When Chris and I started dating, we understood that our relationship might elicit a few raised eyebrows or puzzled looks. What we didn’t realize was how often people would assume that we were a nuclear family that all shared one last name.
It happens a lot when we’re out in a public place, like a park, and we see a group of strangers. We just take it in stride, because let’s be honest here: people assume a lot about strangers that is inaccurate. But what I find odder is when it happens in our community, as it did a few weekends ago at the elementary school fundraiser.
Chris’s sister Becky and her husband Josh are always in charge of the big end-of-year fundraiser – the “trees and greens sale” – and they were excited to have Chris come and help. It was outside, everyone would be masked, and all Chris had to do was use a chain saw and load trees in people’s cars with Josh. Easy.
At one point in the afternoon, a family came to get a tree and Chris was chatting with the dad. “Do you have kids at this elementary school?” he asked Chris.
“Um,” Chris said, pausing to figure out exactly how much information to disclose. He decided to keep it simple. “Yes, I do.”
“First and fourth,” Chris said.
“I have a first grade son here, too!” the man said. “Who did your kid have for kindergarten last year?”
Chris paused. He had no idea who Tommy had for kindergarten last year. By the time Chris was spending a lot of time here, school was wrapping up for the summer. “Uh, I don’t know….”
The guy looked at Chris with a sideways look, as if to say, “really? Are you that shitty of a father that you don’t know who your kid’s kindergarten teacher was last year?”
Tommy walked by at that point. “Tommy!” Chris said, “who was your teacher in kindergarten?”
Tommy answered, and the man looked at Chris and said, “oh, Tommy! Yes, I know Tommy. My son was in his class.”
Chris realized the man seemed to be struggling to understand our family. He had surely heard that Tommy’s dad was dead. So who was this new guy? What, exactly, had happened, and when? Were they both just supposed to ignore this very strange exchange and keep chatting about something else?
Luckily at this point, the tree was on the car and everyone had to keep moving. Chris was laughing as he came up to me to tell me the story. “I think I really confused that guy!”
I laughed too, because what can you do?
We try and be somewhat relaxed about awkward situations, because of course everyone cannot know everything about us – or about anyone. But it does make us think: How much do we need to explain about our lives?
Being a widow in a small community is an exercise in understanding that people know at least some information about you. I was a bit of a local star the year that Shawn died. I mean, everyone knew who I was because I was the young mom with the dead husband. I got used to going to parties and everyone very carefully asking about my life, because they wanted to make sure to be sensitive. Once I started dating Chris, I slowly told many people – very specifically – how happy I was and how happy the kids were. I wanted people to be excited for us. And on the whole, they were. I appreciated it.
But not everyone knows the whole backstory, even within our community. Part of that is because Claire is at a much bigger middle school this year and our community has grown. We don’t know many of the teachers at her school or even half of the parents. I’ve updated her advisor and the counselor with our family’s story, but I let her decide how to navigate the rest of it. She seemed fine with that plan.
A few months into school, it was pretty clear she didn’t tell everyone. At virtual back-to-school night we introduced ourselves to one of her teachers who replied, “oh! You’re Claire’s parents. I can tell. She’s the perfect mix of the two of you!”
There were dozens of other parents on the zoom call, many of whom we knew from the elementary school. I saw a few of them exchange glances with their spouses. (Their faces screamed, “awkward!”)
Chris just smiled and squeezed my hand under the table. He knows that Claire looks mostly like her dad, and that many of the parents on the call had been friends with Shawn for years. He could feel the same awkwardness in the (Zoom) air. I gave him a look of exasperation. He squeezed my hand a bit more, as if to say, “just a little bump, Marjorie. It’s all good.”
Yes, we could over-explain every part of our family. We could tell our story every time these situations pop up.
Instead, we squeeze hands under the table.