Oh My Gosh, I Got Invited to my 50th High School Reunion!

September 2012

It turns out that reunions in our senior years are less competitive and

more focused on shared memories.

My initial reaction to the invitation to the class of 1962’s reunion was shock. “How is this possible? I don’t feel old?” Since the reunion was being organized on facebook, I was able to access photos of a number of my classmates. “Oh my gosh,” I thought, “we really are old.”

High school class reunions are popular subjects for movies that often include hilarious situations, personal disasters, and a murder or two. The decision to attend or not attend one’s reunion can be an emotional one for many alumni. I too was unsure. In high school I was shy and consequently invisible. Since I never ran with the popular crowd, for me the possibility of cliques reforming at reunion events was real. “What the heck,” I decided, “I’ve made a good life for myself,” and filled out the paperwork to attend. Since I live almost a thousand miles away from my hometown, I had been unable to attend any previous reunions. This would be my first high school reunion, a true adventure.

Once I decided to attend I had a few months to prepare. Wanting to look good, I added to my three times a week gym workouts hoping to eliminate arm flab. Six weeks out I cut back on meals and dropped six pounds.

Worse yet was my obsession about what to wear. There was to be a luncheon, picnic, and dinner dance, each requiring a different outfit. After shopping, actually over shopping and getting more than I needed, I asked my husband to take photos of myself in various combinations in order to really see what looked best. He told me I was losing my mind and needed to get a grip.

I considered that he was right until a brave soul posted on facebook an inquiry as to what to wear followed by more posts from equally insecure female classmates. The men quickly decided on dinner jackets and casual shirts, while the women continued to worry. “Good that you ask. I was trying to figure that out,” one classmate commented. “THE big question….at least for the women,” anther joked. After reading a description of a planned outfit, one more remarked, “How can you wear sleeveless anything? I am fat!”

The focus of this reunion was to be high school memories, not career accomplishments as it had been in earlier reunions. A request to write and submit memories was issued. As I put down my favorite recollections of our teen years I was reminded that despite my shyness I enjoyed high school immensely.

One of the pleasant outcomes of a reunion organized on an internet social networking site is the renewing of old friendships prior to the reunion. In a class of 200 students there were teens whose whole high school path never crossed mine. Prior to the actual reunion those who were online began to get caught up and share memories. We discussed who was retired and who was working and why. Funny high school stories were recalled and changes in the world since then noted. Private conversations occurred via e-mail and messaging that led to the discovery of shared interests. I even found three classmates living in the same state as I do less than one hundred miles away.

Their stories were fascinating. Many had stayed in Upstate New York, but others lived in places like Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington D. C. and even retired in Costa Rica. In many cases I had seen family photos posted on their internet albums. I couldn’t wait to reconnect at the reunion. Weeks passed and I was ready to take a flight from Georgia to Upstate New York. Clothes chosen and bags packed, I started on a reunion experience that would be full of surprises.

Driving to the opening picnic I was nervous. I was not alone, as there had been a recent post expressing social anxiety by asking, “Should we greet with a handshake, a hug, or perhaps no contact.” I wasn’t popular in high school. Would I be a social dud? Did I look good, or old, or fat?

At the registration table I was given a t-shirt and memory book. Forget nervous, the t-shirts were hilarious. In the center was our graduation photo with two arrows. The one pointing down was labeled “Then” and the upper arrow “Now.” Quickly I changed from my carefully chosen outfit to the t-shirt I had previously declared that I would not wear because “they make me look fat.” Fun trumped vanity. Heads bobbled down to the photos, then up to the current reality, followed by grins of recognition. Good thing, too, as I could have identified only a few of the seventy-some classmates at the picnic.

The most fun was talking to and getting to know people that I had never spoken to in high school. Wayne explained that during our junior and senior years he went to auto mechanics and left school at noon, consequently he saw few of our class. It was a pleasure to converse with Wayne who has had a successful life since school. Peter and I spoke about what a great city Washington D C is, the place where he and his family live.

