Confession up front: before my 50th high school class reunion in June I looked over my year book to reacquaint myself with the names – and cherubic faces – of those from my class who might appear.
Having delivered our graduates’ speech as valedictorian of our 53-member class five decades earlier, I was asked to “say a few words” on this very convivial night, decades past the gateway to a dream that seemed to open to us in 1971. We’re also decades past having to color our palette of life, careers, marriages, successes or failures in hues that confirmed that we’d “made it.”
So, I talked about “making it,” and memories.
Members of our class were born in 1952 or 1953. I mentioned notable characters born in those years, including Vladimir Putin, Patrick Swayze, Liam Neeson, George Strait, Floyd Mayweather, Mr. T and Roseanne Barr, Hulk Hogan, Cyndi Lauper, Pierce Brosnan and Tim Allen.
We remember these politicians and entertainers because in our minds and in our culture, they “made it.” They are rich and famous, at the top of their respective fields. Say their names and people know who you are talking about.
“Did we make it?” I asked. “Are we making it?”
I was pleased to hear an immediate “Darned right,” from Jerry, our star athlete who was an all-conference football player in college and who has concluded his career in insurance, primarily among farmers in two counties.
No matter what we think “making it” means, I know we all have a different perspective on that than we did 50 years ago – or even 20 years ago. Success? Riches? Fame? Security? Family? Love? Inventions?
Except for seven months, I’ve never lived closer than 600 miles from either my parents or my in-laws. My quest to “make it” took me from state to state. I’ve lived twice in Texas, twice in Oklahoma, twice in Colorado, in Tennessee and now North Carolina. My daughter was six when we moved to North Carolina and North Carolina was her fourth state to live in.
I came home annually to visit – and as long as my dad lived, Rio was always “home.” For the longest time, I thought “making it” meant anything away from Rio, population 788. My dad always told me Rio’s population stayed at 788 because any time a young woman had a baby, an older man left town.
Looking across the room I saw vibrant senior adults, many of whom never left the area, and all of whom have “made it.” They stayed, invested themselves, coached the local teams, served on the school board, nurtured the children of other families, and offered their voices of wisdom among their peers. They’ve been important to many lives.
Reunions are the fertile soil in which the seeds of memory planted much earlier blossom and flower. We harvested those blooms at our 50th.
We remember moments, rather than days, as philosopher Cesare Pavese said. We all have memories of high school. Some we share, others are unique because none of us lived the same life. And the best part of those remembered moments are the people we shared them with.
Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said, “When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me.”
And we want to be known. And remembered. Someone has said you die twice: first, when your heart stops and you’re buried. The second time you die is the last time someone says your name… whether it’s a year, a decade, or a century.
So, I named the seven members of our class who are with us no longer. They remain alive in our memories.
Then we had fun recalling not only the names of our teachers, but some of their idiosyncrasies: the teacher/coaches who helped athletes with grades; the biology professor we called Bernard the Monk because of his curly bowl haircut and demeanor; the English teacher who the girls always felt was peeking up their skirts.
Gas was only 33 cents a gallon at Bleigh’s service station during high school. I’d drive across town to the Farmer’s Union Co-op if it was 32 cents there. Of course, “across town” was less than a mile, with one stop sign.
Janis Joplin was singing “Me and Bobby McGee” and “The French Connection” competed with “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Dirty Harry” for your $1.50 movie admission.
Living in the south now, I told the class every region has its rednecks, but southerners are special. You know you’re a redneck in the south when you take your dog for a walk and you both use the same tree. Or, when grandma’s wish list includes ammo. Or when you think “The Nutcracker” is something you do off the high dive.
One anomaly I noticed was that not a single person in the room was bald. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, male pattern baldness at some level affects more than 50 percent of all men. It stands to reason that someone would be bereft of hair.
Perhaps humorist Garrison Keillor’s observation of his little hometown of Lake Wobegon – the model of which easily could be Rio, WI – is right. There, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
For all of you who are having reunions and special functions, blessings on every classmate and friend who has “made it” this far. May you have many more years to be a positive influence in your children – who always need their parents – and their children, who more desperately need the positive influence of grandparents now than ever before.
These are the people of our lives, thrust together by time and circumstance, calling up the memories created by moments together. I’m grateful for them.