Thursday, May 30, 2013

Going Home Again

I went home again for the Memorial Day weekend.

It wasn't to my childhood home, but to my mother's home town in rural Kansas and to my warmest roots in that state: the Kansas City area home of my beloved cousin Caron and her delightful husband Bud. We were joined by Caron's brother Jack, also one of my very favorite relatives, who had driven in from his home in Georgia for the occasion.

There were several reasons for our getting together: Caron's health has been frail lately and I've been concerned. We all have. But spending time with her, I was reassured by her strength of spirit and firm resolve to regain her health and stamina. In the meantime, Caron, Bud and Jack are wonderful company and visiting with them is a total joy. When Jack arrived, a few hours after my plane came in, the three of us just stood in a tight huddle in Caron's living room, warmly embracing and kissing each other, so happy to be together once again. And we had also decided to share an adventure, traveling back into our mothers' pasts -- Caron and Jack's mother and my mother were close and loving sisters -- and go to their tiny hometown of Toronto, Kansas for the annual Memorial Day celebration.

                          Grandma Gladys, Caron Hill, Kathleen McCoy, Jack
                          Hill and Grandpa George Curtis in 1947
                              Cousins in 2007: Caron Hill Roudebush, George
                              Taylor, Kathleen McCoy, Jack Hill

Memorial Day is special in Toronto. The whole town -- and kin who have left only to return to their roots for this one day -- turns out for a special service honoring fallen veterans, to decorate the graves of parents, grandparents and more distant relatives and to reconnect with far flung natives of this prairie farming town.

Our shared Curtis grandparents -- George and Gladys -- are buried there along with their son George Walter, who was killed in action in World War II when he was only 24 years old. Caron and Jack's parents -- Evelyn and Elmer Hill -- are buried beside our grandparents. And many other relatives -- 29 in all -- have graves in this peaceful, green, windswept cemetery.

                                 Last photo: Lt. George Walter Curtis and his
                                 mother Gladys as he leaves for war. He
                                 was killed two months later in October, 1944

In 2007, I made this trip to our mothers' pasts only with Jack and it was a wonderful, memorable adventure. This time, we were returning as a larger, multi-generational group. Caron, Bud, Jack and I were joined by Caron and Bud's youngest son Jason, his wife Molly and their two wonderful children Ian, 10, and Maya, 8.

Caron told me that Jason, nearing middle age and seeing his parents aging, was increasingly interested in family history and roots, wanting to hear stories about departed family members and to see where our ancestors had farmed and thrived. And Jason wanted his children to begin to learn about their roots as well.

In preparation for the day, the family had talked with the children about World War II and the terrible sacrifices so many made -- and the young life, sacrificed for freedom, that our whole family honors and mourns to this day.

The service at the cemetery began with a tribute to the area's World War II veterans, whose ranks are thinning all too rapidly. A small contingent of aging veterans stood at attention, remembering their commander Leslie Sherman, who had led this tribute last year and who passed away only a few months ago. This year, his younger brother Ed gave the commands to the elderly veterans as they honored the fallen with hand and gun salutes.

                                        Crosses in tribute ceremony for
                                        Toronto men lost in World War II

Ian and Maya watched with rapt attention, Maya flinching slightly at the sound of gunfire, her older brother putting a protective arm around her. After the ceremony, their father took them to meet the old soldiers, to shake their hands and thank them for a job so well done. And they returned to our group, quiet with wonder at meeting real soldiers from that long ago war.

And the children listened as we walked through the cemetery, their great-uncle Jack, a Vietnam veteran, telling them stories of several generations of grandparents and extended family.

                          Roudebush family at Caron and Jack's parents'
                          grave: R.C.(Bud), Caron, Ian, Maya, Molly, Jason

Spotting the gravesite of  great-great-great grandparents who died a week apart, 10-year-old Ian was pensive, lingering, wondering about this long-dead couple. "Grandma," he said quietly to Caron. "These people died a week apart! What happened? After his wife died, did he..."

His voice dropped to a near-whisper: "Did he commit suicide?"

Caron told Ian that this ancestor had died of a heart condition that many said was, more than anything, simply a broken heart. He nodded solemnly.

