There were double the number of guests at the reunion than were expected. We arrived as the people we had become, but trailing us, like shadows in the afternoon sun, were the people we once were. This particular reunion was billed as a 60th birthday party for the members of the Thomas Jefferson High School Class of ’68 but opened to members of the surrounding classes as well. I went with my sister, Roberta Pilk MacDonald and her classmate, Anne Miller Wotring. Their high school friendship was rekindled at an earlier reunion and years later has morphed into a working relationship.
We looked a little like stalkers as we took pics in front of the former Pilk Family palace.
Anne Miller Wotring and Roberta Pilk MacDonald bask in the shadow of the former Miller manse. Law enforcement was about to be called.
Taking a circuitous route to the party, a stroll down memory lane, we made stops at old haunts and photo opportunities at the houses we once made a habit of sneaking out of. Tales of bad dates and madcap hijinks were told; names were named, ancient gossip resurrected.
Giddy on remembrance of things past.
Some things don’t change. There was a crowd in the parking lot, exchanging greetings and beginning the process of reconnecting, but it also looked like some of us were stalling a bit before going in, reminding me that 16 or 60, pre-party jitters do not recognize age or maturity.
"Candee, is that you?"
Girding my loins and sticking a name tag the bodice of a dress I had spent hours choosing, I entered the fray. (An aside: I wonder why women put up with having to wear name tags in a place that gives men a socially acceptable pass to check out the goods. At length.) Upon entering, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a voice that called out "Candee!"
I haven’t been called Candee in almost 40 years. I put an end to the nickname bestowed upon me at birth on the day I arrived at college. I knew then that such a name, winsome and perfectly suited for a tiny girl with big eyes, would sound faintly ridiculous and rob me of a certain amount of gravitas as a grown woman. Candee Pilk is a name that works for a stripper or a 1-900 companionship provider. For a CEO or a Board Chair? Not so much. Candee was therefore relegated to the past as Candace went about the business of becoming an adult. But here in a suburban church hall those two short syllables sent me spiraling back almost 40 years. Feeling like a time traveler, I found myself in a room where everyone only ever knew me by my childhood name. For one night, Candee was reborn, leaving me feeling displaced from my own skin.
Wait, wait, don't tell me...
One thing I can confidently say about reunions, unhappy and unsuccessful people are not likely to show up. They attract a self-selecting group that skews to folks who are reasonably secure, extroverted, and generally satisfied with life. This group was no exception. In spite of the fact that people were talking about adult children, new grandchildren, retirement plans, and AARP membership, there was a decidedly youthful vibe in the air, which fairly crackled with energy and enthusiasm.
As the evening dropped into gear, a kick-ass rock and roll band, comprised of former classmates relieved us of the burden and embarrassment of not remembering names and faces by playing at top volume. Dancing, the universal language of joy, took over where speech fell short. And like most high school parties, then and now, there was a noticeable gender divide. The women gathered together on one side, unselfconsciously dancing, laughing and singing along with the perfectly executed soundtrack of our youth. Across the room the men made desultory attempts at small talk, smiling indulgently at wives, partners, and old friends.
Louie Louie, oh no, me gotta go, aye-yi-yi-yi
In true social hall fashion, there were party snacks and cake. The (now-legal) adult beverages were strictly BYOB. And believe me, now as then, there appeared to be no shortage of that second “B.” Chatting, catching up, drinking, dancing, and eating. It was just like a wedding or a bar mitzvah except everyone at this party was the same age. I wondered why I had gotten so wound up about the prospect of this evening.
At some point, as if by telepathy, our trio agreed that it was time to go. Leaving on a high note as the party was in full swing left us with memories of friends and days gone by refreshed, but not overworked. We left before we lost the magic that originally bound us to these people and that had once again brought us together.
The reunion ultimately became journey of self-discovery and, in a way, of redemption. In the intervening decades my time in high school had coalesced as an indistinct, but somehow naggingly unhappy, memory. Spending a few hours with some engaging, congenial strangers made me realize that we passed those distant years in individual, self-generated bubbles. In that isolation we created the amorphous facades that would eventually harden and set as we became actual people. We were children with crude tools and limited social skills playing at being adults. To varying degrees we were all clumsy and awkward, trying our best but rarely getting it right. Our bubbles orbited the school, sometimes touching gently and other times colliding with a damaging intensity. High school was real life with training wheels, allowing us to make mistakes whose consequences were instructional in nature and rarely life-threatening.
In the end, the reunion allowed me to let go of the confusion and hurt, salvage the lessons learned and cherish the handful of very real relationships that have withstood time and distance. More important was my ability to appreciate how fortune has blessed me in the form of my sister. A paragon of popularity and beauty in high school, she has evolved into a complex, compassionate, compelling person who is my friend and my mentor. How lucky that we could make this journey together. And really, is there anyone in the world better than a sister to share post-reunion dish with?
I don't think so.