The life stories we've woven so far

The man standing outside a classroom at my alma mater on a sunny July weekend looks familiar, but I can't quite place him. I angle around, ever so casually, for a glimpse of his name tag. Ah yes - a former classmate, whom I last saw at commencement when we were 21. I introduce myself. We exchange hearty hellos and enjoy a brief conversation, catching up on years of news. What a pleasure to reconnect.

It's a scene repeated again and again on campuses across the country as graduates of all ages head back for reunions. Returning can be an exercise in nostalgia. It's a reminder of one's younger self and of the formative years that served as an educational launching pad for adult life.

But a reunion is much more than a trip down memory lane. Beyond the chance to see old friends, the weekend offers a reminder of the myriad ways in which people can create satisfying lives.

As we settle into dormitory rooms, push meal trays through the cafeteria line, and attend classes given by favorite professors, old routines seem both strange and familiar. Yet during these three days, perhaps the real learning occurs over meals and between classes as reunioners share their life stories.

For those of us returning three or four decades after graduation, the gathering offers a dual perspective. Poised midway between the youngest graduates and the oldest, we become Janus-like, looking backward and forward.

To observe the classes behind us is to be reminded of our own early years of marriage, child rearing, and career-building. To look at those ahead - the ones attending their 50th, 60th, and even 70th reunions, impressive in their vitality - encourages us to consider a profound question: How will we productively fill the decades between now and our own 70th reunion? Lengthening lifespans will call for new scripts for the later years.

Veterans of many high school and college reunions across the country find that these gatherings follow similar patterns. In the early years after graduation, they say, a quietly competitive spirit may prevail: Who has the cutest children, the most impressive title, the poshest life?

But as the years go on, a mellowing occurs. Youthful idealism is tempered by maturity and pragmatism. Posturing is out. Modesty is in. As waistlines expand, as laugh lines (don't call them wrinkles) appear, and as silver threads take their place among the gold, a touching candor prevails.

Plenty of success stories float through the humid July air, of course. But participants also share accounts of disappointment and sorrow: the job that didn't work out. The retirement that came sooner than expected. The child who marches to a different drummer. The spouse who left. The parents who died.

One reunion-goer explains that she was happily settled in France as a teacher. But when her parents needed help, she returned to her hometown to care for them. Years later, she's still there. France is only a vacation destination, but she has found other rewards.

Another woman who graduated in a later class tells a friend that, following her recent divorce, she's creating a new life for herself and her two children. "It's a rebuilding," she says philosophically.

Stories of detours and timeouts, of plans derailed and hopes deferred, are impressive and instructive.

By the end of the weekend, reunioners of all ages have stitched together a patchwork quilt of experiences and memories, colorful and richly textured. Perhaps John Lennon summed it up best when he said, "Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans."

As participants pack their bags, share goodbye hugs, and catch one last glimpse of the campus before heading to the airport, many may harbor a comforting thought: Sometimes those "other plans" are just fine. Maybe, truth be told, some are even better than the ones we outlined all those decades ago as we left here and ventured out into the world.

Now the intriguing question is: What stories will each of us have stitched together when we return in five years?

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