Ian and Maya planted flowers at 29 family graves, including their own great-grandparents, great-great grandparents and great-great-great grandparents, who were born in 1851 and 1852 and who died in 1911 and 1925.

                             Maya and Jason dig hole to plant flowers at grave
                             of George and Gladys Curtis and their son George
                             Walter, shot down over Germany October 6, 1944

               Our oldest ancestors in Toronto cemetery: Grandma Curtis'
               parents who died years before any of us were born

As we finished visiting the family grave sites, a thunderstorm rolled in with torrential rain, quickly altering our plans for a family picnic at a local park. Ed Sherman, a second cousin of ours, invited us to his Toronto home where a Sherman family reunion was in full swing. They happily welcomed us -- the Curtis cousins -- in from the storm. There were loving words, warm embraces, and a stunning array of fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad and pie.

It made me think of those long ago Sundays at my grandmother's farmhouse when she would make the world's best fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, freshly picked corn and watermelon and inimitably delicious apple pie. Relatives would drop by unannounced in large, joyfully welcomed groups to savor the endless abundance of good food, good conversation and warm hugs.

"Kathleen, I need a hug!" A middle-aged woman with a wonderful smile stood before me, her arms outstretched. It was my cousin Patti Sporing, the daughter of my mother's much younger sister Ruth.

I hadn't seen her in many years. In our childhoods, the six years between us seemed too large a gap for close friendship. She and my younger sister Tai were close and loved playing together. But as adults, even though we have encountered each other only occasionally, I have always been happy to see Patti. Each time, I've so enjoyed her warmth, her sense of humor and her stories about her life experiences as an expert horsewoman and a resourceful farm wife, mother of two boys and now as a grandmother. This time was no different. We talked about our lives, about our parents, about the town they all once called home.

Patti told me that she had discovered my blog while researching family history online and had been intrigued to read not only about our shared family members, but also about my immediate family of origin and the complicated relationships we had, especially with my father. She touched my arm. "We knew that something was going on with your family when your brother Mike came back here to live with Grandma and go to high school," she said. "But we didn't know what was wrong. We didn't know how bad it was. I'm so sorry." We embraced again.

And she remembered, as does my cousin Caron -- who spent several summers with my family and knew both of my parents well -- that my father always seemed so kind, so bright, so generous and loving. And I was quick to admit that he was all of those things -- as well as being an alcoholic prone to frightening, violent, irrational rages. He was complicated -- at once nurturing and abusive -- and while we, his children, loved and feared him, extended family saw only the love. I smiled at the gift of Caron's and Patti's perspectives.

                                    Cousins' Lineup 2013: Caron Roudebush,
                                    Kathleen McCoy, Jack Hill, Patti Taylor 
                                    Sporing and her husband Larry

An older couple approached and said "Kathleen, honey, we haven't seen you since you were a very little girl!" The man -- Stanley Curtis -- is one of my mother's last surviving first cousins and, with his lovely wife Mary, he lives in my grandparents' original farmhouse. He rescued the house when a dam project in the late 1950's put the original farm under water. Stanley moved the house to a hilltop overlooking the newly created lake while my grandparents bought a new farm about 50 miles away. Stanley, a tall, strong man in his late eighties, who is still actively farming and who is, in addition, enthusiastically Internet savvy, looked wistful as his mind drifted to the past. He told me how he had admired my mother when she was vivacious young woman and he a little boy, 13 years younger. He marveled at her glamorous life as a famous American Airlines stewardess at a time when that career was highly unusual and few of her high school classmates ever left their small town. Mary asked about my writing, about my husband Bob, about my brother Mike and sister Tai, already remembering a great deal about the three of us.

 "You're the writer, aren't you?" a younger middle aged man standing beside Stanley said. We had never met, but it felt like we knew each other well. He was Mark Sherman, an attorney and the son of one of my mother's first cousins, greeting me like an old friend. He told me that he had found many Curtis family pictures in another relative's home after that relative had died and he had scanned them to a disk he thought I might like to have. We exchanged business cards and talked easily out on the porch with Stanley and Mary and Ed Sherman, Ed's long time companion Marla and his 54-year-old daughter Nancy, a cheerful, vivacious woman whom I had not seen since she was a two-month old baby and I was a gawky fourteen year old. She smiled warmly and took my hand.

