The Third Third

Looking Back at a Big Reunion

Both my husband and I celebrated (attended? participated in? — not sure what the most appropriate verb is) our 50th College Reunions in June. Both weekends — his at Yale and mine a week later at Wellesley — were steeped in tradition, nostalgia, gratitude for the experience of four years there, measure-taking (Did I do as well as my classmates — on any number of scores?), intellectual stimulation, fund-raising, wining and dining, and friendship. 

But hanging over both 50th Reunion classes, like the gray hair covering so many of these self-proclaimed brilliant minds, was the specter of age. Not the specter of death, though there were at both events profoundly moving memorial services for deceased classmates, but the specter of age, aging, the exigencies of old age. It was almost as if we, the erstwhile flower children of the ’60’s, were surprised and a bit insulted to find each other looking and acting all 71 or 72 of our years. To be sure there was, both among the men and the women, a wide range of what the 70’s look like — how fat or trim, hearty or frail, active or sedentary, happy or sad, engaged or disengaged, even how more or less “moreso” each seemed with his or her particular personality traits, annoying, worrisome or otherwise. Balance, hearing, ability to walk the campus, quickness of mind, resiliency of spirit — it was all on display for a uniquely privileged peer group. 

As we looked out over our classes, we were, in many ways, looking into the mirror. And in the end, Irwin and I saw radically different things because, in conversations with our classmates we learned how very differently the men and women in these cohorts are processing their aging and this particular stage of life. 

We’re all self-deprecating and apologetic about any age-related weaknesses — nervous titters and all — and the boys of Yale and the girls of Wellesley share pretty close to the same number of added pounds, thinning hair, medical incidents and replaced and repaired joints and organs. It’s in reflecting about this state of being that the men and the women diverge, and I found it fascinating and, in the end, empowering and affirming for women. 

Here’s the gist of it: Most of the men, in a wide-ranging 90-minute discussion of, personally, where are we now, found themselves at the end of long, relatively fruitful careers currently focused on what to do with all that they’d learned and experienced over the last 50 years. After the fifth or sixth guy stood up to declare his intention to “give back” the earned wisdom he’d accumulated now that he was (so successful and) free to do so, I leaned over to my husband and whispered “Arrogant old white men, aren’t they?” The conversation lacked creativity, energy, commitment to new ideas or ideals; it seemed tinged with sadness and loss, intent on looking backward rather than into the future. It was as if retirement and old age were one and the same (which they probably are when your work is your sole source of identity). Irwin was left with a disappointing sense of how diminished they were, how far in the past their best days had been. He looked into that mirror and saw sad, old men, even though he didn’t really feel like one. 

So, when my classmates gathered for our hallowed “Class Discussion” the following Saturday with an invitation to share what’s important and meaningful to us, personally, 50 years after graduating from college, I was very curious and a little nervous. The women, however, were instantly more introspective than our male counterparts, some soul-searching about the what-if’s that could now never be, others about the choices we made, especially regarding careers and marriage, and how they were shaped and in turn shaped us and might also have been visited on our children. We talked birth control, sexual freedom, abortion, sexism, mothers, marriage, divorce, down-sizing and health. The sense of what these women were saying was that we are all navigating another transition in our lives. This is the key distinction: for us as women, aging is just another transition — after childhood, adolescence, college, careers, marriage, motherhood, empty nest, retirement — and, experienced as we are at transitions, we realize that for the most part, we’re equipped to make this one and to continue to thrive. 

Further, as to giving back, it’s not a question of giving back now, as we have made entire lives of service to others and giving back — to our families and our communities, and some cases, writ large, to our country and our world, and we won't stop now — because we know it gives our lives meaning. I found myself thinking how lucky we are. I was smiling the rest of the weekend as I looked into my mirror and saw vital women making their way through their 70’s. 

No scientific study here, just observations. I am quite sure there are just as many individual alumni as alumnae finding new ways to take advantage of the healthy years ahead, investing in meaningful relationships and purposeful enterprise, and enjoying the freedoms aging confers more than they’re cursing its limitations. My husband and his friends are among them, and they just didn’t speak up at their Reunion while their classmates told another story. In some sense, it comes down to this, the stories we tell ourselves. And this time, at these Reunions, the women’s story was the richer, more interesting one.

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