The memory book provided more fun reading between events. Not only were the antics of students recalled, but teachers were remembered good and bad. “Miss X had BO.” The recollections even dated back to elementary school.

Perhaps it was because my classmates are now in their mellow senior years or that the organizing committee set the tone of this gathering, but this reunion focus was on shared memories of high school. From stories I have been told by friends, I gather that reunions in ones 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s can become competitions involving educational attainments, careers, homes, and other measures of status. While I did not attend our earlier reunions, I later got a copy of the class listings of career accomplishments. Even as a non-attendee I found myself judging the lives of others. This reunion was different. “I don’t care what anyone did in the last 50 years, I want to remember high school and how crazy we were,” was a sentiment I heard voiced more than once at our 50th. In fact one person posted, “I don’t want to see photos of your grandchildren, bring photos of your travels.”

Saturday night was a dinner dance. There were additional classmates to connect with as some had been unable to attend Friday due to other commitments. Oh, my goodness, did we have a good time. Everyone, spouses and guests included, was pleasant and seemed genuinely interested in seeing each other. Hugs and smiles abounded. The level of excitement in seeing people we knew in our youth, now 50 or more years later, was off the charts.

In addition to the two main events there were others: breakfast, luncheons, tours, golf. A lot was packed into a few days, which seemed to pass in a nano-second! On Sunday five of us proved that you can still handle a canoe in an Adirondack lake at age sixty-plus. This too brought back memories of the summers when as Girl Scouts we embarked on week-long canoe trips by paddle and portage.

Teachers are traditionally invited to class reunions, but after 50 years there are few left. Mr. DiMarco attended the dinner/dance and was great fun. Miss. Leone and Miss. Reinman were in St. Joseph’s Nursing Home in nearby Utica. Friday morning six of our classmates went by to see them and serenaded the whole floor much to the delight of both. Miss. Leone in particular was fragile, unable to get out of bed. I visited her a few days later. She told me that she appreciated the earlier visit and we talked about her teaching our class American History during our junior and senior years. Miss. Leone never married. Instead she taught and took care of her aging parents. In a real way we were her children. A week after the reunion she passed away. Perhaps God was waiting to take her until a few more of her children paid tribute.

Even before we all got home posts began to appear sharing how must pleasure and fun we had experienced. “I felt 18 again….not 67 looking back at 18!” I too found the reunion enjoyable to a degree that surprised me and, like Terry, Judi, Linda and others tried to understand why. What makes a reunion in one’s senior years different?
Linda posed an answer: “Maybe because we all share something from our youth and only those of us that were there can relate to.” We were a unique class, sandwiched in between the status quo classes of the 50s and the rebellious, world changing grads in the mid to late 60s. I have a close friend who is only five years younger, but our high school and college years were light worlds apart. At our reunion you knew that everyone understood the character of the time in which we came of age.
Like many of my classmates I no longer live in Upstate. My friends come from all over the country. They know me of late and sometimes have been my friends for all of my adult life. But we do not share memories that go back to high school and even elementary school. Chuck recalled games of kick the can on Goodell Ave, others talked about Main Street School. Still others remembered the Flag Street Playground and ice rink. Where I live no one remembers these things. It was literally going home and back in time in the best way.
In a hurried life I had all but forgotten about high school. I worked my way through college, then there was a career to build, and in time marriage and children to raise. Between work tasks and children, time passed quickly with no looking back. Now in retirement with children grown, I can reflect on the journey.

