On Going Home

I have lived my life in semesters.  Exactly how many–I have lost count.  They have given my life its rhythm, which is marked by the beat of regularly scheduled new beginnings.  I was always someone who loved school.  School was the premier place to hang out with friends, have ridiculous amounts of fun, and learn something new every day.  Grade school, high school, college, graduate school.  What was not to like? 

I can vividly remember every year, every teacher, all kinds of activities and events, especially K-12— where I was a junior member of an extraordinary community.  It was never about the place so much as it was about the people.   

At the turn of the previous century, my great grandparents settled in an exclusively Irish area of the city, not too far from the river bottoms, which would have then been the southern edge of the city.  Each successive generation, including mine, moved south and west of their parents, following the trail of economic development within the city, with most stopping far short of the furthest edges of the vast suburban sprawl that now envelopes the city proper.

The Catholic community I grew up in was like a small town.  Whenever I brought home a new friend from school, my parents could cite the name of every family member, living and dead, in that kid’s family tree.  My parents, of course, had gone to high school with that kid’s parents, and that kid’s grandparents had lived in the same parish as my grandparents, and that kid’s uncle had been in my mother’s cousin’s ordination class, etc. 

Though in my late teens and twenties I tried hard to escape the tentacles of this far-reaching network, I later sought to replicate my childhood for my own children.  I eventually discovered that while you can go home again fairly easily, you can’t exactly re-create that home, which may have been one of the toughest lessons of my adulthood. 

I was reminded of how idyllic my childhood was when I attended an 80th anniversary celebration of my grade school early last summer.  I’d gotten an inkling when I had attended a class reunion in 2002 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of my 8th grade graduation, and found it a truly delightful experience.  My siblings’ classes had reunions with some frequency over the years, but my class waited a total of 30 years before pulling one together.  It was well worth the wait.

The 30-year reunion had been about a year in the making by the time we gathered one chilly Saturday night in October in the school cafeteria. I had gone to school early in the day to help set up and decorate.  Upon entering the building, I was startled to note that the stairwell leading to the cafeteria had shrunk to half its original size.  Or had it? 

We plastered the pillars and walls in the room with mod cardboard flowers in the psychedelic colors of the day: pinks, purples, orange, yellow, chartreuse.  We hung blow-ups of our First Communion composite photo and our 8th grade graduation composite side by side.  One classmate generously shared his collection of retro artifacts from the late 60s-early 70s, including his own Stingray bicycle with a banana seat.  Honestly, the room rivaled the set of the Brady Bunch by the time we finished. 

We sold modestly-priced tickets to cover the cost of the simple deli trays and desserts obtained from a local grocery store which were supplemented by potluck dishes from a few classmates.  Beer and wine were served as well.  Frankly, it was a kick to go into the kitchen to obtain our drinks where we had long stood in line to purchase cartons of milk with tiny pink tickets. 

I was struck by the fact that the real guiding force for this event was a threesome of boys from the class who recruited three local girls, including me, to help them organize it.  Mark, Pat, and Jay focused on tracking classmates with laser-like precision, utilizing all professional and personal contacts to locate the missing.  They scheduled biweekly conference calls to coordinate the plans and phoned far-flung classmates personally to encourage their travel and attendance.

Since I’d attended an all-girls high school, I was pretty familiar with the dynamic of females reconnecting through reunions, and having attended most of my husband’s, that of high school reunions in general.  After my own 10-year high school reunion, spouses and partners were banned because the women were far more interested in catching up with each other in the limited time available. Introducing spouses was a time-consuming task and eventually deemed an unnecessary complication. 

So, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the latent sentimentality of these men.  That is, until the night of the event.  Their faces radiated pure joy as they greeted former classmates, especially their football and basketball teammates. 

Someone had unearthed old video footage of their basketball efforts that one of the dad-coaches had captured with what would now be regarded an antique camera.   The film was grainy and the action sputtered in the same muted earth tones as most of the still photographs from our youth–not exactly black and white but not even close to the rich saturated color that digital cameras now yield.  No matter how distorted the film, the camaraderie was crystal clear.  There simply are no friends like old friends.

No one seemed to care too much what anyone was doing for a living, just where they were living now.  Folks greeted each other with hugs and asked about family and kids and aging or deceased parents.  Everyone seemed comfortable in ways I’d never seen at other reunions. 

But then what pretenses could you have around the people who knew you intimately as a kid and were privy to all of the embarassing details of your youth?  We had been nerds and jocks and pretty and plain and popular and unpopular and quirky and funny and smart and clever and devious and coordinated and uncoordinated, and most of us all of these things at one time or another during our grade school years.  We were amorphous back then, still in stages of development, not yet able to fashion or define a persona the way we could and would in high school.

We all knew each other’s stories and lives: who threw up in the hall in second grade, who was in afternoon kindergarten, who had to stand in the corner in third grade, who got locked in the storage cabinet under the stage in the old gym as a prank, which route each of us walked to and from school, who our square dancing partners were in fourth grade, which Mass each family attended on Sunday, who had crushes on whom each of the nine years we shared together.

