Women return to Laurel School (Ohio) each spring for Alumnae Weekend, to attend their class reunion. Re Union. To come back to a familiar place. To be among friends. To search, perhaps, for a younger version of oneself. To compare our own fortunes to those of our friends, and enemies, perhaps. How has she aged? Oh, she looks great... or not.... To revisit old dynamics or try on new ones. I love reunions, typically. At my own 30th reunion, I had several conversations with women I had not known well in high school — even though our class was small. Connecting with women I had known for more than 30 years, who shared my context, was an unexpected gift.
At Laurel, the girls' school I am privileged to lead, I watch the women at their reunions, most of them strangers to me because I was not "their" head, and wonder, "Who is happy? Who comes to this day worried that what happened in high school could happen again? Who will feel at home? Who might feel excluded? What words of wisdom might they offer to their younger selves?" I watch for clues, for answers. Sometimes I feel like the Statue of Liberty. I stand in, a symbol of the head they grew up with. I am not me, but "Headmistress."
Yesterday, proud headmistress of Laurel, I felt slightly teary all day. Perhaps it is because I identify so strongly with the women who attended the school I lead; my own alma mater, after all, is not unlike this school. If I close my eyes, I can feel myself back in time, 1978, senior spring at Agnes Irwin in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. Clogs, Fair Isle sweaters, plaid kilts. I am in the play at the boys' school, Haverford, and my friend, Corky, and I are the sweet little murdering sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace. We know, by then, where we are headed to college. We feel smart, confident, competent. The doubts would come later, the night before my mother and sister and I left to drop me on Yale's Old Campus.
After my mother sold our childhood home, for Irwin's reunions, I stayed at her condo. When I opened the door to the bedroom, the scent of girlhood wafted up — perfume, mothballs, musty expectations. The past was available — I could find my 17-year-old self again, reflected in my mother's decision to import the bedroom I grew up in — intact to a new setting. When my mother died, my husband emptied that condo and arrived in Ohio with loads of boxes. Working through those cardboard cartons to decide "Keep" or "Throw Away" made me feel old, for the first time — through a glass darkly, I spied my childhood — binders, programs for plays, a disintegrating corsage from a prom, letters. Upstairs, Cordelia's bedroom is empty; she, our second daughter, is off on her senior project. In the quiet, I mourn the end of her childhood, too, and wonder if I will drift into her room next fall, missing the everydayness of her in my life.
Girls grow up and leave schools and families as they must, but the past comes swimming back with the ritual of reunion. I did not go back to Agnes Irwin this year for my 35th reunion. The truth is, I did not want to go home and not have my mother there. This week, pansies and weeding and lilacs and cucumbers soaked in vinegar — everything reminds me of my mom, the rock of my childhood, the woman who buried a son when I was 14 and somehow kept going to raise me, to finish what she had started.
So, is that the melancholy the season brings? Mothers die and daughters become mothers whose own girls grow up and prepare to leave. The time feels compressed, shifting, untrustworthy. Am I 17 or 52 or both or neither? Yesterday, a woman at the alumnae luncheon was celebrating her 75th reunion. I want to be her at 90 — bright, interested, bird-like, sharp.
Awash in traditions, girls' schools typically conclude reunions with the alma mater. I look at the girls in our acappella group who have come to sing, Cordelia, their leader, absent. "When the years have borne us onward, heeding other calls, still our hearts with love shall cherish thoughts of these dear walls."I am not a Laurel girl, but tears still build behind my eyes. I am girl, teacher, headmistress, mother, tilting between past and present, swept up in T.S. Eliot's "in my end is my beginning." Swirling in the currents of time, I am halfway through my life. Yet it feels, so often, as if I have just begun.