Saturday, September 10, 2011

Class reunions: young and old, then and now

Recently, Marion at Create Joy and Wonder wrote about the anxieties involved in preparing to attend a high school reunion. Reading her words reminded me that I attended my (gasp) 50-year reunion in July and still haven't written about it.

This reunion has stayed on my mind longer than the previous three I've attended, and it has eluded easy description. I finally understand why.

Attending this reunion immersed me in a dual reality. For three days (including the four-hour drive each way), memories of high school came flooding back. Some were in sharp focus, some were hazy, but all were in living Technicolor. I recalled the faces of my classmates as they once were, youthful and unlined. And yet, the faces that now surrounded me were - like my own - older, creased, a bit saggy. I often found myself peering into those faces, seeking traces of the person I had known. Sometimes recognition came easily; other times the transformation was almost complete. This seemed especially true of the men; I easily recognized a small handful, but sometimes, looking around the room, I was tempted to wonder whether some of us had wandered into the wrong party.

I began to notice that I was carrying in my mind both faces, the "then" and "now" of each classmate I happened to speak with. With 350 graduating seniors and more than 200 at this reunion, my mind was a crowded place! 

Something else was crowding in as well. No matter the conversation, I always had a visual subtext: We are old. Yes, we might be smart, fun, enthusiastic, engaged in lots of interesting pursuits, but the faces kept reminding me, we are old. I shouldn't have been surprised. Most of us turned 68 this past year. But what we had come to celebrate was our youth. We surrounded ourselves with yearbook photos - classes, prom, band, the Sweet Shoppe, the junior class play. I could visualize those scenes; I knew how they played out, I could even feel the emotions - elation, disappointment, embarrassment, nervous excitement - that accompanied those days. It was amazing to be able to reach out and touch those times, and yet to have traveled so far from them.

The juxtaposition of then and now, young and old, has stayed in my head since that mid-July reunion. It reminds me that over the course of our lives, we are at once the same and different. The shy small-town girl is not so far from the surface. And if I deny that, if I think for example that I have become totally citified and sophisticated, then I am not being authentic. I've run into a few people like that at reunions over the years...people who have cultivated new manners of speaking and have seemed to consider themselves far more refined and cosmopolitan than the rest of us. Maybe they are, but I'd rather have it all - the cosmopolitan-ness and the roots in our working-class northern Minnesota town. In that sense, if we are lucky and wise, we are still young

I mentioned to my hair stylist that I was going to my reunion. She had recently attended one in her tiny hometown. I said I thought that people going to their first reunions sometimes worried about how they would be perceived. "For some people, it's all about job status and success," I said. "Oh," she said. "At ours, it's all about the dance-off."

That seems like a good approach. What really matters at reunions is the same thing that matters in life: what kind of person are you in the here-and-now? At each of my reunions, I talked with dozens of people. I hit it off with some, and not so much with others. Beginning way back at our ten-year reunion, some of the best conversations have been with people I didn't know well in school. It surprised me then; it doesn't any more. A couple of people I did know well have turned out to be not all that interesting. But any disappointment has been more than offset by the delightful conversations, some lengthy and others relatively brief, in which a wide variety of classmates and I have discovered the things that connect us through the years and across the miles.

P.S. If you have a reunion coming up, go to it. You'll have fun. The best way to prepare is to contact people you'd really like to see there and arrange to spend time together. My friend Cynthia recruited me and our friend Nancy, and I was delighted that she did. It meant a lot to reconnect, and it was too important to leave to chance.

P.P.S. During our reunion, the planning committee asked whether we wanted to come back in five years or ten. We all raised our hands for five. And we all made a joke that we knew wasn't really a joke: Who knows whether we'll still be around ten years from now? (And silently I added, Who even knows about five years from now?)

I'm planning to be at my next reunion, feeling both old and young.


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