Grade 8 graduation ceremony to be held later that June. Having always been a very good student, Leah was justifiably proud of the fact that she was graduating from elementary school and getting ready to go to high school in the Fall. This dress was symbolic proof that her moment of crossing that stage, to the applause from the audience, was about to be realized. Mere days after she got this dress, the closure of schools was announced. All throughout the Spring time, the end date for school closures kept getting extended in small increments, finally, being closed for the year late in May. So, instead of having her big moment, Leah got to go to school one last time in June, to recover her possessions from her locker. There was no one there to see her off, to congratulate her and to give her a round of applause. Like everything to do with Covid-19, Leah’s final day in elementary school was met with silence and distance.
Now Leah is a trooper and took everything in stride. But, no doubt, this was not how she envisioned her elementary school career ending. When we think of Covid-19, we, naturally, think of the medical aspects of this virus but, the mental health aspects of being in lockdown cannot be ignored, either. People, in general but, children, in particular, are being fed a steady diet of disappointments since this virus has come along. One of the most important elements of childhood is the ability to explore the world around you. In doing so, a child discovers what they like and what their strengths are and, conversely, they learn what feels uncomfortable and what they wish to avoid as they approach adulthood. But, in these times, many children are coming to accept that life is meant to be less than they hoped. They are scaling back their dreams. They are willingly settling for a life less-lived. In addition to this for Leah, she, also, lost the opportunity to deliver ten History Talks to seniors (losing $400.00 in the process) and, biggest of all, she lost the chance to fly with me and her Poppa to Europe in June, to see the battlefield of WW1 and WW2 (which she was pumped to see).
But, one thing Leah and Sophie have going for them is that they are loved, completely and totally, by the adults in their lives. So, amid a sea of disappointing news, we tried our best to make her graduation from elementary school as memorable as possible. On her graduation day, her school put together a virtual graduation ceremony that we could watch on tv. So, we all put on our best clothes. Leah wore her dress. She got her hair styled (Hair salons had re-opened by this time). We made special food and drinks available. Gramma and Poppa joined us inside the house for the first time since the lockdown started (our family bubble had been allowed to grow to ten). And, we all got to cheer for Leah when her photo appeared on the screen. She won two awards, which were mailed to her a couple of days later. It wasn’t how it was supposed to be but, it made for some “calendar-worthy” moments, just the same.
If we have learned anything from this experience it is that the most special things in life aren’t things at all. The most special things are people. One of the highlights of the year happened on the day that we were able to go Gramma and Poppa’s house (where the girls saw they graduation signs above). What made that visit so special was the fact that the government had just announced that family bubbles could be expanded to include “secondary” family members, such as grandparents. Up until then, Gramma and Poppa had followed the rules to the letter and there had been no physical contact with them at all. But, on the day of this visit, there would be hugs. Gramma insisted that each hug be at least five minutes long because she had missed her girls so much.
At the end of the day, people matter. Family matter most of all. Human contact lay at the heart of much of what we all hold dear in this world. From that moment on Gramma’s front step onward, we had a busy summer of day trips, hikes, picnics at provincial parks and so on. We always followed Covid protocols whenever we were out in public but, alone, within our bubble, we felt safe to be ourselves. One of the bonuses of this experience, if any aspect of the Covid experience can be viewed as positive, is that life slowed down and afforded us time to just be. We explored trails that we would have driven by otherwise. We saw sites that we had ignored for years (such as one of the largest glacial boulders in the world…the Bleasdell Boulder, as well as a ghost town…El Dorado…all within an hour of our home). Sophie discovered that she had a knack for photography, as you can see in the photos below.
Even though we couldn’t take our annual trip to Nova Scotia to see my mother this summer, we managed to fill our days with many good memories and experiences. This brought us back to the subject of school in the Fall.
The provincial government decided to give in-school learning a try again. No allowances were made for reduced class sizes (to help meet social distancing) nor were any additional staff hired. It was, as though, they wanted the virus to spread through schools and force everyone to flee the bricks-and-mortar buildings of their own accord for the relative safety of the online world. We are a family that supports public education 100% so, after discussing it with the girls, we decided to allow the girls to go back to school, to see their teachers and their friends again and, hopefully, have as normal a school year as they could. The “First-Day” photos were a little different this year, to say the least.
Keri and the girls made it right to the Christmas Break before any cases of Covid-19 appeared. There was one case at Sophie’s small school (which ended up being traced to a hockey team and not the school, itself). There were two cases at Leah’s high school but, again, she was not affected and they happened right at the end of the school term so, those families are having time to recuperate while, Leah is enjoying her holidays, as she normally would.
As we end this most unusual of years, Covid-19 cases are in our area so, the re-entry plans for both girls and for Keri are such that all will be learning/teaching from home for the first week of January. At that time, the situation will be re-assessed and, if good, Keri and Sophie will return to school. Leah already knows that she will be home for the first three weeks of January and that her school situation will be re-evaluated at that time. In the case of all three members of my family, their safety is paramount. As much as we support in-class learning, we will not expose our loved ones to something as nasty as Covid-19. They will go back into a safe environment or else, they will stay home and work as they did in the Spring.
As for my mother, the real tragedy of Covid-19 for my family is the time we have lost with her. She is 89 years old now. She lives in an assisted-living complex in Nova Scotia. She is well-cared for and in as good a state of health as one can expect for being as old as she is. However, the toll Covid-19 has taken on the mental health of our seniors is terrible. Most seniors, my mother included, are severely under-stimulated and have been for almost a year now. Prior to the arrival of the virus, there were many activities in her residence and, in fact, we often were telling her to slow down and remember to rest. Now, her residence, like most Long-term Care facilities in Canada are in their own form of lockdown. In my mother’s case, specifically, there is almost no one able to visit her. My sister was able to come down once this year from Halifax. I did not make it in the summer nor at Christmas, as I usually do.
We talk to her via Facetime each Sunday but, some weeks, that does not happen for reasons we don’t know about. When we do talk with her, her mind is not as sharp anymore and we need to be careful not to overwhelm her with too much information. She was unable to shop for Christmas presents for us this year and I am pretty sure she doesn’t even realize that happened. She is slipping away from us and, because of strict anti-Covid rules in Canada and, particularly, in Nova Scotia, it is extremely difficult to get to her. Last Christmas I said on a blog post that I wasn’t sure Nanna would see another Christmas well, I was wrong. She did. But, it was not Christmas as any of us know it to be. If there is one wish that I have for the new year, it is that I/we get to see her one last time while she still has enough of her mind left to enjoy our visit and to know how special it is for us to be there with her.
This has turned out to be a long post. But, guess what?! I managed to turn this long post into a version of the Davis Family Calendar that may end up being the best one yet. As with all of the other calendars, it was well-received by Gramma and Poppa, which pleases me.
2020 has been quite the year. I hope that, as 2021 rolls around, you and your family are safe and are healthy. I hope that the new year brings with it old opportunities to move about safely and freely. I hope there are hugs and handshakes and cold beers and barbecues and, did I say hugs? I want there to be hugs. Yes, let me dub 2021 as the Year of the Hug. Good luck. God Bless you all.