We were pleasantly suprised that our teachers showed up as did the former principal, and, importantly, the nuns.  During an impromptu program, a couple of classmates shared humorous memories of our time together and honored class members now deceased.  One of our principals, Sr. Johanna, confessed that she had probably been as scared of us as we were of her!  I had a chance to thank my junior high English teacher whose wise counsel and critical feedback in my adolescence had profoundly shaped me as a writer and thinker and even as a teacher.

My class had the good fortune to attend Catholic school during an unprecedented time of flux in church history which allowed us to hang on to our innocence a bit longer than we might have otherwise.  We entered school post Vatican II, so we escaped most of the horror stories our older siblings lived when boys and girls were segregated in junior high grades and nuns resorted to more corporal forms of punishment. 

By the time we arrived, the nuns were young and excited about teaching, wearing more contemporary and less intimidating attire than their former black floor-length habits.  We never memorized so much as a line of the Baltimore Catechism.  Guitars accompanied modern folk music at Mass, now played in lieu of traditional hymns.  Our aging pastor was a kindly man who resembled Santa Claus and exuded the sweet countenance of a Bing Crosby-Barry Fitzgerald movie priest.  He patiently explained each part of daily Mass to us so we could better understand what was going on.

By our birth dates, we are regularly categorized as Baby Boomers, but throughout most of our lives we have missed by minutes the seminal events that shaped that generation.  Turns out, we are really someone else.

When Kennedy was shot, we were  in kindergarten.  I doubt anyone came to notify us about it during class the way so many other people remember.  We were learning the alphabet and eating paste with the wooden sticks used to scoop it from the large communal clump placed in the middle of each table.  My own mother was in the hospital, having just given birth to her fourth child.  My gravest concern that week was how to avoid eating the horrible food and burnt cookies prepared by the woman my parents had engaged to take care of us while my mother was away.

We were in fourth grade when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and again, too young to fully grasp who he was or the implications of this tragedy.  What we could notice, however, was how anxious the adults were when they wouldn’t let us walk home during the race riots that ensued just blocks from school in the days after his murder.  Traditional evening services during Holy Week were shifted to afternoon so we could be back in our homes by the curfew established by the police department.

Some kids probably barely noticed Bobby Kennedy’s death that June since it occurred when school was out, but I knew of it because my Irish Catholic family was, to put it mildly, Kennedy-obsessed.  Profiles in Courage was prominently displayed on the living room coffee table and an expressionless plaster bust of JFK sat on a shelf in the family room.  My grandmother, a special education teacher and early advocate of mainstreaming, was an acquaintance of Eunice Shriver and served on the board of a Kennedy Foundation which promoted services for the developmentally disabled; Rose Kennedy represented to her the epitome of a Catholic mother.  JFK and Jackie were revered by my parents.  My mother chose a powder blue palette for our living room and took her fashion cues from the First Lady.

My classmates and I were far too young to know about much less attend Woodstock and could see the large teen rallies (or love-ins) every Sunday at a local park only from a car window as our mothers drove past and shook their heads.  The Vietnam War was but a story on the nightly news, rarely discussed in front of us and over before we were close to being draft eligible as our older brothers had been. 

The space race fueled our imaginations and led us to believe that anything was possible. The Cold War was still raging but invisible to us except for the fallout shelter signs hung over the basement doors of most public buildings.  We ducked and covered in the southwest corners of our basements during tornado drills, which were far more frequent and relevant in our Midwestern city than fears about Russian invasions.  The women’s movement opened doors for us that we passed through often without realizing they’d ever been closed.

Our lives were not perfect by any stretch nor were our families or our parents, but whatever limitations, shortcomings, or difficulties any single family had, another helped cover.  And that is precisely what made it such a rich community.

The special homecoming for the whole school last May was held in the new and improved gym.  It began with Mass and quickly swelled into a large-scale party with folks drifting in as the night wore on.  Every direction I turned I saw a familiar face: classmates, friends, neighbors, older and younger siblings of classmates, family friends, parents, teachers, all there to reconnect with each other and celebrate the extraordinary life we knew as children.  I felt as if I was walking through the hall when school let out at 3:00 pm 37 years ago.  And just as in a fairy tale, I didn’t want this briefest of glimpses into the past to end. 

As we drove home, my husband and I chatted about what a wonderful evening it had been and thought of one person, now deceased, who would have absolutely reveled in this kind of get-together, having hosted so many gatherings of these families at the school and in her home over the years. 

Yes, gregarious and sociable with a delicious sense of fun, Mrs. G. would have been in her element at this party.  The next morning, I emailed her daughter Bebe to tell her just that since it was she who had spearheaded this historic homecoming and, by the way, whose grandfather and my great uncle served as best man in each other’s wedding several years before the doors of St. Peter’s Grade School opened, some 80 years ago.

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