                          Reunion at Ed Sherman's: Stanley and Mary Curtis
                          (he in suspenders, she in white tee) are at center. Ed
                          Sherman is seated (brown shirt) and cat Shermie is
                          in his party animal element.

Even Ed's cat Shermie -- lounging on the deck -- was wonderfully cordial, purring and rubbing up against any guest who looked his way. Ed smiled when he saw me playing with his cat. "That cat is a survivor," he said. "That cat has been run over and even shot once. And he just keeps on going... just enjoying his life and everyone around him."

                                                 Shermie the Survivor Cat

And I thought it was an apt description of this jovial extended family group, ranging from age 8 to nearly 90.  The people gathered at Ed's home had come from a variety of experiences and occupations. Some had stayed in or near Toronto, Kansas their whole lives. And some of us had grown up thousands of miles away. Our lives had taken many different paths, but, this one day,  all of these paths led to Toronto.

Now, this one day, we were home.

Caron's face glowed with love. "Isn't this wonderful?" she asked. "Everyone is so kind, so welcoming here. It's like no other place. Here, we truly belong."

I nodded in agreement. It was a day to remember. It was a day to reconnect. But most of all, it was a day to belong, to each other and to a place that had nurtured our mothers and their parents and grandparents before them.

I have always believed the sentiment "You can't go home again."

But now I know you can.

Because home is any place you truly belong.

Monday, May 20, 2013

So You Want to Be a Writer....

When I first heard that Tony, the 20-year-old son of our good friends Hank and Mary, had made the decision to drop out of college to become a writer, I paled. It's such a risky business. He was doing so well in college and he could only be helped with more training, more education, more time to mature.

But, of course, he wasn't asking my opinion of his decision -- and who can talk a 20-year-old with a dream into or out of anything anyway?

His rationale did make a certain amount of sense: when better to take a risk like trying to break into the writing business than when one has two well-employed parents, supportive of his dreams, who can offer food and shelter and when a part-time job can bring in whatever additional money one needs? And when an absence of other obligations gives one the opportunity to drop back into college if that turns out to be the best option after all?

When I visited Tony and his parents last night, he showed me his work in progress. He is off to a good start. He does seem to have a good sense of the fantasy niche and a compelling story to tell. There are aspects of his writing style that reveal inexperience and a nervous inclination to tell the reader too much. But he is working. He is writing. And he is open to constructive criticism, which is good.  I am working on very specific comments to share with him that I hope will be helpful.

Of course, as an experienced writer, there is so much more I would like to tell him. But how do I share the realities of the business without dampening his enthusiasm?

One reality is that here are many people with talent, with a dream and with wonderful stories to tell.

On the other hand, there is the business of writing and publishing.

For every newcomer who snags a six-figure advance, there are many thousands of others, some equally talented, who never publish or, if they do, get considerably more modest advances.

There are the career ups and downs and the fact that many experienced, published writers don't make a lavish living or, indeed, a living at all.

There are trends. Niches and genres go in and out of fashion. Certain kinds of writers can become unfashionable as well.

When I was younger, someone with an M.D. or Ph.D. was a shoo-in to write non-fiction books. At the advice of an agent with whom I was briefly associated, I returned to graduate school in my forties to complete an academic Ph.D. and a clinical Master's degree in psychology. In part, this was to create an alternate source of income for the lean writing times, but, in large part, it was to increase my marketability as a writer in the areas of psychology, health and self-help. However, when I emerged from eight years of school, clinical internships and the prolonged licensing process, I was greeted with the news from the publishing world that "experts are out, real people are in..."

Just as in other speculative ventures, it's hard to time the market and anticipate trends, especially when your attempt to be trendy takes some years.

There is a blockbuster/celebrity mentality that goes with many of the publishing houses now owned by entertainment conglomerates.  In this culture, the celebrities rule and the lesser knowns pay the price. In one memorable instance, a publishing house had paid Jay Leno millions of dollars in advance for an autobiography that bombed. To partially recoup losses, they cancelled the contracts of about 100 lesser known writers.

Recently, best-selling novelist Scott Turow, who is also a lawyer and current president of The Authors' Guild, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times decrying a recent Supreme Court decision to allow the importation of foreign editions of American works -- often cheaper than domestically produced books and now being sold on a secondary market with no royalties for the authors. He pointed out that, until now, such a move has been forbidden as a violation of copyright laws and that this new erosion of copyright will not hurt best-selling authors like him as much as the lesser known "mid-list" authors and newcomers to the business.

