In September of 2005 I sucked in my sagging tummy, rolled back my shoulders, tried to center my old Pilates self as I did a little dabbing of makeup here and there, took a very deep breath and attended my fiftieth high school reunion.
Having never attended one of these events before, I did not know what to expect. My only guideline was a description of a reunion by Philip Roth in his "American Pastoral." In contrast to this venerable and distinguished author, I did not expect old boyfriends, some widowers, some divorced, to come flocking to my side. I expected them to keep their distance since I could not become a "trophy wife" or mistress. There would be slim pickings here for the older gentleman caller.
A sea of grey heads sprinkled with a smattering of blond or golden brown tresses greeted me as I entered the neat and clean garage of a former classmate who was hosting a pre-reunion party. My name rang out, and a round-faced older woman came to embrace me. "You haven't changed a bit."
I looked into her muted blue eyes and felt a hint of recognition. It was not until I lowered my eyes to check out the small name tag which held a stapled high school photo with her name did I realize who she was. Memories of her flooded my mind, and as I tried to push them aside so I could engage in the small talk of re-connection, I was aware at what a tough night this would be.
Somehow I had fantasized that the nametags would be large placards held by a small rope chain around the neck in a dog show fashion. As I made my way through the crowded rooms of the house, I would squeal with delight at some recognizable feature on a face only to confirm it with a bend of the head and a squint at the nametag. Of course, even at the ripe old age of 69 I chose beauty over practicality by keeping my eyeglasses in my purse.
The big picture was this: most of the men had aged in a similar manner while there seemed to be more variety among the women. The men appeared more muted in skin tone and had accepted the skinhead look or the grey along with varying degrees of abdominal paunchiness accompanying the aging process. I noted only one male wig and no crossovers. The dress was conservative and casual with only a few men dressed with a tie and sports jacket.
The women, on the other hand, came in a variety of shapes and sizes with varying amounts of foundation, rouge and hair color. Some had sagged, others had become rounder and plumper, but they were able to hide the ravishes of time with a little help from the fashion designers and the make up artists at the department stores.
Some of the women seemed to have remained in the unfashionable hippy hairdos and baggy clothes of the sixties. Even though some of us participated in the greening of that decade with its rebellion and protest we did not embrace all of the free love and chaos of the times. We became politically active, engaged in middle class feminist activities, and marched for civil rights but left the drug scene for the security and legality of alcohol.
Some of my former classmates decided to remain in that time. Some returned to the land and grew their own food while others eschewed the community for the isolated country life. Businesswomen, teachers and homemakers were common career choices. A good number of women had divorced, remarried and moved to Florida. This was evident in the tanned color of their skin and the Floridian look of their clothing with that tailored, off the golf course fashion.
A few wore their sadness on their faces in an honest and straightforward way. A lost child, health problems, teeth in need of repair, a quiet desperation of the small town life, opportunities lost or roads not taken.
None of us had become the Martha Stewart of our generation. We probably could cook, decorate our nests and plant our perennial gardens as well as Martha, but our fifties mentality would not allow us to brand or market ourselves as she has. The generation following ours was capable of that kind of thinking. The word, "branding" was not in our vocabulary.
I am not sure that the men of our class fared any better in the quest for top gun status. We grew up during a war followed by a time of longing for peace and prosperity. We, as members, of this small town, mirrored the views of the city and country folk all over the American landscape.
Our countrymen had killed and been killed in two brutal world wars, and we had to live with the specter of the same kind of nuclear devastation we had inflicted on Japan. The seeds of the anti war movement in the sixties and seventies were planted in us. Our class wanted peace and a chance for a safe place to raise our families.
Our classmates became businessmen, engineers, pilots and salesmen. One engineer went even further and became a priest after having practiced his profession for a few years. Some men made a fortune and were only too happy to let anyone know while others were content to have a job, not a career, a home and a family.
The places we visited during our reunion said a lot about who we were and weren't. The first night we met at the home of one of classmates who had moved into a home off the beaten path in the woods of the Connecticut countryside. The party spilled into the rooms of the house from the garage, which held the welcoming committee and the dreaded nametags.
There we greeted one another with smiles, hugs and uncertainty. We tried to catch up in a hurried fashion so that we didn't miss anyone, but miss we did, since we drifted towards those with whom we had made connections fifty years ago.
The following day, a small group of us took a tour of our old high school which was once located near a prosperous section of the town where stately old houses lined the street. The old brick building belied its age. It had stood the test of time and had now become a community center.
Once inside, we toured the classrooms and collectively tried to connect the space with the teacher and the memories. The lunchroom and gym which at one time, seemed so huge, had shrunk. Recognizable, yes, but not the stuff of our memories.
"Oh remember that we had to play on half a court and either shoot or pass once we had taken two steps?" exclaimed one woman as she paced the waxed floor towards the basketball hoop. Our proms were held here, and the prom queen sat on the platform throne with her attendants at one end of the gym. The stairs leading down into the gym were narrow and winding.
"How did we ever get down here with our crinolines and gowns?" The pictures in the yearbook of these events flashed across my mind with the memories of the bunny hop and the slow dance flickering in the dim lights. The queen of one of those events couldn't make the reunion because of back problems while one of her attendants had succumbed to cancer.
About twenty percent of our class was "missing." These chaperoned dances were held in the evening and ended at 11PM at which time we were expected to go home. There were no all night parties in hotels and breakfasts followed by a day at the amusement park, as was the fashion when my children attended high school. Life seemed to be a little slower. More than likely we were not as naïve, but we had less time.
On Saturday night, the highlighted banquet was held at a country inn near the gentrified town a few miles away from our hometown. Our town had fallen into decay and neglect. Gone were the curtain mills and factories that had brought money into that section of the state. Now business people shunned the downtown where we had roamed the streets, had ice cream sodas at Louis, bowled at the alley and shopped at Gileau's or Goodman's for clothes.
Most commercial activity had moved to the periphery of town and was in those large spaces dedicated to modern merchandizing. The nearby communities had become "bedroom" communities for people who were willing to travel an hour to work in order to own a home they could afford. The workers and rich tribes people adjacent to the Indian casinos that had been built occupied the other homes. Now developments were sprouting out of the once sleepy woodlands. This once neglected area of the state had become a chi chi place to live and work in one of the service industries. Revival signs were everywhere.
Everyone was dressed smartly for the banquet dinner, and the banter was lively and spirited. Everyone seemed in a jovial mood as designated photographers snapped the small groups gathered in the cocktail party room. Catch up, clean up and cough up details of yourself and your life.
I shared some of my story, but listened most of the time to individuals whose lives had been hidden from me. I had come from a community where there were shared values, strict codes of behavior and common experiences and moved to places where those qualities were harder to come by. The places and the times brought me into a world dominated by materialism and relativity.
There was some nostalgia for the way of life that rejoiced in sameness-same movies, same books, same love for baseball. I wondered if my classmates had experienced the same and whether the found life was worth the trip; but of course, this was neither the time nor the place to raise that question.
Someone must have raised the issue of the cost of change since a few people spoke of a book that chronicled the experiences of a teacher in a small New England high school during those "boring" fifties. Our social studies teacher wrote a novel called "Hell hath no Fury" that belied the image of the quiet, dignified gentry living peacefully in their fifties pleasant Ville.
With a copy in hand I will adjust my memories and bring the topic of loss, change and memory accuracy up at our next reunion-- in a decade or so.
Gloria Hanson is a retired clinical social worker living in Cleveland Heights
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