Last week here at the offices of The Lipstick Chronicles, I admitted to my fellow Book Tarts that I needed to lose 20 pounds in 5 days so I could attend my high school class reunion in the rural Pennsylvania town where I grew up. The Tarts were very supportive. (Harley: "Lose 20 pounds? Easy! Just cut off your head. I do it all the time!") I managed to lose 5, then gained back 2 when I started to worry about the moment I'd have to walk solo into the party since the person I had planned to accompany to the reunion died this summer. My friend Mary Kate, as you may recall, suffered a fatal stroke after some surgery in July. We'd been friends since 4th grade. Her death made it seem important that I attend the reunion.
With Mary Kate unavailable, I considered telephoning a former boyfriend to ask if he'd be my date for the evening. (My husband, though the kindest man alive, doesn't attend his own high school reunions, let alone mine.) But I decided if Jeff's old girlfriend called with such a request, I'd be peeved, so I didn't.
(Boyfriend's Lovely Wife laughed upon hearing I considered phoning her husband: "Damn! If you had called, I wouldn't have to be here!")
On Saturday evening, I drove the Silver Bullet very slowly because I didn't want to be the first to arrive. The old country club (not one of those spiffy places with valet parking, but a rustic building made of knotty pine and lacking air conditioning) still wore decorations from a wedding reception a year earlier--twinkling lights wrapped in white gauze and dusty plastic ivy. By the door, my mother's name is on the club champions' plaque--first flight, 1962. Jeez, that was a long time ago!
When I walked in, I made the horrifying discovery that some fiend had decided NOT TO ISSUE NAME TAGS. Which--if you know me, you know my eyesight is appalling bad--spelled doom. Naturally, the first person I encountered asked brightly, "Do you remember me?" With a big smile, I replied, "Of course I do!" But I still haven't a clue who she was.
Another classmate immediately said, "Nancy, you look great!" but his remark was aimed directly at my breasts, so I'm not sure he was addressing me, exactly. It's good to know the Wonderbra is still an excellent investment, though. Finally, a very sweet man came over and gave me a kiss, which made it easy to recognize him since I'd fantasized about that kiss all during 10th grade. He guided me over to meet his wife, and the ice was broken. I circulated, recognized about half my classmates and found some people to sit with. For dinner, we were served more carbohydrates than I'd eaten in a week, so maybe that's why I felt dizzy during the 6th playing of Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple. It has become our class anthem. Marijuana came late to the outlying provinces, but it made a big impression once it got there. Maybe my dizziness was simply another form of reminiscing?
A classmate who's a small town radio announcer conducted an auction of school memorabilia to raise funds for the next reunion. Our class president--who was arrested for DUI after leaving the last reunion and had to be bailed out of jail by amused classmates at 3am--telephoned this year from China where he was on business. Someone held a cell phone to the microphone so we could hear his regret at not being with us.
Anyway, it was a fun flashback.
But also bittersweet. So-and-so couldn't come because her breast cancer recurred. Somebody else gets around in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident. The kid who sat behind me in class for years (I was Aikman, he was Barnett) drove his car into a pond, and nobody found him for three days. And Mary Kate's gone, of course. The message was obvious: Not everybody's going to have a happy ending.
But Todd was there--the kid who wore white bucks on the first day of kindergarten and later played King Arthur in the high school production of Camelot. He's the one I vividly remember crying in a corner on that first day of school.
Shirley was there, too--the girl who heard me jogging up behind her during a gym class when we were supposed to try running a mile as fast as we could. She was the acknowledged best, the fastest, but glanced over her shoulder and was so surprised to see me steadily gaining on her that she sent me a look that should have stopped me in my tracks and took off running really fast to win the unspoken competition. I should have congratulated her at the time, but didn't.
Randy now flies corporate jets for private clients. He adores his job. "We're lucky," he said to me. "I think we're the only ones who love our work."
Gary has a chubby-cheeked grandchild who looks exactly like he did a lot of years ago. I regret saying some rude stuff to Gary back in 8th grade when he was just as cute, but I couldn't see it then.
Dan, the husband of a classmate and the landscaper my father hired a month before his death to look after the lawn and garden of my parents' home, is just back from a combat tour in Iraq. His wife is proud to tell that Dan is a Reserves officer who lost none of the young men in his command. He volunteered because he knew he had the expertise to keep other soldiers safe. I debated about skipping the part where I tritely say we're lucky to have guys like him, but I decided it isn't trite. We're really lucky to have Dan.
On my way home after the party, of course, I got to thinking. What does it all mean? As a group of people, my classmates and I are kind of like victims of a catastrophe who survived drifting in the same lifeboat during our formative years. There was no such thing as "parenting" in the days we came of age. Consequently, we learned by making mistakes and coping with the aftermath. We were at our very worst together. We made fools of ourselves, were mean and selfish, said stupid things and risked each other's lives. (There's nothing much to do in rural America, sometimes, except ride around in cars drinking cheap liquor or smoking dope.) During the Cold War, we learned to hold our biggest textbooks over our heads as we crouched beneath our desks, nobody daring to imagine aloud what it would be like when The Bomb was actually dropped on our school. Later, we watched those gory Driver's Ed movies and taunted each other into not throwing up during the severed-head-rolling-down-the-highway scene. We sweated through the SAT in 100 degree heat in a school cafeteria with windows that didn't open--during a year when Vietnam was going full bore and so was the draft. For some, those SAT scores meant the difference between a student deferment and death in the jungle.
I took off my panties for the first time for a guy in my class--although I wised up and didn't fall for his ploy again the next year in first grade.
Maybe because we grew up together in circumstances so different from today's standard childhood, we've come to understand each other in ways that make our relationships very rich--different from my college friends. We share more than a cradle. In some cases, we share genetic bonds, but certainly something even more basic. Emotional bedrock? We know where we've come from together. It makes our relationship somehow visceral.
And along the way, we seem to have forgiven each other our shortcomings, our cruelties and stupidity. That's the miraculous part--the forgiveness. Isn't it strange--that surprising human inclination to forgive, forget, and turn out loving each other?
What's weird, too? By nature of my own family's tradition, no matter how far I travel from those people, I will be buried with them.
Mysterious ways, huh?