He also saw bad news for new and mid-list authors in traditionally published e-books, pointing out that while these are much less expensive to produce than paper books, the savings have not been shared with authors. He stated that the six major publishing houses all insist on limiting e-book royalties to 25% of net receipts. While best-selling authors like Turow can negotiate better deals for themselves in their contracts, lesser known writers don't have such power. He said that they find their earnings declining as a result and "that will accelerate as the market pivots more toward digital."

Despite declining fortunes, there are many still eager to publish. And now there is another challenge: the Platform. You don't just need talent and hard work. Now you need to have a platform to ensure the success of the book -- a platform that will enable you to promote yourself and your writing to the widest possible audience. Celebrity is the ultimate platform. Blogging is an essential part of a platform and the ability to promote yourself and to use social networking to your best advantage are other essentials.

And despite all these efforts, most published writers are not rich or famous. Many of us are like working actors -- there is some rub-off glamour, but not the riches or the fame a beginner might imagine.

Of course, whether one becomes rich at writing or not, or even publishes, there is still the joy of doing what one loves -- and that's a huge reason to take the risk of trying.

I know well the joys of doing work one loves -- and I've been doing it for a long time. I have skills. I have multiple degrees in journalism and psychology. I have a track record: a dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles published. I have a wonderful agent. And still it isn't easy.

I can well understand -- and applaud -- the growth of self-publishing, giving writers more control and a chance to bypass traditional gatekeepers. New possibilities bring hope in a time of diminishing prospects for people who are not already famous.

But, of course, many -- including my young friend -- still hope for a traditional publishing contract and a chance to make a living as a writer.

What equips one to compete in such a fierce and changing marketplace?

A strong need and will to write.  This is quite different from wanting to live the imagined writers' lifestyle, to be famous, to pen a lucrative best seller.

It means that writing is a part of who you are, something you've always done for fun and for personal satisfaction and growth. It means that you love the process and would write even if you didn't get paid but yet dream of having your passion also be your career.

Excellent skills. Even those young writers who have hit the jackpot with a lucrative first novel or break-through non-fiction book may well have worked for years to hone their craft before what looks like an overnight success.

The best writers make it look easy. But it isn't.

When I was a college sophomore, I thought I knew everything there was to know about writing. Then I encountered my toughest writing teacher ever -- Elizabeth Swayne, an Australian journalist who taught me everything I didn't know -- and that was a lot. I shuddered as I looked over her syllabus for my first writing class with her. She began it with "Do not bore me!" And she proceeded to write more than I did -- in blazing red grease pencil -- on my first paper for the class and gave me a "C-minus." I was crushed until I realized that was the highest grade in the class. Some of us eventually got A's in her class, but we worked hard and listened and put our egos on hiatus to learn what we so needed to learn: to write clearly and concisely.

Agents and editors get many thousands of submissions a day. When I was a magazine editor, for a publication not known as a major market for writers, we still got thousands of submissions a month. Most were totally unacceptable -- not the correct tone or subject matter (about 99% of those submitting short stories or articles had not bothered to read our magazine first).  Most were also badly written, something we could tell from the first paragraph.

So you may have mere seconds to make an impression on an editor or agent.

The wisdom to treat writing as a business.  It is an art. But, if you want to make a living at it, writing needs to be a business. If you want to support yourself as a writer, you put your rear end in the chair and write, hour after hour, day after day, whether you feel like it or not -- just like any other job.

During the years I was working full-time as a free-lance writer, people would smile and ask me how I got inspired to write, how often inspiration came. I would reply that I got most inspired when I looked at a stack of bills to be paid.

It was true, at least in part. If you want to be a writer, a self-supporting writer, you can't be a tortured artiste awaiting inspiration. You just sit down and do it. You meet your deadlines. You deliver what your agent and publishers and readers expect.

Once, when on a trip to New York, I had lunch with another well-established writer who told me about her trials with her publisher when the book she delivered was radically different from the outline of the book idea they had bought a year before. She asked how closely I stuck to my original outlines. Like glue. That was the deal. Unless my editor felt something wasn't working. Unless I thoroughly discussed a change of direction with an editor before trying it. Of my dozen books, only one had to be re-written -- and that was because the turnover at that publishing house was so bad that I had seven different editors on the project and each one had a somewhat different vision for my book.