Time at the reunion was limited.  Consequently some of us are are sharing our continuing life’s journeys via the internet and facebook. Linda Finch, Judy and I shared Girl Scout memories and Father Tom and I recalled debate team activities. Not only did I reconnect with old friends, but I have gained new friends.  In high school I did not know Linda. Terry was an athlete that I admired, but never spoke to.  I will treasure and nurture new friendships made as a result of the reunion.
We have lived interesting lives, faced challenges, coped, and thrived. I admire Rick Thompson’s love for his adopted state of Alaska and Robert Coleman’s poetry and business in Hawaii. Creativity abounds, for example Ellen’s embroidery business. Terry is a woman of courage. Despite the limitations of living with a lung transplant, she is a cheerleader for our class, pointing out our strengths while making light of her accomplishments. Linda Stevener chose a fascinating and independent life in Costa Rica. Judi’s blog is intriguing especially about her recent trip to Italy. Father Tom’s account of his life is a hoot. Like the rest of us his has not been the straight path we thought we would have in our youth. Instead it has been a rollicking, varied passageway of joy and understanding. Did you know Roger has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro? So our journeys continue, enriched by a gathering of past classmates. Thank you committee. I had a great time.

May we meet in
the center of a laugh

So we can
remember who we truly are
In beloved joy

Just call me a
From “Pearl Drops of Aloha”
JR Coleman, Class of 1962,
Whitesboro Central High School

August 2011


Family Reunions Mountain Style

By Kathy Thompson


Late summer in Appalachia is the time for families to assemble and renew friendships among the descendents of early pioneers. Kinship has always been paramount in the mountains and these annual gatherings cement ancestral bonds down the generations. No matter if you still live in these hills, or like many have moved away seeking work or another future, you are welcome.

Each family’s gathering reflects their values and traditions. Some have formal meetings with minutes, and genealogical talks. Others include preaching, and the singing of old time hymns. My husband’s family is more informal preferring baseball games, horseshoe matches, good food and lots of visiting. But from my experience all include a lavish meal with tables bowed with home cooked dishes. Chicken, ham, pork chops, summer’s bounty of vegetables, casseroles, and Oh My! the pies and cakes.

Locations reflect the trails taken in the early 1800s by those hungry for fertile land and a place of their own. The descendents of Jason and Mary Chastain, who arrived in the 1840s, gather in Dial. The family previously met by the old home place, but with a restoration going on they get together in a pavilion built by a family member for these reunions. Deep in today’s Cohutta Wilderness, the arbors where the Dyer and the Jones clan convene date back to the early 1900s. Designed for preaching and meetings by the family graveyard, these two historic structures reflect life in a distant era.

The Upper Jacks River Reunion meets in a remote holler tucked between towering mountains where at one time there were a dozen homes. When the land was sold in the 1930s to the United States Forest Service for $5.00 an acre, the homes and Mt. Gilead Church and school were torn down. Only a sliver of land was set aside where the families can return. Despite being only a yearly event they have constructed a sturdy pavilion. Place matters even when you have moved away.

Stanley Church of Christ on Aska Road is the location of the Stanley Reunion. No longer used for regular services, the building is opened for the family. “All Day on the Grounds” tables and a wooden arbor provide a place for a group meal.

My husband and I were invited to the annual reunion of the Upper Jack’s River community. The drive takes 45-minutes, half of which is on gravel Forest Service roads. Turning off and onto a road that is more of a path we arrive and squeeze our car into a space next to towering oaks, and poplar trees.

Millsaps, Davenports, Dyers, Crumleys, Pattersons, Sluders and Davenports once lived in this remote spot. Unlike single family reunions, this one commemorates a community of people whose ancestors arrived in the mid 1800s and moved out in the 1930s. With little choice to do otherwise they sold their land to the newly formed United States Forest Service leaving their beloved community behind.

Today adults unload food and chairs from their cars. The pavilion has tables but chairs are required. A few set up a sound system hooked to a generator humming softly at the edge of the forest. The rented port a pot sits discreetly a few paces into the forest.

A gaggle of children drag huge fallen tree limbs as they build a fort under a massive oak tree. They are oblivious to the talk of family ties and history. Like the youngsters who grew up here long ago they play, full of energy with a kind of purpose forgotten by adults.

