Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reunions: Why? Why Not?

                                       Eileen Loubet Adams and me - May 2011

Eileen Adams, a dear friend from high school who graduated the year after I did and shared many of my youthful interests in journalism and theatre, and I have a pact: we don't go to our high school reunions without each other. That way, we always at least have the pleasure of each other's company. (Lately, we've also had the bonus of being reunited in Arizona when she flies from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area to visit her sister in Tucson.)

Our reunion pact began about 25 years ago, after each of us had a disappointing 20th class reunion. Eileen found herself at a table with the only other people from her class attending the reunion: the class priss (who later evolved into a terrific, feisty woman who is great company) and two strangely silent twins who stared down at their plates during the entire luncheon and barely uttered a word. My class had an equally uneventful 20th: four of us showed up. One classmate, in the midst of a painful divorce, drank the whole bottle of wine at our table and promptly fell asleep. Another, whose three-year-old daughter sat under her chair whining during the luncheon, told me that she was frankly puzzled by the feminist movement. "I love doing for my husband," she said. "Shining his shoes is one of my greatest pleasures in life." And my third classmate pitched me on liability insurance policies.

Eileen and I agreed that these gatherings had to get better. For our respective 30th reunions, we did mass mailings and phone calls with excellent results, especially with Eileen's class. A good number of her 40 classmates showed up, some of them coming from Mexico and Central America. The celebration was wonderful at the school luncheon, but it really gathered steam when we hit the bar of the Pasadena Hilton later on -- and partied until the wee hours of the morning. We shared memories of our school years. We told of our adventures and challenges since. We laughed. We cried. We laughed some more. It was a triumph.

Subsequent reunions, while a little more sedate than Eileen's 30th, have been delightful. While it may have something to do with a greater number of classmates attending, it may also be due to our evolving selves. As time goes by, we are less likely to judge, more inclined to reach out with loving acceptance.

Now Pennie Eiban, one of my classmates, has launched a Facebook page to get the Class of 1963 geared up for our 50th reunion in two years.  Already we're enthusiastically exchanging emails and catching up.

With anticipation running high already, I mentioned how I was looking forward to my 50th reunion to some friends here in Arizona and was surprised at some of the reactions:

  "I don't care about those people I knew in high school. Why would I want to see them again?"
  "I don't want to go to hear people brag about their lives."
  "I'd only go just to thumb my nose."
  "Why would anyone even want to go to a reunion anyway? The past is past."
  "The only reason people go is curiosity -- seeing who looks older or fatter than anyone else."
  "Revenge would be a reason...a chance to say 'Hey, you assholes! I'm more successful than you!"

 I listened with wonder to these reactions.  In many ways, the reactions are understandable. All those commenting had attended large high schools. If you attended a high school where it was easy to get lost in the crowd, where cliques ruled, where you were shunned in the lunchroom, a reunion could well be a re-introduction to personal hell or, perhaps, a boring day with relative strangers. But for those whose high school years weren't particularly horrific or who were fortunate enough to attend a smaller high school, a reunion can be a wonderful.

 I admit that I was especially fortunate. I was a day student at a small Catholic girls school that was primarily, at the time, a boarding school with an international student population. There were only 44 in my class, 200 in the entire school. It had a familial feel. The nuns were kind, affectionate and, in some cases, delightfully eccentric. There were some fellow students I loved dearly, many I liked, a few I didn't know well. But I would welcome the opportunity to see any and all of them.

Eileen and I agree that our reason for attending reunions is quite different from seeking comparisons or settling old scores: we want to reconnect with people we greatly enjoyed a long time ago and to remember a certain time and place in our lives. It wasn't the happiest time of our lives nor was it, for either of us, the worst.  It was simply a time when we were young and hopeful and scared and self-conscious and silly. And it is wonderful to catch a glimpse at a reunion or, in our class of 1963 preview in Facebook, of the strong and interesting women we all have become.

It's true that sometimes reunions can be a shock. Time passes while your image of old classmates is frozen in time.

Several years ago, my MSJ (Master of Science, Journalism) class of 1968  from Northwestern University decided to have a reunion weekend in Evanston, near Chicago.  It was a small class and I knew some of my classmates from our undergraduate days at the journalism school and others had become friends during that intense graduate year. I wanted very much to attend, but Bob and I were in the process of buying our home in Arizona at the exact same time, so I wasn't able to go.

However, one of my dearest friends, Tim Schellhardt -- who was a classmate for both undergraduate and graduate programs -- did attend. He told me later that he was directed by the restaurant's hostess to a private dining room. "I looked inside and there were all these old people there," he told me. "I didn't think that could possibly be our class reunion. I turned around to go check when one of the oldsters got up and yelled 'Hey, Tim! It's us! Come on in! You're in the right place.'"  Once he recovered from the shock of our classmates' -- and his own -- aging, he enjoyed himself immensely.