When you see writing as a business, in addition to a passion and an art, you can discuss possible changes with an editor without getting hysterical about defending your golden prose. You learn to pick your battles. You learn there are many good and right ways to say something.

Over the years of my freelance writing, some people have said to me "It must be so great to not have to work! I mean, to just sit around and write and be creative and have that freedom."

They had no idea. I had the freedom to work seven days a week -- which I often did when an article or book deadline was looming. There were a lot of setbacks and disappointments as well as triumphs. I did not have the security of a regular paycheck or benefits. The riskiness of the business made me work harder than I ever did for a regular paycheck.

The confidence and skill to make your writing like fine music.  There is a difference between writing that is technically excellent and writing that leaps off the page and sings. Later in my college career, I began to learn the difference in a critique from yet another writing teacher -- Clarus Backes, who was editor of the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine at the time.

He gave me back a paper with the comment "This is excellent, but you need to take your writing a step beyond this. You need to put something of yourself into it. The fine pianist hits all the right notes, but the vituoso puts something of himself into the music and that makes all the difference.  I know you can do that in time. Everything else has come along beautifully."

His challenge has given me a goal to strive for to this day.

Building life experiences, skills and options.  The lovely thing about being a writer is that every life experience you have adds to the richness of your literary expertise. Every class you take, every person you meet, every failure and disappointment, every small step toward success is a growth opportunity, both personally and professionally.

Sometimes experience in a field besides writing can ignite a wonderfully successful writing career.

Although I did things backwards and became a psychotherapist years AFTER my first book was published, my training and experience as a therapist brought a whole new depth to my writing.

Continuing to study and learn all your life is essential: fine-tuning one's writing skills, learning more about the world  and, not so incidentally, developing skills that offer support and options through the ups and downs of the writing life.

Many established writers go the academic route. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates can certainly claim considerable success as a writer, yet she spends much of her time as a college professor.

Scott Turow's writing career grew out of his profession as a lawyer,  Patricia Cornwell's from her career as a medical examiner. There have been successful doctor-writers -- from Michael Crichton to the amazing author-performer-director Jonathan Miller to Samuel Shem, the pseudonym for the Harvard psychiatrist who wrote the classic "House of God" that amused and inspired several generations of young doctors. Some of these left their original professions to become full-time writers; others, like Samuel Shem, wrote strictly as an avocation.

All of the above doesn't mean that my young friend Tony, the aspiring novelist, shouldn't be writing. If he has what it takes to succeed in this business, nothing I say will dampen his enthusiasm.

But it's important that he -- along with other aspiring writers -- follows his dream with his eyes -- and his mind -- wide open. I would encourage him in so many ways: to keep working on his novel; to study writing; to learn the business; to learn from his failures; to celebrate his successes, both large and small, to keep questioning and exploring the world around him. Doing all of this will not only give him a chance to make his dream reality but will also give him the resources to have a good and satisfying life as well.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Being Present

Settling in for a lovely solitary lunch at a local bistro recently, I noticed two women sit down at the table next to me. They were both casually dressed and looked a great deal alike. They appeared to be mother and daughter. I thought how nice it was that they could enjoy a pre-Mother's Day meal together.

Then I noticed.

The older woman was talking on her cell phone. She talked through the drink order, the meal ordering, the salad and soup courses, the meal itself. Mostly, the younger woman sat staring at the table. Once,  her phone rang and she had a brief conversation and then dove into her salad. The older woman was still on the phone, eating her meal, when I left.  And I wondered why she even bothered to go out to lunch with someone else when this prolonged phone conversation took precedence? What was keeping her from being present in the moment?

It's easy to blame technology. But we're the ones who choose to allow technology to intrude. So we ignore someone we're with in favor of talking on the cell or texting instead of talking with our companion, savoring a meal out or just enjoying the presence of another.

And it isn't always our addiction to technology that's the problem.

Sometimes it's a habit --  like being:

Too busy looking ahead to the next goal, the next adventure, the next trip to enjoy what's happening today.

