Restless at the Reunion

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, I attended a reunion of my Holy Redeemer 8th-grade class of 1974--a wonderful event that was, for me, a Reunion of Fifty-Year-Old Fourth Graders. I had left the school, a parochial school in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC, after 4th grade, but resourceful classmates had tracked me down. I was suprised and quite happy when I got my e-vite.
I had seen only a few of my classmates since 1970, and none since high school. I was badly out of touch, but I had held on to my class picture from that year—a 81/2 x 11 black-and-white sheet of postage-stamp sized photos taken when we were all nine or ten years old. I had written everyone’s first initial and last name under their photo. Except for a boy who had a crush on me. It was not mutual so he got only two initials. Pretty brutal. The photo had moved from my parents’ house to mine, then from one folder, one album, one filing cabinet to the next. When the photo resurfaced during a spring cleaning of a closet or desk, I could always recited everyone's name and recall something about their personality: shy, athletic, friendly, smart, funny, dull, awkward, troublemaker, goofball. These were the only categories in 4th grade. Personalities anymore complex were too subtle for me to notice at the time...or to remember forty years later.

I don't think of myself as a reunion type (whatever that is) but I had already planned to spend Thanksgiving with my parents and siblings in Northern Virginia--just fifteen minutes from the reunion. I accepted the invitation—a move not motivated by idle curiosity or by expectations of renewing old friendships. I could have tracked anyone down via Google or FaceBook, but I didn’t. I could have contacted any of my classmates whose mostly decipherable addresses appeared at the top of each of several e-mails about the reunion.

Hi Mary! I know it’s been forty years since we saw each other but wondered how you were doing? Are you still in the DC area? I think our nephews know each other from St. Alban’s--small world, eh? Do you remember having tea parties in my backyard treehouse and spinning the tree swing until we were dizzy? Do you still have your Girl Scout sash? Bring me up to date! Hope to see you at the reunion. Cheers! Your best friend of 1970, Maria
But I didn’t. I am not really sure what I was expecting or what I hoped to enjoy about the reunion. Over the years, I had received (and regretted) invitations to high-school and college reunions; the classes were too big and I couldn’t see the point in connecting with classmates I didn’t know or reconnecting with the few classmates I did know--classmates who had been friends, friends who fell out of touch over time and distance, friends who knew it was too late to reconnect, renew, rekindle. I think I wanted to go to this reunion simply to see what would happen, what I think to say to a room full of strangers who were my childhood friends. I enjoy this kind of surprise, unscripted event.

I wasn’t looking for any kind of closure or opening at the Holy Redeemer reunion. I had strong and fond memories of my four years at the school. I could still remember most everyone—the teachers’ pets and the troublemakers. I remember the short walk to school, the face of the crossing guard, my plaid jumper and saddle shoes, my teachers, the nuns, my first communion and confession, the playground, the school plays, the layout of the school, the hallways, the position of my desk, that now-extinct fragrance of Crayola crayons, school paste, lead pencils, pink erasers, and the rough yellowish paper with solid and dashed lines to contain our sprawling cursive.

So I arrived at the reunion—held at the home of one my classmates and friends—with nothing but my 4th-grade class photo in hand. I spotted the hostess, I signed in the guest book and made myself a name tag and then started scanning the room for a familiar face. The classmate hosting the party had been a petite, freckled girl with dark hair cut into a page boy. I looked for someone matching this description who was behaving like a hostess. I spotted her almost instantly. She was still petite, freckled, and dark haired—but she was a woman (yikes!) with her hair was cut stylishly short and held back in a diamond-sparkly hair band. She wore a silvery pleated top that added “artistic” to her cute, friendly personality as a girl. She had the same big smile and bright eyes she had in the class photo. After a quick hug, she directed me to the wine, beer, lavish display of hors d’oeuvres. I planned to stay about two-and-a-half hours (I had teens to pick up at ten o’clock and a six a.m. flight home the next morning). I poured myself a glass of red wine and plunged in.

Forty years is a long time. I moved from group to group of unfamiliar faces, introduced myself using my maiden name, noticed their shock and then felt mine when they introduced themselves. I felt as I were in a malfunctioning time machine—each fifty-year-old face I looked into held the face of the ten year old. I wasn’t sure whether to ask them how they did on their spelling test or what they were up to professionally.

