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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.