Melinda Worth Popham graduated from high school in Prairie Village Kansas in 1962. She is writing about her thirtieth reunion, but she expresses universal thoughts and feelings that we all can identify with. Each one of us had different experiences at Pensacola High School...some were good and some were not so good...but one common thread we all share is that PHS was an integral part of our lives while we passed from teenagers to young adults. Now over fifty years have gone by (how is that possible???). If any of you are wondering if you should attend our reunion, I hope you will find your answer in Ms Popham's memoir.
In Prairie Village, Kansas, on Tuesday, May 29, 1962, Shawnee Mission East High School loosed five hundred and fifty-three of us on the world. Whether with distinction or by the skin of our teeth, we had graduated. Even Bob and Julie, who had to get married during senior year, made it.
Thirty years later, on Saturday, July 18, the class of '62 rediscovered each other. Baby boomers pushing fifty, we came to our reunion like peeping toms to spy on our past and catch a peek at what changes three decades had wrought in us. And, lo, Susan had gone gray. Peg had gone blonde. Ted had gone bald. Anne had gone blind. Larry had gone to lard. Nick's acne was gone. And Luke, a suicide, was gone from the face of the earth. But Rick was still a good dancer. Joan was still so pretty. Katie still loved horses. Paul still talked about that winning touchdown against Rockhurst. Rhonda still needed dressing lessons.
What had lain ahead of us on that May night of mortarboards was now behind us, or beyond reach biologically or otherwise, or turning out more or less as we had hoped. As for Bob and Julie, the class of '62's first married couple and first parents, not only did they not attend the reunion, but no one could even supply a last known address for them. By now, though, almost all of us were married - or had been - and some of us were even grandparents. Over the thirty years since we had last laid eyes on one another we had accounted for Lord knows how many garage sales, bake sales, going-out-of-business sales, golden retrievers, goldfish, and generic cats. We had lost untold numbers of sunglasses, umbrellas, and hopes, and had acquired Visa cards, mortgages, bald spots, and revised dreams. We had gone through Lamaze, C-sections, pyschotherapy, consciousness-raising, hot flashes, divorces, mastectomies, vasectomies, infant car seats, and countless rolls of film to capture our lives at their photogenic best. Our cars had lower mileage than our bodies. As someone who pitches alumni mail right along with schlocky catalogs, it's odd that I so obediently opened the envelope that said, "Here's information about your High School Reunion! Open immediately!" But what's odd is, I went to it. Having passed up my tenth and twentieth reunions without a backward glance, I fell for it this time. The main event was to be held at Arrowhead Stadium Club at the Truman Sports Complex. Casual dress. Cash bar. Buffet dinner. Entertainment. Directions were given. A good thing, too. There was no I-70 when I was growing up in Kansas City and, back then, it would have been assumed that a sports complex was a male psychological problem.
When I zip into K. C. once a year to visit family, I always stick to the beaten paths of familiar childhood streets and only go to places I've gone forever, like Winstead's Drive-In, Bennett Schneider's Bookstore, and Watkins' Drugstore. Until driving around town that reunion week-end, I had not realized - fathomed is more like it - just how accurate that old song is about everything being up-to-date in Kansas City. Residential developments and high-rise business parks sprawled clear out past where I used to go riding at Indian Valley Stables in what was then wooded and creeked countryside. The drastic changes I saw in the landscape of my youth put me on full alert to expect similar great changes in my classmates, as if they might have become the human equivalents of malls, fancy hotels, fast-food franchises, and interstates. When I graduated from high school, there were no such things as pantyhose, seat belts, blow dryers, waterbeds, velcro, digital watches, microwaves, The Establishment, The Silent Majority, The Moral Majority, miniskirts, afros, PC's, VCR's, IRA's, Perrier, Pop Tarts, or pasta salad. No human had trod the moon, gas was 29.9 cents per gallon, a movie cost 75 cents, and that status symbol, the Cadillac, set you back about six grand. Elvis was king, and JFK was president.
I arranged to go to the reunion events with Katie, whom I've adored since second grade and who, like me, now lives in California. I say arranged, but it was more like two scared kids making a pact: I'll go if you will. It does take a certain amount of bravery to attend a reunion. Lingering memories of adolescent angst make the thought of walking into some banquet room stuffed to the rafters with your classmates a daunting prospect. You know for certain that you will be putting your person and your life story on the line from the minute you check in at the reception table and pin on your name badge.
