In planning to attend the 50th reunion of my college class, I’d decided to spend an extra day after the hoopla and reunion merriment had quieted. I think I had it mind to linger in order to say a more formal and final farewell than I had in any of my previous celebratory visits. My feelings about the occasion, and about myself in relation to the occasion, are complicated and surprisingly bittersweet.
I am grateful for the friendships I found there and for the unexpected connection with the physical beauty of the place, both of which conspire to upend me each time I visit. Academically the college was fine and is now considerably better than fine; I didn’t make much use of the opportunities available to me then, pretty much frivoled myself away. And yet, I’m drawn to the college as I am to no other setting. The term Alma Mater, mother of/to the soul, is too hackneyed, and too clunky to express what this small college in Ohio means to me. Ours is a sloppy relationship and not always pretty, not easily communicated, especially as the language of memory demands precision, a summative word or phrase that ties the whole grand, awkward, terrifying, embarrassing adventure into a word or two. I’m having no luck in finding any.
To be clear: Even in the golden haze of memory, these were not the best years of my life.
In fact, my college years were by every observable standard among the worst in my life. I have had more devastating individual moments, but taken as a whole, I have to admit that if the six years between graduation from secondary school and (finally!) graduation from college were to be the measure of my life, the only possible assessment would be of a span both graceless and sad. So, it’s not that it’s all been downhill from there, and it’s not that I treasure a memory of my best self then; I could, and probably should, be embarrassed to remember myself as I was, but nah, too much self-cauterizing since then.
It is what it was, and I was what I was, and the chips have all fallen as chips fall. So, why so reluctant to leave this time?
Catching up with classmates had been as instructive as I had hoped; even with the relentless choreography of a 50th reunion, we had time to take time. We sat at ease in large lawn chairs, looking at the paths we had walked in our first days, simultaneously seeing ourselves then and now, comfortable enough with each other that conversation was rarely of the “remember when …” variety. Reunions offer an opportunity to consider friendships and to remind myself that I still like the people I liked and like some classmates my younger self had not approached or appreciated. A particularly kind man has become something of a reunion star having archived most of the flotsam of our lives then, sharing these questionable artifacts with warm generosity. He was overlooked in my college years; like others in my pack, I overlooked him. I am pleased to know that he hasn’t changed, I have, and that I like him very much.
Some of the old pictures passed around help me to understand why I hung around just a bit longer this time. We all looked marvelous years ago, of course, and it was great to pack a few more memories into the sieve that is my mind, but as each picture came my way, I caught my breath, felt a sharp twist of the heart. I wasn’t overwhelmed by acknowledging myself as an old person as that reality has been in my face for several years now, but I had forgotten how carelessly joyful we had been, even in the shadow of war and injustice, how small our lives were, how intense. Many of my classmates were far more responsible than I (ok, all my classmates were far more responsible than I), but even the aspiring orthodentists and lawyers had a capacity for play then that I, for one, have not felt in a very long time.
I’m not rhapsodizing now about merriment lost in the swirl of time, but about undeserved gifts freely given me and,unexpectedly about sadness for my younger self who found joy and friendship in a place of uncommon beauty and who took it all for granted. I find myself leaning toward the picture trying to … what? Maybe shake me as I was, caution me about the road ahead, remind me to seize the day and squeeze every last drop from it, smell the roses, pat the kittens, keep friendship alive. Be grateful.
It took a long time for me to develop a capacity for gratitude; I missed countless opportunities to say thank you over and again. I think I may have needed an extra day to wander alone summoning memories, breathing thanks into every corner of a cherished place I may not see again, certainly not again in the company of all the friends who gathered last weekend.
Complicated and bittersweet, may be the only reasonable way to describe the emotional soup served after fifty unruly years away from those privileged years. Some of the conversations about us from the various college functionaries had to do with the times in which we came of age, about our part in the great shift in culture, about the grand sweep of history, and those retroactive pats on the head were welcome enough, of course, as we like to pretend we had something to do with the parts of the change we endorse and nothing to do with the vile chunks we wish had never been dislodged. It occurs to me often that perhaps we were far less significant than we had thought. With the benefit of hindsight, and in the wreckage of the recent past, we seem a small smudge, all that remains of a fat bug on the windshield of life.
So, I took an extra day to drink coffee in the empty village, under the banners announcing class events and the sale of t-shirts. I bought a cap, mostly as to have an excuse for lingering in the college bookstore. It was handsome, weathered red canvas with the college’s founding date above the brim. I suspect more than a few of us have stopped in to say farewell since 1824, even before the bookstore sold snappy college gear. It’s not as easy as I had imagined. I seem to care a great deal more than I had thought, which is yet another unanticipated gift in returning.
I may get back. We’ll see. Might as well; I left my hat on the plane.