Into the Time Machine

vintage clock machineryDuring the last couple of weeks before my 50th high school reunion, my mind was overflowing with memories, and as they came up, I found it impossible not to write about them. In the month since, people keep saying, “Well? Aren’t you going to write about the reunion itself?”

It should be easier. After all, the reunion is recent, not the ancient history of my high school days. To some degree, the problem is sensory overload. It happens to me whenever I’m surrounded by lots of people, with a high level of auditory and visual input. Malls, political conventions, big parties. I find it difficult to sort through it all.

So here are my impressions, like bits of glass in my own personal kaleidoscope.

First some context: The reunion took place in New Braunfels, a beautiful town on the Comal and Guadalupe Rivers. We’ve never had a reunion in Nixon because, well, let’s face it. There was nothing to do in Nixon fifty years ago, and there’s nothing to do there now. When we wanted to have more fun than we could manufacture on our own, we ventured further afield, to New Braunfels, or Seguin, or for big thrills, San Antonio.

It took place over two nights. Friday night was a more intimate gathering at a private home. When I asked the hostess what she does with her time these days, she laughed and said she gives parties. Even when we were teenagers, her house was the go-to place for spontaneous get-togethers. On November 22, 1963, many of us ended up in her kitchen, her mom making sure we had food and drinks as we sat stunned by the day’s events.

Everyone was invited on Friday, but the people who showed up that first night were primarily the smaller group in whose circle I found a place when my dad moved us back to his hometown. My ex-husband was there with his wife. We see each other only occasionally at family events, so it was good catching up. The high school football hero was there. I hadn’t seen him in ages. His wife was hilarious; I wish I could have spent more time getting to know her.

The photo above is of me with the aforementioned owner of Nixon’s first Ford Mustang. We’ve been friends since we were little kids, playing together in his mother’s yard. He’s one of the brightest, kindest people I know, and we have an intellectual and spiritual connection that has endured over the years. Dempsey and I got to know his wife a little better, and we promised we would spend time together soon. The older I get, the more I understand we don’t have forever to spend time with the people we value, but life gets busy…

Saturday night was a big dinner by the river. Because our high school was so small, the reunion included not just our class, but those a year ahead and behind us, as well – perhaps seventy or eighty people. I’m glad we went both nights. That gave me time to visit with old friends and see those who didn’t make both events.

I said hello to most everybody in the room, but I exchanged details of our lives with perhaps a third. There just wasn’t time for more, and of course there were a few people I never had known well. The feeling in the air was a little different this time than ten or twenty years ago. We all seem more comfortable in our skin now, with little need to impress each other. We’re kinder, I think, to ourselves and other people.

A lot of people still live in and around Nixon, many on the “home place” owned by their parents and grandparents. Other people moved to slightly bigger towns in the area, and some settled in San Antonio, or Houston, or Austin. One friend worked in church ministry with her husband, and she’s lived an interesting life all over the country. She and several others were still caring for their elderly parents.

A surprising number of people had, like me, married their high school sweethearts. Most of those early marriages have lasted. One man had married quite late, and another came with a much younger wife, so I think perhaps he, like me, was on the second round. One of my friends was widowed young, and then again five years ago. She’s had a bumpy ride, and life has sobered her a bit, but she retains the sense of fun and mischief that characterized her as a girl. A few people have remained single.

The spouses acquired after high school were tolerant. My husband, never gregarious, did a lot of smiling and nodding, becoming a bit more engaged when the conversation turned to technology. Another husband, whose wife was busy organizing things, sat contentedly by himself. When I spoke to him he said he was observing. “Consider this the observation point,” he said.

Virtually everyone I spoke to has retired. They’re relaxing and traveling. Many are active volunteers, and a few have part-time jobs they enjoy. Some are still doing a little ranching. The one exception was another couple who own their own business.

That startled me, because I am in such a different place. I’m still striving, writing a new book and working hard in a startup business I own with a partner. Because so many of the people in my present life are entrepreneurial, I forget most people our age are drawing a pension. My choice stems from my ongoing enthusiasm for my work, but part of it is a result of the choices I made in service of my personal freedom. With no pension in sight, I still need to make money.

A lot of the kids in my senior class went on to college, and many of those became teachers at one level or another. One man, a year behind us, was superintendent of a school district before he retired. It made me reflect on the good we may have done in the world, cumulatively.

We all still look pretty good. A few people have survived health crises, a heart attack or cancer. One of the girls in our group died not long ago, and her absence was deeply felt. She was the only girl with whom I ever had a fist fight, in the seventh grade. I don’t remember what it was about, but we got past it.

In our early twenties we both had daughters. I was heartbroken when she came to visit with her little girl, shortly after she’d been diagnosed with childhood leukemia. In those days it was terminal. As we all visited this weekend, catching up on the highlights of our lives, I wondered what other tragedies we have survived, many of them unknown to each other.

For the first time in 48 years, I saw the boy who accompanied us on my wedding trip. There’s a good story there, but I’ll tell it another time.

Some stories will remain untold. I visited with a classmate whose much older, married relative made a pass at me when I was 16. I never told any of my friends. It was confusing for me, and a little scary; he was a nice man. I think my father had a word with him.

I spent time with a man whose family history is painfully entwined with mine, back a generation. We have never talked about it, and my husband – who grew up in New York City – asked if he knows. I reminded him in a small town, there are very few secrets.

There have been scandals in our group, some sexual and some legal; even years later, there are reverberations. That’s the other thing about small towns; there’s no anonymity, and no place to hide. There is more acceptance than you might imagine, however, and more understanding.

I’m one of those sentimental, emotional people, but I don’t think I was the only person who was touched to be present in that group. Many people see each other fairly often, given their geographical proximity. Others, like me, keep in contact by Facebook or phone, but see each other once a decade or less. There was something moving about being there all together.

At one point we were talking about hairstyles, and one woman said, “I look in the mirror and realize I look exactly the same as I did in high school.” My initial reaction was, for heaven’s sake, it’s been fifty years. None of us looks like we did at 17 or 18. But after a minute it was as though my vision softened a bit, like looking through a lens draped in gauze, and I began to see everyone around me as they were, all those years ago.

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