Earlier this year I received an invitation to attend my 50th class reunion back in my little Pennsylvania home town. There was one part of me that wanted to go – call it nostalgia or curiosity – but mobility has become an issue and I didn’t want to travel alone. Anyway, that was what I told the reunion planner when I talked to her.
Another reason lurked beneath this reasonable surface. There was a part of me that didn’t want to go back, that didn’t want to see former classmates, that didn’t want to be looked at and judged. Judged? By who? By myself, of course.
Several times over the spring the topic of the reunion reentered my mind and gave me lots of fuel to examine motives and psychology. I looked back over my life and considered what I might answer if asked by one of these classmates what I had been doing for the last fifty years.
Had I made a success of my life? Had I been happy? Had I fulfilled my potential? I wondered if they would think I sort of looked the same, or had I been radically changed by life? What had I to show for this half-century of living?
In school I was not seen as the pretty one or the popular one or the smartest one, but I was the leader, the responsible one. I had been chosen class president in our junior and senior years, I had ‘gone steady’ with one of my classmates, and started college at summer school just one week after high school graduation.
I was 18, I was ready, my engine was revving. I wanted to live large and escape from this small town life. But life never turns out how you want it, or even think it might be.
I completed college in three years, married the high school sweetheart, had two children and at 27 my husband danced out of our life with a 19-year old art student from a local college. There was not only the panic that comes from having to raise two children on my own, there was the humiliation of being left behind. And everybody in the whole town knew about it.
Five years later I moved to Southern California and left those unhappy memories behind – sort of. I did return for the 25th class reunion – I was in my 40’s by then – and did some life reviewing. Was I successful – sort of. Was I happy – sometimes. Had I fulfilled my potential – not really. But there was still time, I thought to myself. I could still make it – whatever that meant.
So now it is twenty-five years later and I imagine meeting those classmates from my past who are now strangers to me. I realize that in a way I have always been measuring myself against the benchmarks set up in high school – standards that could never be met.
Then yesterday a classmate sent me via email an ‘album’ of photos taken at the recent reunion and I saw some faces I knew and others I could no longer recognize. Nearly everyone looked old – how could that be? In my mind and in my dreams we are all 18.
There was a photo of a memorial table with the pictures of the classmates who had already died. Out of a class of 125, 20 had passed. I was relieved to see I was not among them although my childhood husband was. Had they been successful? Had they been happy? Had they fulfilled their potential?
I am still not the pretty one or the popular one or the smart one – nor am I the leader. I have already lived most of the years I have been allotted and I cannot say that my life has been successful or happy or filled with achievements. In the end I will pass from this life and barely a ripple will be felt.
But … it has been a rich life. I have changed from the person I was when I was young. I have developed some level of compassion and am more aware. I took many risks and lived with the mistakes I made. I meant well even though I did not always do well.
If I was given the chance to do some things over, I would do them differently. I would spend more time playing with my children and less time worrying about my job. I would travel more and buy less. I would say “I’m sorry. Forgive me.” to others and to myself. I would be kinder to my mother.
I have learned the importance of gratitude; I am still learning faith. I have learned that no matter what our age we are still students eagerly awaiting and yet fearing graduation.