I was recently tracked down by a very nice woman who was a classmate of mine during my first two years of college – 50 years ago. After my sophomore year, I married and could not afford to return to school right away, so I quickly lost track of the good friends I made during those two years – perhaps the kind of friends you never make again. We were young, female, and completely out from under our parents’ thumbs for the first time in our lives. In addition, this was the sixties. When I arrived, there were strict curfews and prohibitions about spending nights off campus without parental permission (this was a women’s college); within a few months all restrictions were lifted. Fun, but dangerous to a seventeen-year-old like myself who had no idea what to do with such freedom. I often think that I burned myself out quickly and retreated to a disastrous early marriage. In any case, that was the situation, and – while I could recall those days and people vividly when I tried – I mostly struggled not to remember.
So out of the blue comes one of the nicest of those remembered classmates, who has volunteered to be in charge of rounding up all the women who lived in our campus residence house for the 50th reunion. I have no intention of attending the reunion (I ended up graduating from a different college), but I found myself interested in catching up with her and ultimately agreed to submit some basic information for the reunion book – including a 500-word essay on what I had been doing for the last 50 years. That would be 10 words per year, but – then again – some of those years I barely remember.
Nevertheless, I gave it a go and recommend it as an exercise. In fact, we all do it verbally pretty consistently when we meet new people, and they want to know something about us. But this felt different. These people knew what a mess I was a half-century ago. I wanted to show the trajectory of where I had been, how I had recovered, what was still left to do. Here is a brief excerpt, leaving out those parts about my children, husbands, degrees and locations:
I think we went to college in strange times – when I arrived at _____ as an innocent young woman (girl) of barely 17, I had just managed to learn what parietals were when they were abolished. It was a wild time that I remember well and yet often find painful to recall. I met warm friends, and tested myself, my friends, my teachers, and my parents in a multitude of ways – but apparently got the wild oats out of my system. I have been determined that my old age would be more thoughtful and deliberate than my youth (wouldn’t take much) and have been much taken with the study of old age and literature – the topic on which I wrote my dissertation and on which I maintain a blog…. Through all these years I have read voraciously, taken piano lessons most of the time (with little effect), belonged to writing groups (same result), hiked, and knit….
Before she died, my mother gave me a pile of letters I wrote home while at ____. I haven’t read them (sense of embarrassment surely); they reside in the back of the bottom left-hand drawer of my desk. It is telling that I haven’t discarded them. But hearing from some of my classmates has perhaps given me the strength to revisit those years.
If fact, those letters in the drawer – envelopes covered with little pictures and slogans (“Wear Your Love Like Heaven”) have silently mocked me for years.
But I am reminded of a poem by Paul Fenton (“The Ideal”):
This is where I came from.
I passed this way.
This should not be shameful
Or hard to say.
A self is a self.
It is not a screen.
A person should respect
What he has been.
This is my past
Which I shall not discard.
This is the ideal.
This is hard.
It is hard to deal with those portions of our life of which we are not proud, but I am glad to have had my old classmate give me a shove. I wrote those letters; I was exuberant if misguided. And I was lucky to be surrounded by kind people. As I age, as we all age, a common phenomenon is to have a better memory of the far past than we have of the recent past. But those memories shouldn’t hurt. They made us who we are.
It has always been so. One might incant a line from Psalm 25: “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord.” Amen to that.