There 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.