‘Dear Classmate,’ read the salutation. I frowned. I wasn’t in any class these days, unless you counted my painting group. ‘The time has once again arrived to plan a festive reunion gathering.’ Wow! Whoever this classmate might be, she, (and it must be a she, what male would name something a ‘festive reunion gathering’?), must have sweated over that opening line. ‘We thought it might be fun to provide our classmates with a menu of experiences that offer both physical and emotional enrichment.’ Abdominals and a support group? Weight-lifting and prayer? Race-walking and the mother goddess? The possibilities were intriguing.
What a letdown to learn “events range from facials to cocktails, punctuated with lots of food, a little travel, and much conversation.” A facial was the touted physical enrichment? And cocktails—were they physical or emotionally uplifting? These days you had to use critical reading skills in scanning a high school reunion notice.
I could stand the suspense no longer; I flipped to the last page to see who this ‘classmate’ was. Turned out it was three classmates. However, they weren’t really ‘mates,’ since they had barely known I existed. They were in the stars group (the student council and class officers, who were known to be going places), as opposed to the studs (‘cool’ girls, who would likely marry early and go no place), and the duds (the rest of us, the proletariat, the vast unknown).
I thought back to our 20-year reunion. Believing a friend’s assertion that old cliques disappear at the 15-year mark, I had decided to attend and chosen my ensemble carefully: an off-white, silk suit with a sea breeze green blouse. Studying myself in the mirror, I was pleased. I looked properly professional and reasonably successful, and I had taken care with my program bio, attempting to be factual yet not self-aggrandizing.
When I arrived, I was greeted enthusiastically by someone whom I didn’t recognize, until she identified herself as Ginny (stud), who had been an irritatingly popular, petite blond all through high school. I never could figure out her appeal, unless it was her green eyes, freckles and smoothly curving page boy. Maybe that’s why I started dyeing my dishwater blond hair to a rich golden hue as a sophomore—green eyes and freckles I already had.
Ginny dated the heartthrob at the neighboring boys’ school, and, likely because of the connection, was selected as its homecoming queen. Twenty years later the siren of memory had grayed and spread. I looked her name up in the program to see what she wanted us to know about herself. She enjoyed relaxing by her pool in a ritzy suburb with their two Scottish sheepdogs. Seems no kids, no career, just the heartthrob. Well, some of us peak early.
As we began drifting toward the tables set for the reunion dinner, I realized dispiritedly that the old cliques were very much in evidence – and that no one was beckoning me to join them. Mary Ann, my best friend in grade school who had later dropped me for cooler companions, nodded slightly from across the room, a mere dip of the head, a recognition without warmth. Eventually I wandered over to a table and joined women I had hardly known in high school – who who were legion, since our class featured 300 girls gifted with parents willing to spend $1,000 a year to insure we came through adolescence with our Catholic values, and hymens, intact. I skipped the post-dinner social and left, dispirited at my naïveté.
Should I go this year? I wondered, unable to crush a small sprig of hope. Surely, as obituaries announce more of our classmates are gone, our caste system would be seen in its smallness, as another of the many ‘–isms’ used to build up one group at another’s expense. And maybe the time had arrived when real achievements would be listed in the program. Who knew? Mary Ann might not even attend.
Over the years I thought I had come to terms with her rejection. I told myself I was the smarter, and she saw me as competition; that friends do change when you hit high school. But hers wasn’t a gradual growing apart, a walking away from a person with whom you no longer fit. She had been vicious, snickering behind a cupped hand at my remarks, whispering to her sidekick, just loud enough for me to hear, about my garish lipstick and frizzy hair. (Okay, my grooming did leave room for improvement.)
