Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reunion Reflections

We've all been to bad class reunions. Those are the ones where:

  • Only strangers from our class show up and we all stare into our glasses of wine or punch, making awkward conversation with each other
  • The class pariah gets rejected all over again by aging mean girls 30 years after graduation
  • Bragging about personal achievements or those of the kids is the center of our classmates' (and often our own) conversations
  • Grudges and jealousies still live all these years later
  • You find yourself struggling to make a five minute conversation with once-upon-a-time best high school friend with whom you once shared your deepest secrets.

But time goes by and as we grow and change, the nature of class reunions can change.

I first noticed this at my 50th high school reunion four years ago: there was a new ease with each other and greater joy in reuniting with the women who were once Catholic high school girls with me in what seems like another lifetime.

One of the greatest pleasures of that reunion was spending time talking with my former classmate Claire Griffith who had seemed so cool and sophisticated when we were young that I was too scared to talk to her all through high school. Fifty years later, she was the first person I saw -- and embraced -- at the reunion. And as we talked -- so easily -- she told me that underneath that cool veneer had been a young girl who was lonely, who couldn't understand why her parents sent her to boarding school, who felt out-of-place as a non-Catholic at this Catholic school. My heart went out to that young girl and to the marvelous woman she had become. I was thankful that we had a second chance in life to connect.

I recently attended my 50th college reunion at Northwestern University near Chicago. This was wonderful in whole new ways.

                                                                  

                                                         

 My years at Northwestern were a critical turning point in my life. Attending college nearly 2,000 miles away from home set me on the path to a new, independent life. I was away from the chaos and isolation of living with an alcoholic, mentally ill parent. Despite my shyness and initial fear, Northwestern was heaven. I made some of the best friends of my life. I grew both emotionally and academically in a newly challenging environment. My years there prepared me for everything that was to come and made my career as a writer possible. I've always been thankful for the professors who cared and some very special friends with whom I shared so many goals and dreams.

And returning to this place, this pivotal point in my life, for a 50th reunion brought some revelations about the advantages of age and new insights into how we grow with the years, the wisdom of letting go of what no longer matters, the value of warm reconnections and the blessing of love that has thrived and matured through time.

I was surprised and pleased to discover that:

1. We were genuinely glad to see each other just because.... While there was tremendous joy in seeing the classmates who have been lifelong friends, there was also special delight in reconnecting with people I hadn't seen in 50 years. That was especially true of the women with whom I had shared a freshman dorm when I was so young, more than a little scared, but excited to be living among so many new friends.

For example, there was Mimi Keane, who lived down the hall from me during our freshman year. She, too, had graduated from a Catholic girls' high school. But that's where our similarities ended. Mimi's father was a prominent politician and she was a stunning beauty queen (in a very different time and place when that meant much more than it does today). I was in awe of her. I had told Mimi and my other dorm mates that I was thinking of becoming a nun (more as a hedge against total embarrassment just in case no boy ever asked me out on a date during my college years than as a firm life plan). When a nice classmate named Vern asked me out for Homecoming, there was great excitement in the dorm. And Mimi volunteered to do my hair and makeup for my very first ever date. As she transformed my look, helping me to feel pretty for perhaps the first time in my life, she begged me not to become a nun.

And at the reunion, as we embraced, I thanked her for the role she played in persuading me away from the cloister and into a life filled with love.

It was wonderful to see dorm mates -- like Mimi, Brynna, Lynn, Sue and Nancy -- some of whom I had known well and some of whom I had never really known, and to hear about their lives and challenges as we talked with a candor that might have been unthinkable in earlier years.

While we joked in congratulating each other on still being vertical, there was an edge of sadness to this. All of the professors who nurtured and encouraged our young dreams and ambitions have passed away. Fourteen of my good friends from my class --including the beloved three roommates/suitemates who were fellow '67 grads and my warmly remembered first date Vern -- are deceased.

So it was a special joy to see age mates who were vibrant, in reasonably good health and happy with their lives, either in retirement or in still active careers.

2. There was no posturing or bragging, just sharing. There were earlier reunions, either in high school or college, when we seemed quite full of ourselves -- carrying on about career triumphs or kids -- either their intrinsic wonderfulness or their achievements in school and beyond. Now, however, we all seemed to live more in the moment, sharing challenges and disappointments as readily as the highlights of our lives.

3. Old grudges and jealousies were finally irrelevant and fell away forever.  Those post adolescent skirmishes one may have had with a classmate or two back in the day became, at last, of no consequence.