He said he was struck by the gentleness and humility in the room . People were simply happy to see each other alive and well -- and eager to share updates on old classmates who could not attend. "So you were very much there in spirit, dear friend," Tim told me later. "There were several of us competing to give the update on what you've been up to and everyone was happy to hear your news."

I thought back to that tough graduate year -- when I was in the accelerated Master's program, working several jobs, living in a quietly unhappy relationship with a roommate and experiencing my first real romantic heartbreak. I remember crying myself to sleep nearly every night.  And I thought about how wonderful it was that people remembered me kindly from what was, for me, a pretty miserable year.

Maybe remembering each other kindly and reconnecting with joy and with the enhanced insights of age is the whole point of a reunion.

There is something incredibly sweet about reconnecting with friends from youth.

Shortly before we moved to Arizona, I enjoyed the first ever reunion of former 'TEEN Magazine staff members -- people with whom I had worked for the nine years between ages 23 and 32 -- and I was not only happy to see these people, the best co-workers I ever had, but I was also delighted to see how wise, how kind and how compassionate they were in maturity.

And there is special joy in friendships that have been consistently close through the years. There is Pat Hill, my classmate from kindergarten through high school, who has remained a lifelong friend. There is Mary Breiner, whom I met when she joined the staff of 'TEEN in 1972, fresh from a decade as a nun, and whom I've loved dearly ever since.

And there is Eileen Adams, whose life then and now, has been quite different from mine, but who has been, nonetheless, a kindred spirit for more than 50 years. Eileen, the youngest daughter of a wealthy French businessman who moved from France to Tucson when Eileen was just an infant, lost her mother to cancer when she was only 8 years old. She was sent to boarding school while still in grade school. Then and now, she is both smart and wise, hard-working, deliciously funny. Her wealth has not shielded her from tragedy. She not only lost her mother at an early age, but also lost her beloved younger daughter Andrea several years ago, when Andrea was only 30.  She works as hard at volunteering -- for the Red Cross, for computer literacy, for the local police department -- as most people do at their jobs and is dedicated to philanthropy and philanthropy consulting. And she lives her life -- through tragedies, challenges and joyous times alike -- with incredible grace, courage and humor.

During a weekend together earlier this month, Eileen and I found ourselves in stitches over old memories.  She alone in my life today remembers how I evolved from quiet and shy to actively involved as my high school years progressed. I remember the name she gave her first car. We both remember her complicity in sneaking an article (in a last-minute switch at the printer's) into the last edition of the school paper that I would edit -- an article written by my classmate Suse Harper-Yates expressing the staff's appreciation. Eileen followed me as editor of the school newspaper and as drama club president. One year apart, we both scored the leading role in our high school's traditional Christmas pageant -- that of evil King Herod, in full beard, wielding a wicked rubber dagger while ordering the execution of Baby Jesus.  Over nachos at a local Mexican restaurant, we recently recited alternate lines of Herod's dramatic execution orders -- proclaiming ourselves "dueling Herods" and amazed that we still remembered -- and we laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks.

It's true that the past is past and that reunions can't make us young again. But they can reconnect us with people who share a part of our youth and who, under the best of circumstances, can look back with laughter and affection as we embrace each other anew.


  1. You've got the start of a fine memoir piece. It took me back to my best friend, to how much I miss her.
    I especially liked the scene in the restaurant when Tim "discovers" he is old too. Fun and very poignant.

  2. We are the same age. I also graduated in '63. I actually graduated from a different school than the one I had attended through most of high school. I am in touch on a regular basis with kids (yes, we are still kids) from both schools. We won't be having a reunion in Pueblo because we just had our big 50th this past summer for the first four classes to graduate from our high school. My husband and I were on the committee. It was great fun.
    I don't know what my actual high school graduating class will do. We were a small class, only 67. We have lost a lot to death. I don't know that a leader to spearhead the thing has emerged.

  3. What a wonderful post! As my 35 HS reunion approaches, I can definitely identify with this. Because I felt so out of place in HS I avoided going to all my reunions until a classmate who lives nearby hosted a get together at his home. I had a wonderful time and am so looking forward to going in the fall. I've since "friended" many of these former classmates on FB and it's so interesting to see how we've evolved throughout the years.

    I so enjoyed the descriptions of the different reunions you've attended and how you've shared reminiscing with your former classmates. This was beautifully written!

  4. Funny how I just learned so much about someone that will always be one of my favorite people - Eileen Adams. Haven't seen her in years but I think of her often and smile. The smile may be just a bit more knowing now.