Once settled in their lawn chairs the grown ups play “Whose your Daddy,” and “Whose your Mommy.” Ties involving marriage are examined. “She was a Davenport but her mother was a Millsaps.” ‘Oh yes, that’s right, another replies.” Those who have passed during the previous year are remembered fondly, there best qualities recalled.

With their short attention spans the children tire of fort building, a task that is scratchy and tiring. The cool water of the nearby stream beckons. Wading knee deep they plunge nets pulling up fat crawdads. Others drag rocks to make a dam deepening the water. A grandmother sent to retrieve them notes, “They do this every year. The winter weather and spring floods levels their dam so they start over every year.” It is time for lunch and by then all the activity has made them hungry, so they go willingly. The kids are wet but no towels appear. Its a warm day and drip dry suffices.

With everyone assembled a blessing is said. Smiles appear on people’s faces as they work their way around food tables, piling their plates almost beyond their capacity.

After the meal and a little time to digest so much food, the singing commences. A pianist on an electric keyboard accompanies Victory’s Song, a duo. The setting is a natural cathedral with God’s beauty all around. The forest surrounds us with a deep blue sky and bright sunlight peaking through. Butterflies with their wild erratic trajectory fly through the grove sometimes barely missing the visitors.

Papa Jack Bryson and his daughter Denise, and son David sing next. All of the tunes being sung have echoed through these mountains for generations. “Amazing Grace,” I’ll Fly Away,” and other hymns rise from this isolated grove. Mt. Gilead Church existed from 1891 to 1936. The music heard here today has not changed from when these hymns were song at Sunday services.

The children would likely want to return to playing but they have been raised in church and know how to behave. In contrast to their earlier busts of energy, they sit attentive to the service. Rev. Delmar Davenport delivers an eloquent sermon alluding to the beauty of this place and evoking God’s continued generosity. The service ends with a heartfelt rendition of “If We Never Meet Again,” sung by everyone.

While the adults are putting up the food, taking down the sound system, and loading the cars the children run back to the creek. More rocks, more crawdads until the adults threaten mayhem if the children do not leave. Grudgingly they put on shoes and trudge out knowing they will rebuild the dam next year.

People hug, a few misty eyed. Promises of returning the next year hang in the air as we get in our car and drive out. Across the mountains families like these gather in a ritual worth repeating. May it always be so.


The Lost Art of Handwritten Letters

Two Long Time Friends Rediscover the Joys of Letter Writing.

As you sort through the mail the letter stands out. The envelope has a nice texture and a pleasing color. The stamp is floral and the address written in a beautiful hand. Turning the letter over you note it is sealed shut with a dusty gold wax and imprinted with a Fleur-de-lis. A wedding invitation no doubt, you think to yourself. Yet when you break the seal and slip the contents out you discover a letter from an old friend. Surprised you sit down in a chair and read through the letter, smiling and perhaps rereading sections.

In an era of e-mails, texting, and cell phones, such an experience is rare, but worth reviving. My adventures in letter writing began with a complaint from my friend Ro. Since high school we have kept up our friendship despite living over seven hundred miles apart. For many years we wrote, but with the advent of e-mail our letters stopped.

“I think I actually used to write more, before computers came on the scene. It is so much easier to write as I am doing now, sitting at a keyboard, watching the words appear on a screen, but I suspect something has been lost.” she lamented. Ro continued, “I have a very few letters from my grandfather who came to the US from Russia as a young man fleeing from a series of riots against Jews. He had only a second grade education so his letters are replete with his wonderful misspellings and unique handwriting – but they are treasures.” I agreed that something had been lost so we vowed to begin writing letters by hand as a supplement to our e-mail messages.