When I was young and insecure, I resented Maria Kulczycky, a journalism classmate who was not only bright and talented, but also wonderfully at ease with the world. Maria could speak her mind. She was confident. She was comfortable with men. I had little confidence, was afraid to speak up and was terribly shy with men. I seethed with jealousy as I sat in class watching Maria flirt with and sometimes even affectionately touch our classmate Tim Schellhardt, whom I considered not only a dear friend but also my secret love -- a love so secret that even he never suspected! So I watched Maria and sulked, wishing that I had the confidence to act similarly. It seems so silly now. All three of us were too sharply focused on academics and future careers to think seriously about pairing up with anyone at that point in our lives. Yet I envied the grace with which Maria moved through her young days as well as the assertiveness and grit that made her such a promising journalist.

Fifty years would pass before I saw Maria again. And what a revelation! As a member of the reunion planning committee, I had sent my journalism classmates emails this past summer, urging them to attend the festivities. Maria responded immediately and warmly, eventually changing travel plans in order to attend. We shared snippets of our lives and memories in emails over the summer. She told me at one point that she had been so excited to see an email from me that she had halted dinner preparations to sit down and read it immediately. And when I saw her at the reunion, I felt only joy as we embraced. It was an emotional moment. I rejoiced, once again, at having a second chance to know and enjoy a truly amazing woman.

Tim and Maria at Northwestern once again!
                                                               
Happily reunited with Maria           

                                   
It was a wonderful day as Maria, Tim and I hung out together, attending events as we pleased and enjoying a three hour lunch together in my old freshman dorm dining room. It was then that I heard, for the first time, Maria's back story: born in the Ukraine only weeks before V-E Day, spending her early childhood in a refugee camp in post-war Germany as her family waited to emigrate to the U.S., coming to the U.S. at 7, not speaking a word of English and making a whole new life for herself. No wonder she was so strong, direct and unconcerned with the trivial in our college days.

As we lingered over lunch, the three of us realized, with wonder, that we were united in so many ways: by our shared history as journalism students in a different, more optimistic and idealistic time; by our early fierce ambition and diverse career trajectories as writers -- Maria as a highly successful financial journalist, Tim as a political reporter who spent some years covering the White House for the Wall Street Journal; by our growth into generatively:  Maria as a devoted mother and grandmother and tireless volunteer  --  doing everything from mentoring to writing grant proposals-- for the Ukrainian community of Chicago; Tim as a loving father and grandfather and also as a deacon at his church, doing charity outreach with the homeless and offering companionship in prayer to parishioners in need of comfort. We also discovered a strange unity in our birth dates. The three of us were all born in April 1945 within 13 days of each other. We decided that we three were simply destined to be friends forever. This leisurely lunch with my two long-ago classmates was the best, the very best, part of our reunion celebration. And the next day, Maria sent both Tim and me a loving email ending with "Let's never stop talking..."

That's a promise: we'll never stop talking... or caring.

4. Feeling grateful to remember and be remembered. It's interesting what settles into our gray matter, leaving an indelible memory. I always smile when I think of my classmate Gregg Ramshaw, whose campus job was working as headwaiter in the dining room of the small dorm where I lived during my junior and senior years. Gregg, who always had a lively sense of humor and special gift for parody, prepared a real treat for all of us the night before graduation: he wrote and performed -- with a chorus of his co-workers -- a naughty version of a hallowed university song with a somewhat scatological ending. We were delighted -- and I've never forgotten that moment or that song.

Gregg went on to a wonderful career as a television news producer and later taught his craft at several colleges. But when I saw him at the reunion -- and we both smiled with recognition of each other -- all I could think of was his long-ago serenade. I went up to him and quietly sang the song in his ear. He laughed with delight and sang the last two lines with me, happy to have had a piece of his past carried into our shared present by my memory of him as he was 50 years ago.

And at certain times, a bit of familiar behavior triggered fond memories. As we enjoyed a reception for journalism alums, Tim grinned suddenly and I reached for my camera as Gregg and Maria were engaged in an intense discussion -- so reminiscent of those days when we were young and Maria would debate fearlessly with anyone. They saw our smiles -- and both smiled, too.

                                         
                           
Gregg and Maria in an intense discussion as Tim looks on

Kathy, Gregg and Maria -- all smiles now!

It occurred to me that we all love to be thought of, to be remembered, to matter to each other whether or not we're in constant touch through the years. And perhaps the specific memory is less important than the fact that we remember pieces of each other's youth, little details, perhaps long forgotten, that spouses and children may never have known.