Nothing spurs self-improvement like the goal of a reunion. Fifteen pounds overweight? Drinking too much? Still smoking? Haven't jogged in a blue moon? Hate those gray hairs? Still wearing those glasses with the safety pin through the hinge? Get cracking! When I complimented one of my classmates on her appearance, she said, "God, you don't know what I went through getting ready for this. I've been in training for it for months."
Whether in their looks, careers, or overall lives, the people who came to the reunion felt presentable. Those whose lives have not panned out or whose immediate circumstances were rocky sent their regrets. They said wild horses couldn't drag them there, said they wouldn't go if you paid them a million dollars.
What you cannot know until you get there is that it does not matter if the years have been kind to you, your classmates will be. The courageous part is only in deciding to go; once there, everything takes care of itself. A reunion unclogs a wellspring of goodheartedness and brings out a capacity for friendliness in people like nothing I've ever seen. A reunion reminds us that we humans are by nature friendly creatures. No matter how stunted someone's capacity for friendship has become in the course of life, the warmth of a reunion makes it bloom, even if it is only a fragile, hothouse, one-night-stand blossom.
The mood of a reunion is fond. That's what it is: fond. Like a strawberry dipped to the stem in warm chocolate, you will be immersed in kindness and come away coated with it.
"Why, this is wonderful! I'm having such a good time! And I hate big parties. Just despise them. But this one's different. This one's fun!" We exclaimed over and over in amazement, as if some dreaded potluck dish had turned out to be simply delicious.
No longer young but not yet old, we savored our thirtieth reunion as one of the perks of maturity. "I like everything about being an adult except the paperwork," writer Anne Tyler has said. Most of us would agree that, despite the paperwork, it is a better thing by far to be a middle-aged adult than a teenager in high school. If nothing else, we can now laugh at the things that were once so serious, like Steve, who said he remembers high school as "nothing but a big haze of being constantly horny and obsessed by girls."
Of all the people I talked to at the reunion, surely no one has been happier to age than Vicky. Every year she lives lengthens her future, and in two years, when she reaches fifty, the ticking time bomb of Huntington's chorea, a hereditary disease which ends in dementia, will finally be defused: Vicky will have outlived the odds and will be safe from it.
Knowing Vicky in school and relishing her bountiful trademark laugh, I never suspected she bore a dark secret, never knew she was living in dread of the disease which had befallen both her mother and grandmother, never knew why she was so certain so young that she didn't ever want to have kids. In one brief, rich conversation with her at the reunion I came to know her better than I had over years of slumber parties, double dates, and knocking around together in a group.
Really, though, it's not surprising that none of us knew one another as well and truly as friends made later in life do. With the solipsism of adolescence compounded by the distractions of estrogen, testosterone, zits, and driver's licenses, speaking with eloquence straight from the heart does not come easily to adolescents. Witness our fumbling attempts to express our heartfelt feelings when it came to signing each other's yearbooks. And, too, there's the problem of shyness, a form of egotism which comes on like gangbusters in adolescence, because never is one more self-conscious, more I-mindful, of how one looks, of the impression one makes, and of what others think.
Now, at forty-eight, reunited with people I had not seen for thirty years, the feelings poured forth as pure and articulate as if distilled and fermented in oaken barrels all those years. The human heart, over time, not only becomes less tongue-tied but learns to speak in a kind of shorthand which is tailor-made for just such an intense but brief occasion as a reunion. Forthright but not unkind in its honesty, it is communication stripped of nervous frills, unhampered by bashful qualifiers, and informed by a sense of the brevity of life itself.
There was also a kind of wonderfully androgynous humanity operative in us. It was as if, for the space of that evening, we had suspended or transcended gender. Although many of our reminiscences were semisexual or romantic in nature - adolescence is, after all, such a juicy time of life - the passage of time had nostalgically neutered them.
At our reunion we were simultaneously two people: who we had been and who we had become. Before-and-after analogies are what lie at the heart of reunions. The past self is the template overlaid on the present self to measure how much someone has changed. Clearly, Leo had traded in his luxury nose for a compact model. Paula had come into her beauty. Anne had lost her eyesight but gained radiance (she came to the reunion with her handsome guide dog, whom she introduced as her significant other).
The makings - and unmakings - of ourselves must have been germinating way back then, but who would have guessed that klutzy Tom would have wound up becoming a topflight East Coast brain surgeon? Or that timid Jim had, for a time, been a filmmaker? Or that quiet, sweet Ed would now be a homicide sergeant and head of the hostage negotiation team for KCPD?
