Auld Acquaintance: Deborah Paul on Nostalgia

Youthful ties are temporary, as I learned at my 50th high-school reunion.
Former classmates I know rationalize not attending high-school reunions in many ways: Those teen years weren’t so happy; there’s no one they care to see; they have gained weight and have nothing to wear; they dread encountering an old flame, worried that feelings might reignite. I admit to having used most of these excuses myself, although I bucked up and responded “yes” to an invitation for my 50th high-school reunion, figuring it would likely be my last.

I remember when my mother, born in 1908, attended her 50th. Her reason for going, I believe, was to see Marjorie, a friend Mom worshipped for her beauty. I never found out if Marjorie showed up, only that my mother was grateful she was one of the few attendees not in a wheelchair. Sixty-eight years old then was less forgiving than 68 is now.

My two closest girlfriends planned not to attend our event due to distance (a classic excuse), and when another acquaintance said she had organized a table with her former buddies, the familiar clench in my stomach returned. Would I feel as awkward as I once did in the lunchroom, where cliques of cool girls, wearing their signature baby-blue jumpers from the QTPi social club, sat in chattering clusters? Would I bump around to various tables asking people who didn’t remember me if my husband and I could join them? I had already experienced this as a middle-aged woman who for several years judged the National Magazine Awards in New York City. A girl from Indiana has a hard time making friends with East Coast hotshots hailing from such publications as GQ, The New Yorker, and Vogue. After crashing a lunch table one time too many, I began spending the midday break at a nearby cafe to enjoy a meal alone and unstressed.

I look back on my high-school years somewhat fondly. I was not as tall, smart, or popular as some, but I studied in advanced English classes, wrote for the school newspaper and The Teen Star, and was, if not stately and blond, at least petite enough to be called “cute.” When I anticipated the reunion, however, teenage trepidation returned. I lost two pounds in the weeks before, bought a new outfit, and double-shampooed my hair on the day of the event.

While I’d have preferred returning to the Broad Ripple High School gymnasium or even the Indiana Roof Ballroom, where I enjoyed the prom with a brilliant and attractive on-and-off boyfriend, the gathering took place at a Knights of Columbus hall. As the aforementioned suitor once said, however, “It’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with.”

As it turned out, I found myself in a room overflowing with friendly old people. Some were recognizable, still bubbly and stylish or private and reserved, some to whom the years had not been kind. A grade-school girlfriend and I squealed with delight and pressed our faces together for a selfie, remembering playing fairies in my backyard with twigs as wands. The old boyfriend, his intelligent and accomplished wife in tow, bestowed a sweet kiss in innocent camaraderie. Nervous, I rattled off the lines to a school play in which we had portrayed a couple, and he chuckled in recognition. Our relationship was then, and this, a half-century later, is now.

A friend whose silky blond hair I once admired claimed her most vivid memory of me was on the grade-school playground, where we hung upside-down from the jungle gym. She apparently had marveled at the fact that the laws of gravity did not apply to my own curly locks, which always remained in place. “Still do,” I admitted, attempting to pat down the top of my short hairdo, which sprang back with the usual mind of its own. Funny the impressions we leave on the ones whose paths we cross.

One of the top academic students from our class of 400 greeted me in an uncharacteristically affectionate manner, soon confessing that she was battling Alzheimer’s Disease, and then continued with a litany of family history. How a mind as sharp as hers could be stolen at such an untimely age left me reeling, and the only way I could think to respond was with a hug. Another classmate had lost a son, and a good pal told of his four heart attacks, three bypass surgeries, and 10 stents. Thirty classmates had died, and a former cheerleader was then in hospice, suffering brain cancer. Life happens to us, not just to everyone else.

The program consisted of awards in such categories as who had come the farthest (Washington state), who had the most grandchildren (17) and the most artificial joints (3), and who had served in the armed forces (many, including a pilot for Air Force II and several Vietnam vets). The emcee, our former class president, proclaimed he had thought better of presenting honors to the attendee who took the most medications and arose the most times at night to visit the bathroom. No use awarding the baldest, as a previous honoree had set the winning standard by flinging his hairpiece over his head.

The old-people jokes were ceaseless. One guy’s boogying reminded me of Elaine’s spastic dance on Seinfeld.

A band from days of yore performed such oldies as “Surfer Girl,” “Wooly Bully,” and “Barbara Ann,” asking in between numbers if the few dancers on the floor had hurt themselves, and announcing that the orange stuff coming from the speakers was rust. That night, the old-people jokes were ceaseless. One guy’s boogying reminded me of Elaine’s spastic dance on the famous Seinfeld episode, while his partner bopped along good-naturedly. You don’t recognize how really timeworn you are until you witness your contemporaries replicating the same Mashed Potato and Twist they mastered 50 years before.

After I returned home, I sank down into my familiar sofa in my familiar family room and caught up on a few text messages concerning my granddaughter’s fifth birthday party. Instantly catapulted into the present, I pushed all recollections of the evening and notions of what might have been out of my mind. We were just a couple hundred senior citizens in a nondescript banquet hall who had, for a time, walked the earth together. Seeing many warmed my heart, but I recognize the nostalgic ties are temporary. Going forward, however long that lasts, is what we have left.

Email Deborah Paul here.

Illustration by Elvis Swift