Old School

The light of memory

There is something elegiac about the light of autumn. Summer light is brilliant and uncompromising. The light of spring is delicate and hopeful; winter light is steely. Autumn light, though, is eloquent. It is the light of memory. It seems the right light for the Next Big Event on my calendar.

The world, I have heard it said, is roughly divided into two groups of people. Those who go to their class reunions. And those who don't.

I fall into the first category. I go. I've always gone. College, no. High school, yes. These are my friends of a lifetime, the tried and true companions of my youth. We shared the rigors and absurdities of boarding school life. We shared dowdy uniforms, black oxfords, mystery meat, and the rarefied atmosphere of a girls' school in the 1960s.

There were 22 of us on graduation day. Now there are fewer, our ranks winnowed by plane crashes and cancer. Absent by choice are the chronic stayaways, those whose memories are more jaundiced than rosy. When the class gathers again on an October day in New England, the head count may be in the single digits.

In the group picture taken our senior year, we are posed together on the front hall staircase. I look at the photo now and marvel at the retro charm of the plaid pleated skirts, the shiny perfection of those shoulder-length-flip hairstyles. Mostly, though, I marvel at the faces: bright, expectant, indomitably optimistic. That was then.

In the years that followed, as plaid skirts gave way to micro-minis and flips became shags, we reconvened every five years or so to measure the distance we had gone, the steps away from the neat ranks on the staircase. Some went very far indeed: a nurse in the remote Alaskan bush country; a teacher in Australia. Others stayed within 30 miles of the convent gates, raising families in leafy suburbs, forging careers in Manhattan, writing bestsellers, selling antiques.

For a long time when we gathered, it seemed there was only laughter. At our 10th and 15th and 20th reunions, we filled several boisterous tables in the refectory and hooted over the not-so-distant past. We remembered who got suspended for ringing the chapel bell and who sneaked out with her boyfriend under the guise of gathering wildflowers in the woods. We did side-splitting imitations of the math teacher and the headmistress. We poked into our old dorm rooms and wandered around the hockey fields and smoked freely in the barn where we once puffed forbidden cigarettes.

Whatever blows life had dealt us, whatever disappointments had challenged the bright expectancy of the senior picture, we were still able to rally.

Now we will meet again, a quieter, smaller group. One table will accommodate us, and if we visit the barn, it will not be to smoke. We are grandmothers, mostly, or grandmothers-in-waiting. The shiny flips are discreet bobs; the plaid skirts are well-cut suits. If we stage a nostalgic photo on the front hall stairs, the faces will tell their own stories. We have journeyed far from innocence and boundless optimism. We have learned firsthand about loss. After lunch, we will plant a tree in memory of one of our own.

We are quieter and fewer, but we still come back. In the elegiac light of autumn, we remember the girls we were, the things that made us hopeful, the things that made us true. In the faces of these friends of a lifetime, we see a different kind of expectancy. It is the firm belief that whatever happens, we belong to this place. And to each other.