Others had stayed absolutely true to form. In high school, Jennifer had been a compulsive perfectionist, an extra-credit-seeking, A+ student who moaned if she got ninety-nine percent on a pop quiz the rest of us were relieved just to have passed. Proof that Jennifer hadn't changed one bit came from a friend on the reunion committee who told me that Jennifer had pleaded with them to get hold of a copy of the reunion book beforehand so that she could bone up on her classmates' biographies and know what to talk to them about. Cramming for a reunion? That's summa cum laude Jennifer.
And Greg, the erstwhile varsity-everything star and cheerleaders' darling, showed he still thinks he's God's gift to women. I saw him flash a grin and squinch a wink at two women in the buffet line, which they had been inching along for a good twenty minutes, and cut in front of them just as they reached for plates. And the two women, exchanging wouldn't-you-know-it looks, lapsed into '50s demureness and let him get away with it.
Memory was the spark that let us bridge the thirty-year gap. Memory was what lent meaning to each encounter. Reunions, like marriages, funerals, and births, are occasions which jog the memory and call forth dormant remembrance. "The memory be green," says Hamlet, and indeed memories that had lain in such deep hibernation as to seem beyond rousing sprang up as fresh and untrampled as spring grass.
The outsider spouses who braved the reunion brought home, by default, the starring role that memory played. Fifth wheels at a huge party where they didn't know a soul and where, worst still, no one was particularly interested in getting to know them, classmates' mates who were not from S.M. East got short shrift because, having played no part in our collective past, they were out of the loop. Despite polite efforts to make them feel included, they were excluded de facto from the animated reminiscence, in-jokes, and "incontinent nostalgia" (to borrow psyschatrist Oliver Sack's phrase) in which we wantonly indulged ourselves. Once-removed from the fun, they stood apart like chaperones, jumping back with gritted smiles from the splashes their spouses sent geysering as they cannonballed into their private pool of memories.
The people at my reunion were my memory of myself embodied in others. They were touchstones of my history, the living, breathing souvenirs of my youth. Souvenir, after all, is French for memory. In greeting a long-forgotten someone with a hug, what you are embracing is your own memory of that person.
The experience of being at a reunion with two hundred and fifty of your classmates present and the spirits of two hundred and fifty absent ones hovering about is akin to trying to take in the Louvre in an afternoon. Naturally, I kept my eye out for certain classmates who were the most memory-laden and therefore meaningful to me. A reunion is not only a vast museum containing priceless treasures of your past, it is also a souvenir shop where you browse for those faces that best rekindle the known universe of your youth.
There were people at my reunion who had known my family, my house, my dog Lucy, my life plans, and my don't-tell-a-soul secrets. And I had known theirs. Mindful of thirty years' passage, our inquiries about parents and the outcome of our hopes were phrased with gentle open-endedness. Instead of asking , "How are your mom and dad?", we said, "And your folks are...?" We knew that, by now, the answer might well be something like, "Well, Dad passed away in '87, but Mom's doing okay, keeps herself real busy." And the boy who had yearned to be an architect had had to leave K.U.'s School of Architecture to shoulder the family store after his dad had a heart attack.
In high school everyone who lay beyond the bounds of whatever group I belonged to - or longed to belong to - had been like scenery whizzing by a daydreamer's window at 60 mph. But the blurry background figures of my life had been others' foreground friends. Everyone at the reunion was historically central to someone, and even classmates who, to me, had been like painted sky and plaster of Paris mountains in the backdrop of a diorama suddenly took on a dearness of familiarity: I recognize you; I register you; I remember you.
There was a thrilling jolt in simply catching an across-the-crowded-room glimpse of classmates I had known only in the scantiest way and whose very existence had not crossed my mind once in thirty years. On one level or another, there was no face I didn't welcome the sight of. "My God, that's Andy Yellin over there! Hasn't changed a bit. That goofy grin!"
I realized how much common ground I shared even with classmates I had rubbed shoulders with only by virtue of an alphabetical seating plan. Had we not breathed the same drowsy classroom air? Had we not suited up together in those godawful P.E. uniforms?
If I didn't immediately recognize a face, a quick glance at the nametag clicked the synapse. The adult mind sorts out names that lose their importance and knows that, failing all else, a membership directory, a roster, or a business card in the Rolodex can supply it if need for it arises again. But the names from childhood are fixed in memory permanently. The names remain. The names alone summon the past.