Too busy finding fault to enjoy the unique strengths of another.

Too busy worrying about making a good impression to be truly present -- and at our best -- with another.

Too busy to see another person's need or subtle reaching out to us.

Too busy to savor solitude and all its possibilities.

Too busy to look into another person's eyes, to listen, to connect warmly.

Too busy to savor a sight, a sound, a smell, a moment.

How much we miss.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Joy of Reunions

My 50th high school reunion has come and gone -- and it was memorable. It was, at once, joyous, poignant, instructive.


It was a celebration spanning three days -- starting with a cocktail party at our classmate Julie Smith's Pasadena, CA home and going on to an all day event at our old high school -- Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy -- atop a hill overlooking the Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles basin. We were feted by the school as "The Golden Girls" and received roses, golden diplomas and a new yearbook of sorts that featured our youthful senior portraits and descriptions, updated ones and space for our reflections on our high school experiences, favorite memories and teachers. We ended the day with a dinner at an old, familiar local steakhouse and a few of us squeezed in a Sunday brunch before departing back to our homes and lives that stretch from Maine to Cabo San Lucas.

                                                Graduation Day - June 5, 1963

Class of 1963 - April 20, 2013

Amidst our celebration, there were painful moments as we remembered the one classmate -- Janet Zieschang -- who has died and the classmates who chose not to attend -- including those who harbored bitter memories about the abusive behavior of one of our teachers and those who said they just couldn't face the prospect of a reunion. And we missed those who wanted to attend, but were too far away to make coming economically feasible -- including our classmates from El Salvador -- Dora Emilia Molina and Maria Teresa Lopez Harrison Barrientos -- who followed the reunion from afar via social media, Liking the resulting pictures on Facebook. All of those who weren't there -- those who chose not to come and those who couldn't -- were very much missed.

There were the wistful, nostalgic moments.

Being in a wonderfully familiar place made the march of time suddenly more significant. There were only minor changes in some of the school's decor, but major advances in the academic curriculum. We looked at the very dated pictures of our tenure at the school and then at the bright and incredibly short uniforms of current students, all of whom looked impossibly young and beautiful.

                      Current Students: were we ever so young and beautiful?

Sister Ramona next to me at reunion lunch

Sitting in the dining room where the boarders ate their meals (and where I, a famously freeloading day student, dined often back in the day) seemed like a step back in time. And yet, it is a very different time now. Most of the students now are day students. There were some familiar, beloved faces at the dining tables. But we were strangers to the young, who listened to our stories and took pictures for us and served us lunch with admirable patience and grace. And I thought about how we had done the same, sure that we would never be as old and gray-haired and sloppily nostalgic as those alums -- and now, here we were.

Only one of our teachers was alive and present -- Sister Ramona, whose first year of teaching high school was our senior year. She was my favorite teacher and a favorite of many other students through the years. But there were some others -- Sister Gerald, Sister de Fatima, Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Benigna -- who live only in memory and in the difference they made in so many of our lives.

There were moments that were instructive -- those of us who carried extra weight had suffered somewhat more with aging than those who kept their lithe figures. And yet, there was no criticism, no judgments. Those in better shape reached out to help those who struggled with steps or with prolonged standing.

And there were the moments of pure joy and shared happiness.

There was joy in finding that superficial differences fall away with time and that the rich essence of another survives, made even more marvelous with time and life experience. We were no longer divided and classified. Those of us who tended to be more academic as adolescents mingled easily with the jocks, the cheerleaders, the alienated and the socials. True, we were still quite different in some ways. Some were grandmothers, even great-grandmothers. Some were childless women who had focused on a variety of careers. Some of us were feminists and some more traditional. Some were religious and some not. Our differences, both past and present, didn't matter. We were simply thrilled to see each other.

Toni Park (r), Eileen Adams and me

Cheryl Jensen (l) and Pat Hill
Joan Palmer (l) and Julie Smith
Sheryl Nadler (r) with her sister Carolyn (class of '58)
Eileen Adams (l), Sister Ramona, me, Joan Palmer
                                A dinner celebration to conclude the joyous reunion 

There was the warmth of reconnection. In some cases, I was reunited with some marvelous women who were my classmates from kindergarten through high school: Pat Hill, Toni Park and Sheryl Nadler. The rest had been friends through adolescent angst and high points. And each time a classmate appeared, it was new cause for celebration. My former classmate Doreen Gardner was a bit late to the golden diploma ceremony but in time to hear her name called. When she walked up and took her place beside me, we looked at each other and embraced warmly, like dear old friends.