5. Knowing that our lives have evolved in ways that, at last, make sense. Our life puzzles are complete -- or nearly so. We may have moments of looking back with longing at what might have been, but it seems more common these days to look at the past with today's perspective and to realize that, despite rough spots and disappointments and setbacks and challenges, things have worked out in so many ways.

Talking with classmates that day, this theme came up over and over: how a career setback led to a whole new direction that now makes perfect sense; how an unhappy marriage nevertheless produced some wonderful children who -- to the delight of their parents and many in the world at large -- were simply meant to be; how an unhappy first marriage led to deep introspection and growth and, eventually, happiness and true love the second time around. And how a career choice that seemed so unpromising at first turned out to be just the right move...

I shared the tale of my embarrassment and anguish after graduation as I watched my Northwestern journalism school classmates being hired at prestigious magazines and newspapers in New York, Washington and Chicago, while I returned reluctantly to Los Angeles (due to a family crisis and pressing student loans) and worked for the only female-oriented national consumer magazine then based in L.A. : 'TEEN Magazine. My Northwestern professors were baffled, my friends tactful and polite in their congratulations. I was totally mortified.

But 'TEEN turned out to be truly life-changing. In my nine years there, I developed a specialty in psychology and health reporting, learned so much from the most responsive readership I would ever encounter, wrote my first and most successful book (The Teenage Body Book) and enjoyed the best group of co-workers ever, some of whom are still close friends to this day.

6. Realizing that love, however shared, is life's greatest blessing. I felt love all around me at this reunion: the love of old friends rediscovered, the love of a very special new/old friend in Maria, loving thoughts of classmates who have been dear friends through the years and who were unable to come to the reunion, sweet memories of those who have passed away, and the expansive love one feels for a time and place and people who have made such a difference.

One particular college memory, one pivotal moment, is still vivid so many years later: the moment in November 1964 when I realized that my classmate Tim was a friend I would love for life.

Have you had such moments -- when you realize, with stunning clarity, that someone is a true kindred spirit who will always be special to you? And so many years later, have you been amazed to look back and realize the accuracy of your youthful perceptions?

That long ago November night, Tim and I had been classmates for a year, feeling a bit competitive but otherwise mostly ignoring each other, when a very wise professor forced us to combine our journalistic skills in a shared assignment that required an hour long train trip each way. We were both a little put out, as I remember, until we started to talk on the train and realize just how much we had in common and how much we enjoyed each other. We haven't stopped talking since-- through all the decades of our lives -- even though we've never lived close to each other.

From a distance and through visits over the years, we've celebrated each other's professional successes and personal highlights and soothed each other through disappointments and setbacks. We've wept over the phone together during times of loss -- including the death of the professor who made us do that joint project together so many years ago. Tim has helped me with the research for my two latest books and encouraged me on a daily basis as deadlines loomed.  I have delighted in his continuing success as a writer and a public relations executive and, not so incidentally, in the accomplishments of his four amazing adult children -- two of whom are now on the faculty at Northwestern. This reunion weekend was a wonderful chance for the two of us to celebrate our long friendship, to explore Chicago, to laugh and share secrets -- some fun, some dark -- and to talk for hours, savoring the joy of being together and very much ourselves.

                                                                 
With Tim at our 50th reunion
                                       
And after our wonderful weekend talking marathon!

Our loving friendship has thrived through our long metamorphosis from teenagers to septuagenarians, through a myriad of life changes, triumphs and losses. Loving my dear friend Tim -- from that secret adolescent crush to a mature love that has grown deeper and stronger over a lifetime -- has taught me an ongoing lesson: that there are many kinds of love in this life, all rich and resilient, and all to be treasured.

14 comments:

  1. Oh how special... So glad that your college reunion was SO very very special... YES--it's all about love.

    In 1992 (when four of us childhood friends) turned 50, we got together for a 'reunion-of-sorts' to catch up with each other... That trip was truly one of the highlights of my life. When we all met, it was as if we had never been apart... Two of these special friends are gone now ---but the memories are AWESOME.

    Hugs,
    Betsy

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    1. So glad you were able to have that life highlight in 1992! You're so right that we need to say "Yes" to opportunities to get together and make lasting memories with the special people in our lives!

