Nothing focuses one’s attention on getting older quite like attending your 50th high school class reunion. I attended mine last month.
For those of us over forty, we know that the physical effects of aging are gradual but persistent. For many of us, our waistlines expand, we lose our hair, and invariably we are greeted by more, not fewer, wrinkles each morning when we first look in the mirror. We deal with all these changes privately. And no matter how much we change over the years, each day when we look into the mirror, we see a familiar person, not a stranger. We become accustomed, perhaps complacent, about getting older.
Walking into a room full of your 50th reunion celebrants wakes you up. When I did, I wondered who were these old people? I didn’t recognize anyone. Surely, I was in the wrong place.” But gradually, reality sank in. All of these strangers were my former high school classmates, some of whom I had not seen for fifty years. And I’m sure that moment of recognition was as difficult for them as it was for me.
Fortunately, the organizers had thoughtfully provided buttons for us to wear that displayed our names and high school yearbook photos. As the attendees mingled, we often started conversations by looking first at each others’ buttons rather than looking at each other. After we confirmed the identity of the person with whom we were speaking, we recovered from these awkward beginnings and things flowed more smoothly.
Conversations were about personal stuff: What did you do in your working life? Are you retired? Are you married? Do you have children? Grandchildren? And so forth . . . . Although personal, the conversations were mostly about the positive side of life. Our pains, losses, disappointments, and illnesses we kept to ourselves. During that weekend, I realized that many of us were “familiar strangers” to each other. Without regular contact, the life experience that traverses fifty years is too great for it to be otherwise.
And so, the class of ’63 passed a congenial weekend together enjoying the company of old friends. And then we left, a number of us certain never to see each other again. As I was driving away, I reflected on what one of the attendees had said. She told me that she was not at all the same person she was in high school; that she barely recognized the person in the in her yearbook photo from 1963. Her remarks made me think that among the familiar strangers at the reunion, many attendees would include themselves from fifty years ago. Who they were then is not who they are now. And I am one of them.