Electronic correspondence has replaced letters to the extent that procuring the necessary supplies was a challenge. Note cards are abundant but sheets of letter sized paper in boxed sets are less available. Often I found that one selection was all that card and book shops offered. If you are lucky there might be a choice of two papers. Not to be discouraged we both scoured shops and soon came up with several pretty papers. Seals and wax can be bought, but you have to look in the wedding section of stores. It may seem like a contradiction but writing supplies can be ordered online.

Choosing a pen was critical. I absolutely ruled out any form of ball point pens as too ordinary. Initially I tried a crow quill dip pen with India Ink. In my mind I pictured myself as Abigail Adams writing to John, or a heroine in a Jane Austin novel. Alas that was not to be, my penmanship was scratchy looking and the sound annoying. Worse yet was the constant threat of a spill resulting in a disaster.

The next day I brought home a dozen pens of all kinds from fine point permanent ink pens to newer styles. After much “research” may I suggest a gel pen? No not one of the shiny, glittery, pre-teen choices, just a blue or black gel pen. Today’s fountain pens are also a good choice. Plastic pop-in ink cartridges have made fountain pens easy to use.

Learning how to properly use sealing wax and a wax stamp was an exercise in hilarity. The first try set off the smoke alarm. You can not believe how much smoke such a small candle-like object can produce. The next try was attempted under the overhead fan above my stove. This time, I failed to notice the position of the design on the wax seal, which was an elegant K for my first name. I was proud that I had created such a nice seal that did not have drips at the edges. Then I discovered that the K was upside down. After breaking the seal, removing the letter and putting it into another envelope, I finally succeeded.

Another problem involved the use of sealing wax for letters after several arrived with broken or damaged seals from postal. One solution is to have the postal worker add twenty cents in stamps and hand stamp the letter. Also softer waxes are less likely to break and practice resulting in thinner seals helps.

Since the initial problems have been worked out, the process of looking for more supplies has become pleasurable. The discovery of a new paper, pretty stamp, just issued by the post office, or a wax seal with a unique design has becomes an occasion for exhilaration. Ro’s high-school-aged daughter has become interested in this new passion, and together they have shopped for stationery as well as ordered wax seals on line.

Finding a relaxing time and place to write is the most pleasurable part of hand writing letters. I prefer late in the evening when the house is quiet, and I am alone, family members having gone to bed. Others might favor early morning while catching glimpses of a sunrise. No matter the time, finding a personal space, quiet, and privacy is important.

My friend Ro describes the process as meditative, “Writing letters, rather carving out the time to do it, is like discovering an oasis. What I am trying to say is that the whole process is bringing me a sense of peace. I am appreciating just being able to spend this time together with you, because that is what it feels like.”

Having written letters for several months I have discovered other benefits. I find it easier to share intimate feelings when handwriting. Perhaps it is the fact that I set aside a quiet time for writing versus my typical rush when writing e-mails on my computer. For whatever reasons my thoughts, even fears, flow as I write.

Additionally, letter writing opens possibilities for creativity. Another friend made origami letters for me to write upon. Recently, I wrote a poem for my friend Ro and included dried spring flowers-which fell onto her lap when she opened the letter.

Letter writing is best enjoyed with an intimate friend. Find someone, perhaps one who lives far from you, and suggest making a writing pact. Yes, Ro and I still send e-mails, mostly about time sensitive or mundane practical issues.

On occasion Ro and I e-mail an alert that a letter has been posted heightening our anticipation. Savoring the letters we receive is also important and a pleasure. When I recognize a letter from Ro I am tempted to rip it open immediately as I would a bill. Instead, I set it aside for an uninterrupted, more contemplative time.

Now that I have acquired a collection of writing supplies, I have assembled a small writing kit housed in a lovely antique looking box. Late at night, after my husband retires, I set up my writing space. And there I share my most intimate thoughts with a friend who has known and understood me most of my life. Our separation seems less so. In another box I keep Ro’s letters tied together with a soft ribbon, available to be reread on occasion.

Victoria Bliss Magazine January 2011