What's more, at a reunion you find yourself spontaneously greeting classmates with names they haven't been called by in a thousand years -- nicknames and diminutives they started kindergarten with and couldn't get rid of until they went away to college: Jimbo, Parky, Big Al, Billy, Babs, Woodsy, Tad, Tootle. As Beryl Markham says in West with the Night, "This is remembrance --- revisitation; and names are keys that open corridors no longer fresh in the mind, but nonetheless familiar in the heart."
Twenty-odd years ago, Rolling Stone had a cover photo of singer Janis Joplin performing at Port Arthur, Texas, at her tenth high school reunion. Bottle of Southern Comfort dangling from one hand and the other raised in a fist, Janis clearly had come to her reunion not to see old friends but to thumb her nose at them. Spite and gloat had brought her there.
Had Janis lived long enough to make it to her thirtieth reunion, she might have found that her rage and pain had mellowed into near nostalgia for such mundane miseries as a bad complexion, small breasts, and lonesome Saturday nights. By the time a thirtieth reunion rolls around, you find that bygones really are bygones. Old grievances and grudges are fondly laid to rest, and all bitterness is past.
It is a wonderful thing to reach the point in life where you can kid someone about having broken your heart. When I spotted Mike over by the hors d'oeuvre table, I bore down, grinning and shaking my finger at him. "Mike McLean! You heartbreaker! You stinker! The nerve of you!" I said by way of greeting.
On February 14, 1956, Mike had given my best friend, Katie, and me candy for Valentine's Day: fancy, red, heart-shaped boxes of Russell Stover candy with two tiers of assorted chocolates. I was in sixth grade and madly in love with Mike McLean. Katie was playing the field and had not settled on a favorite. Mike was a definite contender, though. The boxes of candy were identical, but when Katie and I compared enclosure cards it became clear who the runner-up in Mike's affection was. My card was signed, "From, Mike"; Katie's, "Love, Mike." My heart hit my shoes with a thud that echoed for years.
My reunion lent a kind of retrospective coherence to a world I had long since left behind. I felt as if I had been caught at the outermost edge, the farthest reach of a far-flung net, and been gently hauled in hand over hand, to the very anchor of my being, to that place I had floated far away from, carried out by currents I had swum out to ride. And, like any salmon, I knew my home waters when I got there.
I felt somehow clarified. My vivid recollections of my classmates and theirs of me -- how I was remembered and how I remembered them -- combined to create a refracted clarity like sunlight jiggling off translucent seawater in a grotto. Even contradictory views of me made perfect sense in a crazy, kaleidoscopic way.
On one hand there was Nancy, who said, "God, Popham, you were always such a prude!" On the other hand, there was Laura, who said I was the ballsiest person she'd ever known. She thought so because of the time I'd given a false name to Sally Powell's mother when she caught a bunch of us sneaking back into the house at five a.m. after toilet-papering half the trees in Prairie Village. Flattered though I was by her appraisal, I had to set the record straight: "I hate to tell you, Laura. That wasn't balls, that was bare-naked terror that Mrs. Powell would call my mother."
A reunion, like travel, is a digestive experience. By midnight I had taken in all I could absorb. I was so stuffed I could not swallow another morsel of memory, another tidbit of personal history. Saying my goodbyes, I knew better than to make rash promises about staying in touch and getting together again soon. We had long since outgrown the type of overwrought, grandiose vows we had penned aslant entire pages in one another's yearbooks. Our ongoing lives lay elsewhere and would resume on our return from this reunion which we nonlocals had flown in from all over the country to attend.
I took one last look around the room at my reunited classmates. They would come with me, encased in the glowing moment, preserved and perfect as the Cenozoic fish fossil back home on my desk. The ending of Edward Abbey's "Drunk in the Afternoon" comes to mind:
"My friends, he said, my good comrades, buddies, pals, companeros de mi vida, let me tell you something. I want to tell you guys something you will always remember, never forget. I want you to remember this glorious moment, this radiant hour, this splendid shining immortal day, for the rest of your miserable lives.
"We got home that night, some way. We graduated from that New Mexico cow college a month later. We wandered off in various directions. For a few years we exchanged letters, then postcards, then Christmas cards, then nothing. That was thirty-seven years ago. I don't know anything about them now."
I returned to my father's house and went to bed. I could not get to sleep. I turned on the light, began leafing through the reunion book, and got caught up all over again.