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  2. A wonderful rendition of what I considered to be an extraordinary weekend. I do think you overstated my looks at the time but appreciate your view. A true delight has been reconnecting with you after 50 years and I as well hope the conversations continue...
    Mimi

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    1. It was such a joy to reconnect with you and our conversations will last as long as we do!

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  3. I remember when my mother went to her 50th reunion. I just could not even imagine such a thing. My 50th high school reunion was a year ago and I still found it hard to imagine.

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    1. I know...isn't it amazing? I remember my mother eagerly anticipating her 50th high school reunion and that seeming just an impossible milestone to me. Unfortunately, it was impossible for my mother: she died of a heart attack about six months before the event. It's hard to believe that I've outlived her by six years and counting and that I've had the chance to experience TWO wonderful 50th reunions -- both high school and college.

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  4. Ellen Eshbach NordbyNovember 3, 2017 at 12:24 AM

    What a wonderful account not only of your (our!) reunion weekend but of the truths you've arrived at over a 50-year span. Your joy is contagious and has me rummaging through my own memories. So happy for you!

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    1. Would love to hear some of your memories, Ellen! Thanks so much for your good wishes! I wish you could have joined us in Evanston but your Dad's 95th birthday was too special to miss. What a blessing to have him all of these years.

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  5. This is truly one of the loveliest posts I've ever read, Kathy. It's taken me awhile -- I wanted to savor it and savor I did, all your warm and beautiful reunions with your friends from long ago. It sounds as though it was perfection. We don't always get perfection when we go back to the past. I'm so very grateful you got not only that but joy, surprises, laughter, comraderie and love.

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    1. Thank you so much, Jeanie! It was perfection in so many ways -- even ways that weren't perfect. I was feeling ill much of the day -- had had a migraine the day before -- and fainted at one point in the festivities. But I felt so happy, loved and in love with all, that my physical discomfort was inconsequential. It was such a wonderful day and weekend!

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  6. I am just now reading this and savoring every word. March, the month of March, and who knows how many days, separate us in age. I too was born in 1945. I loved hearing of this reunion and all the wonderful experience it gave you because we share those generational experiences. I especially loved this line: "Feeling grateful to remember and be remembered.” At our age, memory is not a guarantee. So many memories are lost as time marches on. Truly each memory and each person who remembers a shared memory is a treasure.

    I thought of you as my husband and I made our first trip to Chicago just a few days before your reunion. As I recall, you were to arrive about the same day we left. We would swing by your beautiful campus as we would head back to our hotel each day. I was in awe of the courage you showed oh so many years ago to strike out and go to such a place to gain an education. In those days, that was not something young women did easily. I never would have had the courage. I never even knew such a place existed. I wondered, “Would I have been able to have gone to such a place back in 1963? Would I ever have been able to make it?” Those are questions for which I will never have answers, but I do understand the challenge it must have been for you. Bravo for you. You did it. You returned to share happiness, love, and kinship with those from days long past over. Youth may have have left us, but isn’t it wonderful to know it never leaves our hearts?

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    1. I absolutely LOVE your last sentence, Sally! It's so true! I thought of you as I was arriving in Chicago and was so glad that you guys had such a wonderful time, though sad that we were like ships in the night! It would have been wonderful to get together! Yes, going to a very competitive school far from home was super scary. But I had dreamed about it for years -- and went there because it had equally good departments in journalism and theatre. I studied both, though majored in journalism. After a very tearful solo plane flight (my first!) and another sobbing session behind a newspaper after my roommate's mother was mean to me (because she said she didn't like Catholics), I knew I had made the right choice and absolutely loved everything about it. It was so fun to return 50 years later and see some of my most beloved classmates! Thank you so much for your kind words.

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  7. Dear Kathy, thank you for capturing how the years bring with them an understanding of ourselves and our past and how they also bring an appreciation of all those who have touched our lives.

    I went to my 25th reunion but didn't enjoy it because I'd never married and had no children and that's all the women talked about. (We'd graduated from a woman's college.) I suspect that the 50th more mirrored what your posting describes. However I missed it because of ill health.

    I'm hoping that I'll be able to attend the 60th reunion next year. I would so enjoy seeing the faces of those who helped me grow as a human being and gave me the support I needed while in college.

    This is such a fine piece of writing. I wish you'd get in published in the AARP magazine. Peace.

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    1. Thank you so much, Dee! I really hope you'll be feeling up to that 60th reunion next year! You might be very happily surprised! I'm glad you're thinking about it and hoping that you're feeling better these days. Will catch up with you via email! Thanks so much for stopping by and for your kind words!

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