June 29, 2015
PRETTY GOOD LIVES
WILLSBORO POINT, NY – Mother and I have been here a few times before. It’s a pleasant little restaurant attached to a marina on the east shore of the north-facing bay. Directly across from it, the cliffs buttressing Rattlesnake Mountain rise sheer from the shore. A distinct horizontal line a couple of hundred feet up betrays the rock cut carrying the west-side railroad toward Plattsburgh. Above that, the thickly forested, glacially rounded mountain fills the horizon. In colonial times, Indians sometimes arrived at trading posts bearing chunks of galena, and were supposed to have a secret mine somewhere on the mountain. Predictably, no one has found it since.
The day today is sunny and cool, with a fresh north wind. Sailboats that spent the night at the head of the bay are beating their way out toward the open lake. Sunlight sparkles on the waves. Its reflection dapples the ceiling of the restaurant, where Mother and I sit, at two long parallel tables, along with a couple dozen grandparents, widows, and retirees, all of them in a jolly mood.
It might seem an unremarkable gathering, and probably is – except that, for me and Mother, it’s a peek back at one of our former lives. These elderly folks were once, fifty-three years ago, the students in my first homeroom in my first year of teaching. They were also my first students in sophomore English. For some reason (possibly because I was only a few years older than they), we hit it off; our chemistry was good, and I remember them all.
This lunch is the beginning of their fiftieth high school class reunion weekend. This evening they’ll attend the current class’s commencement exercises, and tomorrow evening hold a banquet. We can’t stay that long, so are on our way back to Vermont after this lunch. But it’s a delight to be here and see how the kids have turned out: How much were the children the parents of the adults?
Fifty years ago, one of the boys stood out as a convener of sorts. He was probably class president. Twenty-five years ago, at that reunion, he still was. And today, by obvious consensus, he still is. He speaks softly, which naturally discourages conversation in an audience that’s supposed to be listening. He has the friendly, low-key, self-deprecating manner of Ronald Reagan, and holds a sheaf of papers with memories collected beforehand from classmates. They’ve so far gone all through their years at the school, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, remembering their teachers at each grade level. I’m impressed by the criteria by which they subjectively rate the teachers, from “nyah” through “Oh, I loved her! She cared so much!” I’m impressed also by the teachers who don’t even get mentioned. My sentiments exactly.
The same bubbling extrovert girl who used to organize the high school parties, both licit and otherwise, is now the woman who organized this weekend – by e-mail, phone, and formal invitation. She’s just as peppy as ever, and a rarely quiet source of snappy quips. Looking back over half a century, I realize that she was that way then, too, but those were more restrained times; so even though her face betrayed that she often had a remark on her lips, she held her peace.
The girl who even as a teenager was sort of the maternal presence in the group, still is. I recognize her less by her face than her manner. The kid who was sort of one the edge of things, who loved to play baseball but wanted to join our track team, too, is still sort of listening and now and then throwing in a comment that, sadly, doesn’t make much of a splash. The very pretty, self-contained blonde girl who’s still pretty and self-contained has been divorced for a long time. “We just sort of grew apart, and then I got a little independent,so we agreed to go our separate ways.” Has she ever considered remarrying? ‘No, not at all. I like my independence.’
The kid who liked both baseball and track mentioned something I’d almost forgotten: that we had no track and made our own. We measured an unused grassy field behind the school and, on paper, laid out a track that gave us 100-yard straightaways and netted just 440 yards per lap. It was great fun to watch them figure out how to get two 120-yard semicircles for the ends., Then we pegged it out on the field and used that for practice – that and a fast two-mile woods road run every day that discouraged all but the hard-core strivers.
One thing that’s sometimes feared by writers who suspect they’re improving with time is the resurrection of one of their long-ago pieces. Sure enough, one of the kids here – I think it was the peppy organizer – has saved for 25 years the column I wrote after attending their 25th reunion. I’ve read it over, of course; it’s not too embarrassing. But I notice that, after applauding their enthusiasm for learning all sorts of new things, it ends with “...feeling, as we faced the limitless years ahead of us, that literally anything was possible.”
Well, those possibilities – or illusions; take your pick – are no longer with us. They’ve either been realized or not. These kids, like us, are grandparents now, and the possibilities and the onus have shifted to our succeeding generations. I hear no talk here of achievements or possessions or (thankfully!) symptoms and therapies, as is so often the case at reunions and gatherings of senior citizens. All I hear are the nostalgic laughter at the memories of past teachers’ quirks and idiosyncrasies, of childhood escapades, and satisfaction with the experience of growing up side by side, almost as close as brothers and sisters, in a small pre-Revolutionary village with its vital signs fading – supermarkets gone, paper mill closed and demolished, car dealership shuttered – but never a hint that anything important was or is missing from life here. Well, here we are, they seem to say, and it hasn’t always been easy. But, take it all around, it’s been a pretty good life.