As I worked my way around the room, a pattern developed. There were two groups of classmates—the ones whose names and faces I recognized and the ones I had been friends with. Conversation with the former group began with “I remember you!” and then we would chat about where we were living, if we had kids, if we had they kept in touch with other classmates, and if we had been to previous reunions. Conversations with the latter group included one of us telling some anecdote—usually just one. There was the whacky musicals our 3rd-grade teacher wrote and made us perform, the nun who had us close our eyes on stifling hot September days while she described glaciers in chilling detail, the boy who threw up nearly every day, the boy that ripped his Converse high-tops apart during class (with much snickering),  the slumber party. And then someone would ask me what happened to me after I left the school in 1970.

At first, I simply named the school I went to for 5th grade. But then someone would ask where I went to high school. And then someone would ask where my family moved when we left the parish. And then someone would ask where I went to college. And then where I lived. For most of my two hours at the reunion, I described forty years of moves—none of them particularly adventurous or dramatic (like two years in the Peace Corps in Burundi, for instance) or worthy of a follow-up question.

Since 1970, I had moved seven times (including three moves into different apartments within a three-mile stretch of one street in Washington, DC). Since 1970, I had attended a Sacred Heart school for girls (5th-7th grades), transferred to another private school (8th grade), transferred back to the Sacred Heart School (9th-10th grades), moved to a public school (11th-12th grades), attended college at William & Mary (2 years), and then Boston College (2 years). With my husband and two sons, we made enormous leaps from Virginia to Southern California to Washington State. Compared to military families I was a stick in the mud, but, to hear me describe it, I sounded like the beneficiary of a witness protection program. Except that none of the moves was mandatory, forced, necessary. All were optional, elective, practically whimsical. What was my problem?

Most of my classmates had stayed in the Washington, DC, area, some living in the neighborhood they grew up in, some even on the same street. Quite a few had children who had attended Holy Redeemer. Naturally, the classmates at the reunion were at the reunion because they lived locally, having either stayed put or traveled and returned. In general, people seem willing to travel great distances only for weddings and funerals, but lesser events—such as class reunions—need to be piggybacked onto other events to justify shelling out for airfare. Only one other classmate I talked to had traveled any distance for the reunion, but she, like me, was already flying in to spend Thanksgiving with her parents. When all the RSVPs were in, about half of my section of 4th grade showed up. I wondered how many of the other half lived far away or had stories of moves that mirrored mine. Was anyone in Burundi, Paris, or Juneau?

Anyway, as I moved from room to room at the reunion, as I recited my moves from school to school and from home to home, forty years became thirty seconds, my life wasreduced to a litany of place names, a map of restlessness. Was this the essence of me--restless? It is an issue I am exploring as part of my next book on clouds; the only way to really see and understand clouds is to be still. I cannot sit still, I cannot stay put. My book's working title is Still Life with Clouds. And here I am moving from one group of people to the next, talking about moving. I couldn’t seem to talk about anything other than what I did after I left fourth grade. I was getting pretty sick of myself and my personality disorder (restlessness life syndrome?) that was smacking me in the face. And I was becoming pretty envious of everyone in the room who, of course, had parties like this all the time while I was out in the Pacific Northwest trying to put down and nurture roots that I had yanked up perhaps too many times. Despite my best efforts in my latest location, I didn’t feel particularly settled, or connected, or deeply rooted in the satisfying way I hoped at mid life. I wasn’t getting gloomy as the reunion progressed, just introspective; my classmates were too jolly and the house too festive for gloom.

After I had manged to talk to almost everyone once and was ready to settle into a conversation with my best friend from 4th grade, I saw the clock. It was 9:45 and I had to leave to pick up my sons and pack for my flight the next morning. I needed another few hours (perhaps forty years!) to reconnect in any meaningful way.

How to bid farewell? Starting e-mail correspondence seemed lame—a feeble way to bridge the gap of forty years. Promising to get together next time I’m in town (let's do lunch!!!) seemed phony, if not ridiculous. The best I could do was to offer hope that I would see everyone in five years at the next reunion. It made me happy to think of seeing everyone again, now that everyone had moved past 4th grade and established their existence as adults.
As I got in my car, I looked back at the house with its large windows glowing a cozy yellowy-orange. I could hear bursts of laughter over the drone of dozens of conversations, conversations from the voices that once recited multiplication tables, sang off key in school musicals, chanted jump-rope rhymes, and called to me from across the playground. There, held within the walls of that warm and lovely home, were the people who included me in their history, held memories of me, my brothers, my parents, my former home near the school. There, in that glowing, happy house were my childhood friends, people I am thankful for and grateful to for including me. Thank you, everyone. It was a wonderful evening.

Next time, Ruth, I will bring my sleeping bag,