Although we always liked each other, Doreen and I had little in common when we were teenagers. She was so cute, with perfect hair and a bubbly personality and was a cheerleader. I was none of the above. But she told me once, I think, at our fifth or our tenth reunion, that she had always envied me because people took me seriously. And I was stunned -- and pleased -- understanding better how insecure we all were way back then despite perfect hair and cuteness and bright futures ahead.

There was reassurance that the goodness of others can survive decades of life experience. Julie Smith was still incredibly kind and funny. Sheryl Nadler's sense of fun and emotional generosity hadn't wavered through the years. Toni Park's eyes still sparkled with warmth and joy. Joan Palmer and Sue Adams, classmates who left to attend other schools before we graduated, were back and still so dear and insightful and fun. And Pennie Eiben, so diligent and so quietly thoughtful and reassuring in her teens and in her young old age, was responsible for getting us all together once again -- devoting herself to contacting our class and urging us to attend for the past three years.

There was the pleasure of remembering ....and being remembered. Mary Mullins smiled when she first saw me at the Friday cocktail party. "I'll never forget your playing King Herod in the Christmas play!" she said, embracing me.

I was momentarily stunned. How many people in my present daily life could imagine me with a paste-on beard (which made my father queasy), flowing robes and brandishing a wicked looking rubber dagger while yelling "Not if he were my own son! I did it to three of them. I would do it to three more! The child must die!!" King Herod, by the way, was the much coveted starring role in our traditional Christmas play. Mary and Joseph were mere non-speaking walk-ons. And my friend Eileen Adams, with whom I have had some fun "dueling Herods" sessions over drinks and nachos, played Herod the year after I graduated. She laughed with us as Mary and I remembered.

There were unexpected reminders of a time past. Cheryl Jensen, always so smart and so committed to her faith both then and now, surprised me with the question "Have you kept your faith?" I found myself explaining to her that my faith has changed somewhat over the years as I let go of Catholicism and embraced a more eclectic spirituality, but that the ethical lessons from long ago are very much a part of the person I've grown to be. And I reflected for quite some time on the fact that no one had asked me such a question for many years, nor had I felt compelled to define and explain what faith meant to me now. And I was grateful for her gentle question.

There were the insights from sharing old misconceptions. When we were in high school, I thought that my classmate Claire Griffith was too sophisticated and cool to approach. I doubt that we said two words to each other in school. I had no idea that she was really struggling to adjust to boarding school life and by her own admission "was not a happy camper." She thought I was a "super religious brainiac" when I was really shy and seeking comfort and peace through a painful adolescence. And now we were standing in our classmate Julie Smith's kitchen dishing and laughing and thoroughly enjoying each other. I was struck by Claire's gentle kindness, amazing resilience and great sense of humor. She was struck by my irreverence and earthiness. And I was filled with gratitude at this chance to know her in a whole new way.

                              Eileen Adams, Sue Adams, Claire Griffith and me

There were the people who have been dear friends of mine through all these years -- Eileen Adams, Pat Hill and Sister Ramona -- who made this celebration extra special for me just by being there. (Sister Ramona was also present to be honored as an all-time distinguished alum -- class of 1952 -- for quite literally saving our school when it hit rock bottom financially around 1970. Sister Celeste, the current principal, said none of us would be experiencing this wonderful day were it not for Sister Ramona's hard work, inspiration and ability to turn the school around both academically and financially. I was filled with happiness hearing the words of praise for this very special woman.) And there were those with whom I was thrilled to reconnect, those with whom I want to maintain a warm connection once again.

And there was an awareness of time. While it's quite possible that some of us will never have the opportunity to see each other again, we wished for future reconnections -- to stay in touch, to plan another reunion in a year or two arranged by Claire in Cabo San Lucas, hoping that our numerous south of the border classmates would be able to attend.

I hope it happens. I hope we all do see each other again.

But even if we don't, this wonderful celebration will linger as a golden memory, keeping a group of kind, smart, feisty and funny women very close to my heart.