A few months ago I wrote an essay for Long Island Newsday detailing my experience cleaning out my basement after 40 years of life’s accumulations. As someone who teaches memoir writing, nostalgia is my vice. So when after the piece appeared and I heard from three women I hadn’t seen since my Brooklyn roots- more than 50 (!)years-I was curious…flattered…and delighted. Lois, a friend from elementary school who now lives in Setauket, wrote an old fashioned beautiful letter asking if I was indeed the girl who sat next to her in second grade. Stephanie, a high school friend who now lives in Westbury, messengered me through Facebook, And Susan, a friend who taught third grade next door to me in 1967, who now lives in New Jersey, emailed me through my website. I made plans to have lunch with each of them.
I thought of a quote I once read, “An old friend will help you move. A good friend will help you move a dead body.” I had no such expectations of these three. They were strangers with shared memories, young girls I used to know who would recall a way younger…and way different… version of the woman I am today. The time we ducked under our desks, face away from the windows during air raid drills and giggled till I wet my pants. The time-stands-still moment at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon when together we learned JFK was shot. The night we commandeered an empty half-built house for a sweet sixteen party. Followed by decades of silence. Would my rose colored memories become undone by reality?
After I arranged the three lunch dates, I felt my rah rah anticipation dissipate. Last time I saw them I had a long black ponytail…and freckles…and I weighed, let’s just say, less. Would we all just automatically grade each other’s looks on a curve? What if friendships from the old neighborhood have a use-by date and when it expires, coming together feels unnatural and uncomfortable? Can you rekindle the feelings from the days you spent bonding and making memories years ago? Yet I’ve always believed in the “more so” theory. Who you are at 20, you are at 80, only more so. I owed it to my theory to find out if it’s true.
I am happy to report that the girls I used to know were still there deep inside these women, just housed in bodies that complain a bit more. We are all first generation college graduates, still active, engaged and either employed , caregiving or volunteering. Lois still had an electric smile and the most welcoming hug. Stephanie still had beautiful eyes and a take charge manner. Susan still had an enviable softness and a palpable kindness. If I closed my eyes their voices were the same. Short shrift was made of personal changes, significant milestones, setbacks and separations. We concentrated on the loveliness of the moments we shared. We sighed over our yearbooks and autograph albums, remembering the mean girls and the best teachers and the cutest boys… and those we heard had died.
Selfishly the writer in me had hoped to get a better grasp on who I was so long ago. What impression had I left on them? After a few minutes of sitting opposite the young faces of my memories, I realized we store our youth within us. If we’re lucky enough to find a path back to the past, it is up to us to find ourselves in it. Being reminded of nick names and white pleated skirts and waiting at bus stops and Troy Donahue…that’s reward enough.
We are all gratefully in long term marriages. We each talked more about our grandchildren than our kids. While each of us would like to look and feel like we did last time we met, not one of us would want to go back and relive our lives. We are kind of pioneers of a new stage, redefining resilience and what it means to be our age. Rather than see our 70-year-old selves as challenged or burdened or in decline, each of us looks forward to new opportunities to grow and contribute. And reminisce.
Growing apart doesn’t change the fact that for a long time we grew side by side. When each one of my lovely strangers with memories emailed to wish me a happy new year, I realized our roots will always be tangled. I’m glad for that.