I’ve been trying to make sense of my 50th High School Reunion for over a month now. I went because more than anything else the event gave me an excuse to return to my hometown. I had not been back in the more than 30 years since my parents moved away, nor since they died. I convinced myself it would be an opportunity to touch base with the place and people who shaped my growing up and the values I took with me when I left for college. That was on a good day. Other times, I wondered what was the point. The fact was, I had been eager to leave home and I’d done virtually nothing to stay in touch with my classmates after we graduated. And vice versa. I had been to an early wedding or two, wept over the phone when several of our male friends died much too young, sent a condolence note to my erstwhile best friend when her husband died, and fielded a couple of phone calls from classmates heavy into reminiscing about our good times in high school which we found we didn’t remember in quite the same way at all. Previous to this one, as each five-year reunion rolled around, I hadn’t been willing or able to spend the money to fly home and book a hotel room; and Life in its present tense always intervened anyway — a sick parent, a child off to college, a new job or grandchild — you know. But for the 50th, it seemed somehow important to show up. I actually recalled my father pronouncing that showing up for one’s 50th Reunion was the least one could do to honor the institution and the time you spent there. (This was probably in a fit of pique when I had not made it to my 25th reunion, while he had just attended his 50th; we went to the same high school and he could not abide any sign of, as he said, disrespect.) Anyway, yes, my father’s ghost and my husband accompanied me to my hometown, Geneva, Ohio, this September.
Geneva is a city of 6,000 people about 50 miles east of Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie. It is agricultural, not suburban, and what little industry there was there is no more. The 2008 Recession hit as hard as any ever did — and they always did; there’s not much margin for farmers and pipe-fitters and even teachers who already live on the edge, nor for the professionals and service industry they support. The houses and churches and banks of my childhood are still standing, a few proudly and several in abject disrepair. It was obvious that for many, even a new coat of paint had not been in the budget for years. At the same time, there are shopping centers with big new grocery stores built in old fields, there’s a new post office building, the hospital has added a wing, scores of the farms have been turned into vineyards, and a town that 50 years ago couldn’t support even one decent restaurant now boasts 22 very popular wineries, replete with tasting rooms and brunch and dinner menus. The town has been rebranded as a tourist attraction, the wine capital of Ohio, and civic pride is such that one of my friends tinted her hair purple (not old lady blue, punk purple!) for the annual fall festival, the Grape Jamboree.
When you go back home, you feel compelled to “process” all these changes. Or I did. I set out to get “the lay of the land,” wondering what it might say about the place my parents had chosen to rear us. I was immediately shocked into thinking about what was constant and what had changed — and what that might mean — as we drove into town on Broadway (which intersects Main Street, of course) and passed my childhood home and the doctors’ office building my father had developed 62 years ago. It is a Veterinary Clinic now, with a cardboard For Lease sign in the window. It looked awful. The church of my childhood and our wedding looked worse. My elementary and junior high schools had been razed. And of the shops lining Main and Broadway, only two looked prosperous, a drug store that had retained its retro soda fountain and a family-owned furniture store. I found it depressing. Then again, I find most small towns that have fallen on hard times depressing; Geneva just happened to very literally hit home.
But the countryside was gorgeous, the wineries prosperous and my classmates ever so kindly and generously (1) recognized, (2) welcomed, and (3) embraced me. The library of old photos and a small combo playing sixties tunes helped transport us back in time. We couldn’t quite erase 50 years of adulthood, (and that’s a relief, actually, to be well beyond the awkwardness and/or cruelties of adolescence); but remembering who we were back then gave us permission to ignore most all deleterious manifestations of age in ourselves and in each other. It helped to have a former teacher present; compared to her impressive 99, we were all still kids! Except for the 47 of our 218 classmates who had, sadly, died. A painstakingly assembled Power Point memorial tribute to them stunned and sobered us and let us appreciate anew the privilege of just being able to be there.
My husband noticed that strangers in Geneva are friendly and cheerful; my classmates were moreso — sincerely glad to see each other, happy to add a chair to an already-full table (so not the 7th grade cafeteria I feared it might be) and eager to find new common ground in casual conversation once we shared a memory or two. We talked about spouses (some had more than others), children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, careers, hobbies, volunteer interests, travel experiences and travel plans, even golf etiquette, retirement and where people live now. No politics or religion, except for the classmate who is running for the school board. And no whining whatsoever about health or finances. It was impressive. We had all taken different roads, some just down the street, some across the country, but clearly we had started off together, as one classmate said “when there was no crime, so we were the news in the newspaper,” and we were all on similar journeys. I might have been inclined to wonder about all the paths not taken — mine and theirs — but I didn’t need to. Nor did I need to consider how sustainable (or not) such relationships would be today. We simply had the opportunity to remember important parts of our past selves, people and places alike, and to be remembered.
I’d been home a couple of weeks when I read Lucette Lagnado’s assessment of the gifts an old friend’s remembering bestow (Friendships, Past and Still Present) in the Wall Street Journal’s Encore section. I wished I had written it myself. I meant to post about the Reunion as soon as it was over. But I was having trouble writing; I was still processing a bunch of conflicting emotions. I had been comforted by the kindness and genuine goodness of my friends, even those I did not see but heard about; disturbed by how ephemeral one’s legacy can be (Dad’s office a veterinary clinic, the plaque honoring his service to the community missing from the hospital walls); and troubled by the hard times writ large on my home town’s streets. I wondered about its future; I wondered, at times, what my parents had been thinking.
But then, on our last day in Geneva, as we drove along a ridge south
of town (stopping at a roadside stand for fresh sweet corn), we came upon the region’s impressive new junior high and high school complexes. Finally, the lesson I'd come to learn: my home town values are good, strong and enduring. Just as it did for us so many years ago, Geneva continues to invest in the future, i.e., in the education of its young people. My dad had been right, the experience my classmates and I shared is deserving of my respect and gratitude.
I’m glad I went back to Geneva. I put some ghosts to rest, ghosts which like your old high school gymnasium seemed huge once upon a time, but seem diminutive today. I experienced the place where I grew up both as a grown up and without my parents for the first time. I rediscovered genuine, wonderful friends who can be, via travel and digital communications, part of my present as well as my past. I acknowledged the benefits (everyone knows who you are) and the costs (everyone knows who you are) of living in a small town. And I affirmed a lifelong commitment to the education of succeeding generations.
As for the next Reunion, five years hence, I make no promises, except for this which my classmates and I made to each other: we are NOT planning to appear on the Memorial Wall anytime soon.