I had agonized over why I was the butt of her attacks until one remarkable afternoon. Helping out at my mother’s monthly bridge group, I watched as Mary Ann’s mother, Dee Dee, spat bitter, sarcastic remarks onto the bridge table. Dee Dee was a tyrant. And worst of all, no one seemed to take offense. It was as if her spite was a given of the gathering, just as an umpire’s blind eye to elbows in the groin is assumed at a basketball game. A flush of heat washed over me. So this was Mary Ann’s model, just as my model had been my passive, never- stand-up-for-yourself, mother. Two oldest daughters carrying on the unoriginal sins of the mother.
I read the next paragraph of the invitation. Apparently the 35th reunion committee thought it would be ‘fun’ for us to bring our camera-ready favorite recipes to the extravaganza. Now, since sharing recipes was a favorite pastime of my grandmother’s garden club, I at first thought this was a humorous reminder of our middle-age – that we were actually being invited to submit recipes for wrinkle or broken capillary disguise. Not the case. The reason given was that at the last reunion, (which I hadn’t attended), when table conversation had turned to religion and politics, Mary Ann had asked, “Couldn’t we just chat about why we don’t cook anymore?” Whew! You get fooled into thinking things change.
It was on a sidewalk on University Avenue back in college that I had last actually spoken with Mary Ann. My friend Kara had invited me to lunch at her sorority, also Mary Ann’s, prior to spring rush. Walking back to campus, Mary Ann had cocked her head and launched into one of her edgy monologues. “I just don’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “I’m so wishy-washy. One minute I’m agreeing with someone, and then what do you know? The next person speaks and I agree with him or her too.” As I found myself nodding, I froze. Once again I was trying to win her approval, just as I had done in high school. And how had she managed to make having no opinion seem fashionable in the outrageously opinionated ’60s? She did, however, have an opinion on my joining her sorority. Within a day she had blackballed me, stating it would be impossible for her to remain in the sorority were I to join.
And now, because of a typical Mary Ann know-nothing comment, 300 women were being asked to submit recipes – even though they didn’t cook anymore. The logic was awesome. I balled the letter up, with its accompanying recipe, suggestion and personal statement forms, and pulled on a jacket. I needed to walk off my ire.
Out in the open air I had a new idea. Why not rub their faces in their triviality? Of course, they may not even notice, but I would feel better. Back home I retrieved the paper ball from the wastebasket and smoothed out the questionnaire. Under ‘Occupation’ I wrote _Professional Agitator_ . ‘What was the funniest thing that happened in high school?’ was the next query. A stumper. I couldn’t think of a single thing. There were plenty of tragic happenings though: Janet coming to class with wrists bound in white bandages; Lori’s mangled body found after a drunken spin down a dark hillside; and Julie, and how many others, leaving school quietly to have their babies. And then there were the silent sufferers, damaged long before we hit high school, going about our studies dutifully, getting good enough grades so that no one noticed us, but closed down inside, protecting our sacred spark by growing a carapace around it so tough that perhaps no one or no event would ever pierce through.
What we really needed was a memorial service for the girls that we had been, for lost innocence. We didn’t need to draw happy smiles on our faces. Society had pressured us to do that all our lives.
I picked up the ‘Suggestions’ form meditatively. Why not? I wrote, _Instead of the round of facials, cocktails and pajama parties you propose, why not do something meaningful—that would offer classmates actual emotional enrichment rather than a manifestation of their smallness? And why not focus on the important thing that brought us together so many years ago: a belief (held by our parents, if not us) in something larger than ourselves – that there is more to life than food, drink and self-indulgence? How can you not at least attempt to tap into the immense power that we women, at the zenith of our lives, have to make our community a more humane place?_
Before I could chicken out, I signed my name, stuck my bomb in an envelope and hurried to the mailbox. But just before I pushed it into the chute, an annoying little voice asked, “Why bother? Those three Stepford Wives surely wouldn’t reply; they might even laugh.” Meanwhile, I could feel superior, thinking that after all, I had protested: I wasn’t like them, insulated in my little self-indulgent world. I sighed. It wasn’t enough. I had to do more, if only for myself – so I went home and wrote this article.