What gets to me the most is the In Memorial displays propped on three easels by the front door as I enter the ballroom. Matted individual photographs from my high school yearbook show that 42 of us have died and too many have died young.
I’m at a high school reunion tonight, decades after having parted company with every single person in this room. No one in my life now was in my life then, although this room is full of people with whom I entered first grade. The first boy to kiss me is supposedly here tonight. We were 14. I required coaching from my best friend to get him to make his move. I scan the room and see a tall, lanky figure holding a beer.
Who put the moves on whom, Billy O’Brien?
And my senior year boyfriend is here as well. Traveled all the way from Brooklyn for this event. He is funny, kind and has grown even more handsome. His presence is a gift, and he brings a gift: flowers.
Our committee chairman opens the reunion with a prayer as we are milling around, and this feels a bit uncomfortable. I comply instinctively as the good-girl, rule-abider I was, then remember that’s not so much me anymore and look up over a sea of bowed heads to catch the eye of others who feel self-conscious opening this secular event with a religious ritual.
Over the decades since we have seen each other we have all changed in more than just looks. In this case, our reunion organizer has adopted the happy confidence of a late-night comedienne and the instructional skills of a kindergarten teacher. She makes us practice raising one hand while simultaneously covering our mouths with the other upon a signal that she is going to speak. It’s like we’re learning a trick and there’s going to be a prize until we figure out it’s crowd control and the rebellious teens we are at heart, start talking over her microphone. “You’ve got detention,” I say to the classmate next to me. “You’re suspended,” she says in return.
This reunion is a chance for a new perspective on the past. We were hormonal, insecure, and so angsty, it was hard to be present in high school. I want the opportunity to pay attention. To meet people I used to know for the first time. To see how everyone’s lives have turned out.
But I do exactly what I did in high school!!! I hang out selectively with those I know best! Is it possible we haven’t changed at all?
On the memorial easels there is a photo of my best friend. She was academically brilliant and a gifted musician. After college, she married an eccentric guy who made his living selling Kirby vacuum cleaners but who annually piloted a small plane to their family reunions in the Midwest. On the way back from a gathering in which she had not flown with him, the plane went down over the Great Lakes. His body was never found, leaving Diane in a no man’s land of unprovable widowhood with two small kids.
I was giving a craft talk one evening perhaps 20 years ago to a bunch of writers—it had been publicized in the newspaper–when I looked up and saw Diane sitting unobtrusively in the back row. Afterwards, I went out into the hall to find her, and she told me she was dying. Cancer. I think she would have slipped out without speaking had I not stopped her, and I understand why. My immediate impulse was to hold open a door she had come to quietly close.
Margie Milligan’s photo smiles from the easel as well, sweet, with kind eyes, forever 17. She contracted mononucleosis our senior year. I’d had it, several of us had. But Margie suffered the rare complication of a ruptured spleen and died. I was the recipient of a scholarship created in her name though Margie had been a quiet girl I barely knew. I hadn’t even realized until this moment how utterly beautiful she had been. There are so many other classmates pictured on these displays tonight. They are all beautiful.
It’s autumn in Maryland. The wild crab apple trees are wearing ruby-orange bittersweet in their boughs. The ballroom doors are open and a waxing moon, two days from full, is on the rise over the water. After several hours of visiting the past, dinner on a paper plate, and a dance, I’m ready to leave.
I tell Diane’s photo that I love her, and that I hope she is here somehow. And I tell Margie Milligan I’m sorry she was deprived of a future, and I thank her for abetting mine. I tell her how lovely she is and that I wish I had known her.
Would you live forever if you could? Genetic engineers are researching the possibility that aging might be treatable, like an illness. Through tweaks to the immune system and DNA repair mechanisms, we might someday enjoy perpetual youth.
I’m studying the photos on these easels and suddenly the idea of living forever feels as wrong as being gone too soon. Why is that? If I were sick, I’d want to be well and if I were dying, I’d want many, many more years. But would I want forever? Would you?
I think I’d be disappointed if death could be exchanged for an eternity here. More of same, while in many ways appealing, would be to relinquish knowing what else there is, what’s on the other side of now. Walking to my car under the mercy of the moon, I know I don’t want to be held back. I’d rather graduate into the mystery of what’s to come.
And to believe this will not be our last reunion
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.
Letters to Editor
Elizabeth Heron says
Reading your beautiful column, I think of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. The song. The lyrics start rolling in my mind and heart. In 1970 I played the album loud while doing housework. It still makes me cry. Today I will play it again, and thanks for your always inspiring words.
Laura J Oliver says
Don’t cry, Elizabeth! Somehow, it’s all good. Thanks for writing.
Steve Lingeman says
It is not a matter of living forever, but living long enough to complete the things that have made us whole in my life. These things which make us feel alive. They excite me and generate new ideas for things that should be photographed and stories which need to be told. Living forever is not the point but living well is…
Laura Oliver says
So well expressed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience.
Michael Pullen says
You’ve captured what coming of age and looking back from a distance feels like. Thanks. I’m feeling the distance, the details of the in-between and the lives and deaths of my own classmates. The meaning I thought I knew then and what the distance has shown.
I, too, prefer to look ahead and discover what lies in store for you and me and all of us. The universe awaits in patience and love and forgiveness. Thanks for your wonderful stories.
Laura J Oliver says
Thanks for your thoughtful responses, so beautifully expressed.
Brigid Haragan says
I only went to one high school reunion and did the same thing in only talking to folks I knew. Later I was so upset with myself for not catching up with a classmate who’s had an amazing life—I should have sought him out. Grrr.
I have no desire to live forever.
Laura J Oliver says
Thanks for sharing your experience! I too, am upset with myself. I avoided someone I should have made time for. Next time?
Christine Boudrie says
Thank you, Laura, for your beautiful and thoughtfully written article. My 60th high school reunion was held this past October in Michigan, where I grew up. I did not attend for a variety of reasons, but received a booklet with the information on those who had died (too many) and the current status of others. This did cause me to reflect on longevity, as you did. I hear so often of people living into their 90’s and even 100’s! I personally do not wish to go there, but I do look forward to watching my beautiful new great-grandchildren grow up for a few more precious years.
Laura J Oliver says
Ah, life is just like reunions. There are reasons to go, there are reasons to stay. Thanks for writing.
Ernie Chadderton says
Attended our 62nd this past July. We have had one every 5 years since 1960. (Gateway High School; Monroeville, PA) Luckily, we have had classmates who stayed in that area and have organized such events every five years. Always wonderful to meet with classmates from the past on a yearly basis.
Laura Oliver says
A yearly basis! Fabulous!
Sheilah Egan says
Loved every minute—thank you for taking us back in time with your memories superimposed over our own. Thank you for the gift of your perspective and wisdom.