"Class of 1937 - Colorado Springs High School Reunion" by Stewarts Commercial Photographers. Copyright Pikes Peak Library District, courtesy of Special Collections. Image Number: 013-8498.

The Middle Distance 2.17.11: 40 Years Later

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Photo by Sean Cayton

My 40-year high school reunion is approaching and I need to start planning a trip to Memphis. The mere thought of a soft summer night in West Tennessee just might get me through the duration of this long Colorado winter.

But the reality of this ritual of the deep middle distance, celebrating the passing of forty years since we were 18 and young and sassy and idealistic and free, blows my mind.

I’ve attended all of our White Station High School reunions, through every phase of adult life. At the ten-year reunion, my husband and I, he the president of our senior class, won the award for coming the farthest, all the way from Honolulu to Memphis. We hadn’t changed so much at that point; everybody just looked better, especially the women who seemed to have discovered what they wanted to look like.

By the 20-year, we were either well married and settled or divorcing. I remember the cocktail dress I wore, a fitted strapless number, and how proud I was of my figure. I had gone from one child to four in the ten-year interim and was still married, though just barely.

The 30-year bash was a high-toned affair in a downtown convention center next to the Gibson Guitar Museum. Memphis looked shiny and new down by the river and we were deep into our careers, most of us beginning to soften a little around the middle. My ex-husband and I were friends by then; he showed up late in the evening with his new wife.

In the ten years between then and now, I went to graduate school, got a masters degree, and published two books. Somehow, I became a teacher. I buried four family members in five years, including the president of the senior class and our oldest son, and lived for a while under a suffocating membrane of grief. I packed up and moved house four times. I learned that today is the best and only day.

Our 40th is being arranged and orchestrated on Facebook. I look at the posts and the pictures and wonder: who are we now? I think the organizers’ memories must be better than mine because they, apparently, can remember our teachers’ names. I can only remember Ms. Ross, my homeroom teacher with her loose skin and saggy bosom and patient smile as we paraded in every morning, each of us contenders for a title: Cutest. Smartest. Shyest. Coolest. Weirdest. Sexiest. I resemble Ms. Ross now more than that former self, roller-skating down the waxed hallways, slipping love notes through the ventilation slits of my boyfriend’s locker.

Ms. Ross is long gone, as is the only other teacher whose name I remember, Mr. Crain, the speech and drama teacher, a debonair man with a caustic sense of humor, a renowned Memphis theater director. He taught us to get over ourselves. I remember hyperventilating in front of his class, and he, rolling his eyes, handing me a brown paper sack to breathe into.

I wrote a note to my best high school girlfriend, asking if I can sleep in her pretty extra bedroom when I come to Memphis in June. She is as gorgeous and eccentric and deeply southern as she was in high school. The well-bred, independent daughter of an old, mannered family, she drives a pick-up truck, keeps a horse, and over the last 20 years has transformed a little shotgun house into a photo shoot from Southern Living magazine, filling it with cast-off treasures she picks up and throws in the back of her truck, then paints and restores to former beauty.

Forty years later, we are grandmothers, widows, divorcees and old married folk, moguls and creative types, a rare few of us retirees. We work and worry and sometimes rest. Our very own have died of cancer and car crashes and causes unknown. We look at the testimony of our lives and wonder how it all adds up.

The prospect of going back to Memphis returns me to a dream I had many years ago, after my best girlfriend’s wedding. In the dream, I am passing through the glass-paned French doors of her mother’s living room into the shade garden out back — hostas as big around as tires perspiring beneath towering oaks. As I reach the open doorway, an invisible hand passes through me and stops me right in my tracks. My heart races like a freight train and my head fills with the pulse of rushing blood. I stand there and breathe deeply, not daring to move, and then I am released.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

7 Responses to The Middle Distance, 2/17/12: 40 Years Later

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    If those were the good old days, I’d be surprised. I love to see the changes and the strangers that gather for what we call a “school reunion”. The classes were so small that if you ever were living in Summit County or thought of doing so, you were eligible to attend. Not so tony as yours.

  2. anne lennox says:

    Wow. Kathryn, your ending took my breath away.
    anne

  3. Mary Ellen says:

    I’ve never gone to even one of my reunions, but maybe I should give it a try… the 45th is coming up fast.

  4. Paula says:

    I am planning our class’ 45th and wish that I could write something so soothing to commemerate it,,, at least I can cook!

  5. Joe Uveges says:

    Kathryn,
    I have admired your writing from afar for years. I loved this piece. Thanks for baring your soul in such elegant fashion. Blessings Joe Uveges

  6. Elizabeth Cutter says:

    Every day, my inbox fills with dozens of mass emails – from professional organizations I have paid to join, from groups whose causes I care passionately about, from higher-ups on the organizational chart where I work. The only type that I have never once deleted without reading is the Friday blast with The Middle Distance. Like the Domestic Bliss column of days gone by, it’s just something I don’t want to miss. Thank you, Kathryn, for writing so evocatively about *my* life and times.

  7. Nancy Wilsted says:

    I’m not far from my 50th and have never attended a single one, but your description of the hostas makes me want to attend yours, Kathryn.

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