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The Last Artifact - Karen Travis

When I started fourth grade in South Minneapolis in the 1970s, the thing I wanted more than anything in the world was to be accepted. Like most kids, I wanted to belong.


With blonde hair and green eyes, I looked the part. The problem was, I didn’t know the first thing about how to be a Minnesota school girl. My family and I had just moved to Minnesota from Southeast Asia, where my parents worked as missionaries for most of my life.


This was the thirteenth time we’d moved, and I really wanted it to be the last. But there was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know the currency. I didn’t know the slang. And I didn’t know how different my life had been up to that point.


I was trying desperately to make friends and it wasn’t going well.


Then, a few weeks after school started, my teacher announced we would all have a chance to get up in front of the class for show and tell. This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for, I thought to myself. If people got to know me, maybe I’d finally fit in.


I rushed home to tell my mom and she helped me figure out what I could bring to class the next morning. We walked through the dining room, where my parents displayed the artifacts from their travels. The walls and shelves circling the room were lined with ceremonial masks, curved daggers, Batak carvings, and all sorts of other oddities, gathering dust.


I remember walking past the long bamboo blow stick from Sumatra—too awkward. The giant clam shell from Pulau Perhentian—too heavy. The large scroll depicting Indonesian village life in the early 20th century—too unruly. Then I spotted a 10-foot boa constrictor hide my dad picked up in Kuala Lumpur. It sat rolled up on a shelf, compact and light. Perfect.


The next day, I got up in front of the class, letting the boa constrictor hide roll to its full length across the classroom floor. My classmates let out a gasp and the room got very quiet. I tried to explain where it came from but was suddenly tongue-tied. My plan had backfired. If these kids thought I was strange before, they knew it now, with all the judicious certainty of a room full of nine-year-old kids.


To be accepted, I realized, I had to be like everyone else. For years, I kept my childhood stories to myself. But I never really felt like I belonged.


Decades later, my aunt gave me a tall stack of the airmail letters my parents sent home. The paper was eggshell blue, fragile, and covered in faded, typewritten and handwritten notes detailing what they were experiencing during their missionary years and how it was transforming their perceptions of the world. I knew then what I had to do.


The boa constrictor hide and many of the other things my parents brought back are long gone. The house was sold. Their marriage ended. And, in time, each of them found someone else to love. Still, they remained friends.


The one artifact that remains is me. I am the living testament to their adventures.


But I knew time was short. My father was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and Mom’s memory was fading. I called them separately, and they agreed to meet.


Tape recorder in hand, I sit them down in my father’s living room at the assisted living facility. Mom and I settle on the couch. Dad sets himself down in his big, overstuffed chair while my stepmother makes tea. We all get comfortable.


“Mom, Dad, tell me what it was like.”


I take a deep breath and press “record.”

 

Karen Pedersen Travis is a retired communication consultant and emerging writer. She received a BS degree from the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University and now writes creative nonfiction from her home in Eden Prairie, MN, with her husband and two aggressively loving golden retrievers. She is currently working on a book about her experiences growing up in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, where her parents worked as Lutheran missionaries.

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