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Posts Tagged ‘reunions’

Home of the IndiansThese are pretty big days in our house, at least for my soon-to-be 16-year-old son. Last week, he started his first job at a local grocery store, and this week he starts driver’s ed. It’s not so hard to see that, in many ways, these are significant milestones in his life, milestones that mark a time when his circle — his entire world, really — begins to expand at a pretty dramatic pace. This is just Point A, and I spend no small amount of time wondering what other waypoints he’ll pass in his lifetime, and what he will make of it all.

Usually, it’s pretty hard for me to remember that far back in my own life, back to a time when so many possibilities stretched out before me, and so few had been ruled out. Maybe that’s why, when a handful of my friends from those days took the time and trouble to put together a reunion for the Portage High School Class of 1975, my initial interest didn’t really go beyond a passing curiosity. Most of my memories just didn’t seem strong enough to warrant the 12 hour drive north from the mountains of Virginia to the shores of Lake Michigan.

But as the days passed and the friend requests kept coming in, I felt something stir, something that went beyond curiosity. Names that held only a glimmer of recognition for me began to coalesce around newly discovered memories — ill-advised road trips to Michigan, long summer days on the Lake Michigan shore, two-a-day football practices in the thick summer air, hanging out in Jungle Hall. My friend Gail played a key role here, bolstering my fading recollections with a reasonable incredulity — “How can you not remember her?” — and remarkable grace, supplying me with bits and pieces that pulled up memories from some pretty obscure corners of my brain.¬† And with each new recollection came the pleasure of rediscovering something I had long ago treasured, and then somehow misplaced.

That pleasure only magnified when I arrived at the country club for the reunion. There they were — my first serious crush, some teammates from the football team, the girl next door, and the pal that I roamed the streets with summer after summer after summer. Some I recognized instantly, but some I didn’t recognize until a particular mannerism or pattern of speech lifted the veil that three decades had drawn between us, leaving them there before me as clear-eyed and hopeful and young as they had been so many years before. I heard tales of triumph and tragedy, loss and gain, happiness and heartache, sickness and health. Some of these tales left me stunned, characterized as they were by uncommon courage and sacrifice. Some left me doubled over in laughter, as I had been so often growing up. And some of them left me with a profound sense of gratitude that I should know someone so loyal, so true, and so resilient.

More than 35 years have passed since our Point A — the time when we got our first jobs and slipped behind the wheel for the first time — and while we may well have felt our world expanding, I doubt that many of us could have foreseen what that actually would come to mean — how our lives would be shaped moment by moment, decision by decision. Of course it’s easy enough to look back three and a half decades later to see what went right and what went wrong, what we would do again and what we wish we had never done. But after all this time, does it really matter? Are we not, for better or for worse, precisely where we are meant to be?

Thanks in part to having reconnected with so many old friends, I’m more convinced than ever that I am, but maybe that’s just me. I am, as I’ve said before, one lucky man.

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The house on Hazel MountainNot so many years ago, I found myself checking into a hotel in Lebanon, Virginia in the late evening. Lebanon is not exactly a rural place, but it’s close enough. I was there for a funeral; this time, for an aunt. The trip was just the latest in a pretty somber string of such events, as my father’s once large family slowly shrank, succumbing to time and age. My role, as it had been more often than I liked to think about, was pallbearer, a role I had played with such frequency that I was no longer taken aback by the surprising heft of a coffin, even when toted by six or eight strong men.

As I filled out the registration card and pushed back across the counter, the clerk — a kindly woman about my mother’s age — looked it over, then reached out and rested her age-speckled hand across my forearm.

“Are you one of Maudie’s?”

Here’s what you need to understand. First, I had never laid eyes on the night clerk in my life. Second, while I am indeed one of Maudie’s — Maudie being my grandmother — I have never lived in Lebanon. Never lived anywhere near Lebanon. And finally, Maudie — God rest her soul — passed away long before this encounter.

But this woman at the night desk¬† — this stranger — had noted my last name, sensed my muted grief , and instantly understood that I was connected to that place in some way, and that some small part of that connection had been severed. And she knew this in a way that surpassed even my own knowing.

“Yes,” I said. “Maudie was my grandmother. Aileen was my aunt.”

“Turrble,” she said, gliding over the embedded vowel. “So sad.” She extended my key — a solid brass affair on an oversized plastic fob — over the counter. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

This memory has been on my mind a lot lately and, believe it or not, it’s all because of Facebook.

It’s not so much that I feel a part of a similar community online. After all, while social media can do many things and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of them, it can’t replicate that tangible and generational connection that I experienced that night.

But I’ve had the good fortune to reconnect with a couple dozen friends from high school over the past few months (Portage High School, Class of 1975, if you really want to know) and from time to time, this same group of friends will post pictures of themselves together at a restaurant or some other venue not far from where we all grew up. Sometimes there will be three or four of them, sometimes more. Sometimes it’s all men, sometimes all women, sometimes families.