I looked up suddenly remembered classmates I hadn't seen that night. I looked up some I had seen and wanted to know more about. I studied then-and-now pictures of my classmates and read thirty-year autobiographies nutshelled into three hundred words or less. Some were as tautly factual as a resume; some were hilarious; some were tragic. I read the four columns of names on the "Missing Persons" page. I looked at the ten faces on the "In Memoriam" page. One of them was the first boy I ever danced cheek to cheek with. At three a.m. I turned off the light.
Several months later, the videotape arrived. I invited my husband and children to watch it with me, glad that they could now see this event from which I had come home afterglowing like a desert sunset. My husband and son lasted about ten minutes. My daughter, Lilly, ever the diplomat, tried to go the distance, but about the time all two hundred and fifty of us got called out to the dance floor to sing the school song, she said she really hated to leave but her rabbit urgently needed brushing.
I didn't blame them. I nearly threw in the towel myself. What I was seeing shocked me. Mortified me. Threw me for a loop. I couldn't understand it. How could we look so ridiculous, so farcical? How was it possible that the reunion evening, this grand and glorious event, looked like the sort of boisterous gathering I'd find laughably stereotypical and sneer at if I glanced in at it while passing a Holiday Inn banquet room? How had we been reduced to a bunch of flabby, gabby, middle-aged, silly nincompoops?
I knew --- I knew --- how moving and soul-satisfying my reunion had been. I didn't make it up. I wasn't faking it. I wasn't drunk. It was wonderful --- it was. Then I remembered Barry Lopez's horse.
At a reading I attended, Lopez had read a passage about an immense and fantastic intaglio horse way, way out in the desert. The archaeologist who had stumbled across it revealed its location to Lopez, who, after hiking out to the middle of nowhere, found the horse inlaid in a stretch of so-called desert pavement. To form the horse's shape, its creator had removed thousands upon thousands of the flat, black volcanic rocks which cobblestoned the desert floor. Lopez sat beside the horse for several hours and observed it. He walked around it, studied it from every angle, became intimate with its every detail. He made himself at home with it. He had what he calls "a fully dilated experience."
As he was leaving, Lopez remembered that in addition to the hand-drawn map the archaeologist had given him an aerial photo of the horse. He pulled it out of his pocket and unfolded it. What he saw was something so puny, trivial, and unworthy of the hellish hike he had undertaken that he quickly refolded the photograph and jammed it back into his pocket.
I well understood Lopez's desire to keep his own experience of the horse alive within himself and not have it demeaned by the photograph. A pulled-back, cold-eyed, impersonal, on-high perspective is not the way to view a quiet masterpiece -- or a reunion. What it fails to convey, does not even hint at, is the spirit within the participant, the same way that a wallet-size school photo of your child fake-smiling cheeeese is a "bad" picture because of how ordinary, how typical it makes your own beloved, extraordinary child appear.
The gaping discrepancy between what I had experienced at the time and what I later saw on the video is mercifully summed up by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's term "psychological reality versus historical actuality." The video may have accurately documented a sequence of events over the course of an evening, but memories are not captured on videotape any more than in aerial photos; they are captured in the heart.
In Hal Borland's When the Legends Die, a Ute man returns to the mountains of his boyhood to find the way back to himself:
"He sighed, knowing why he had come back. And he remembered a chipmunk he had as a small boy, a pet that came when he called and sat in his hand. He had asked his mother the meaning of the stripes on the chipmunk's back. Those stripes, she said, were the paths from its eyes, with which it sees now and tomorrow, to its tail, which is always behind it and a part of yesterday. He had laughed at that and said he wished he, too, had a tail. His mother had said, "When you are a man you will have a tail, though you will never see it. You will have something always behind you.
"Now he understood. Now he knew that time lays scars on a man like the chipmunk's stripes, paths that lead from where he is now back to where he came from, from the eyes of his knowing to the tail of his remembering...Nothing can erase the simple truth of the chipmunk's stripes, the ties that bind a man to the truth of his own being, his small part of the enduring roundness."
Beyond the backslapping, the squeals of greeting, and the jokes about girth, wrinkles, and hairlines, something profound and worthwhile takes place at a reunion: you experience the length and width of your own stripes. A reunion enables you to see the stripes from eye to tail, from now to way back then.
A reunion is a reminding experience. It touches a core, uplifts like singing --- never mind how off-key --- an old song whose lyrics and melody, although unsung for decades, are so ingrained as to seem inborn. A reunion is something which, to borrow a word from Dr. Seuss, biggers you. I came away from my reunion feeling biggered through and through. When all is said and done, that is the true and enduring value of a reunion: becoming reunited with yourself.
MELINDA WORTH POPHAM