What strikes me about these photos is that these people — some of them my oldest friends — are all there. In that very same, very specific place. A place where they have grown up. Gotten married. Had kids. Lost jobs. Gotten other jobs. Enjoyed their grandkids. They are rooted there in a way that I sometimes believe that I — who have had more addresses than I can count, some of them on the other side of the globe — may never experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bemoaning my fate. I’ve seen much of the world, and more importantly, I am blessed to have a wife who is my home, my community, my connection — no matter where I am.

But some day, a man or a woman far younger than I am will walk into an establishment somewhere in northern Indiana and maybe — just maybe — someone will look them over and ask them — are you one of Rich and Gail’s? Or Doris and Chuck’s? Or Tom and Marlene’s?

And they will know where they belong.

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Center Hall, Wabash CollegeThere are ten or so of us who have returned for the reunion, and we’re having drinks on the front porch of a fraternity house on a balmy summer’s evening in the Midwest, swapping stories from decades ago. A couple of wives are among the group, and they are smiling graciously — even as the stories occasionally slip toward the ribald. These women are either supremely patient or genuinely interested. To their great credit, I can’t really tell which.

In many of these stories, our collective remembrances line up, creating a kind of living breathing memory, alive for the first time in decades, right there on the front porch in the dying light, and we’re all grateful for the confirmation that it did happen, and that it happened in just the way we remember it. But not all the stories are like that.

At the moment, my old friend Charlie’s got the spotlight. Charlie’s always been a great storyteller. In the story he’s sharing — his hands in near-constant motion, both punctuating and illustrating — the lead character is a young man with a fondness for white painter’s overalls and a KISS poster above his study desk. All around me, friends are smiling and laughing as they remember this young man, and as they do so, their eyes turn to me.

“No way,” I say. I’m sure they have me confused with someone else, but the more I insist they are wrong, the clearer their memories become. Yes, really, they say. It was me. Eventually, the cumulative detail in their recountings knocks the plaque off of some small corner of my brain, and I recall not only the white overalls, but the green and white polo shirt I liked to wear underneath them.

This was not quite what I was expecting. I mean I knew I would get glimpses into both the past and present lives of my friends. That was something I was really looking forward to, and I was not disappointed. As I said in an early post, it turns out that they are as interesting as I remember them, and their lives bear that judgment out. But I hadn’t anticipated this other phenomenon, the one that began there on the front porch and carried on late into the evening and early morning hours.

As it turns out, in some small way, our younger selves remain alive in the memories of our old friends, and if ever they have occasion to share those memories, we may catch a glimpse of a vaguely familiar stranger there.

Some of these glimpses give me pause, for the details of the stories would seem to call into question my judgment, my ethics, my morality, and more.

But other remembrances strike a different, and thankfully, more positive note. A former classmate recalled a time when I unwittingly spoke for the whole class by raising an insistent and firm voice of dissent when we were being asked by a young and inexperienced assistant professor to swallow some cockamamie academic theory whole.

Either way, these stories are instructive, for I’m encouraged to see how far I’ve progressed from my impetuous youth, and both surprised and heartened to see how closely I’ve adhered to a set of core values that I developed during those years.

In both cases, I have my friends — and the occasion of a thirty-year reunion — to thank for it.

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Center Hall, Wabash CollegeLet me be up front about something — I’m not real big on the whole reunion thing. I’ve long believed that those that I really cared about I would keep in touch with. The others — the folks that I would only see at a reunion? Well, as much as our shared experiences may have helped form me, that was then, and this is now. There’s really not much connection between the two.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Over the years I’ve managed to lose touch with all kinds of people, and it’s certainly not because I don’t care about them. It’s just such bloody hard work, it seems. First, you have to be pretty mindful to maintain regular contact with folks who aren’t in your immediate sphere, and then, if you don’t maintain regular contact, there’s all that catching up to do.

So I’m not very sure what made me decide to drive ten hours northwest to Wabash College to attend my thirty year college reunion. Maybe it had something to do with a critical mass of my closest friends who were coalescing around the event. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my birthday was over the same weekend. Or maybe it was just a sense I had that, at 52 years old, it might not be such a bad time to catch up.

I did catch up, and I’m happy to report that my friends were as funny, intelligent, interesting, and downright decent as I remember them. They’ve all accomplished much, yet still carry within them a kind of curiosity about how the world works, the kind of curiosity that was formed — and continues to be informed — by our liberal arts education. Our conversations were nostalgic, current, funny, serious, irreverent, thoughtful, flippant, and — often — earnest. It was this latter quality that struck me the most, as it is a quality which, I must shamefully confess, doesn’t seem to crop up in many of my casual conversations any more.

Over just 36 hours or so, I discovered much about these men — their triumphs, their disappointments, their wives, their children, their work, their beliefs. Such is to be expected, I guess, at an event whose primary purpose is to facilitate such catching up. But here’s what surprised me. Over the course of this brief time, I caught up with someone else, someone I haven’t been in touch with for a long, long while — me.

More on that later.

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