I remember the phrase “high school reunion” from my earliest childhood. It meant that my mother (Canton McKinley, ’42) attended committee meetings for a year, got a new dress, and then one Saturday night, left the house with glistering earrings, a shooka-shooka-sounding taffeta slip under her black dress, and my father, who smelled like Aqua Velva as he kissed us good-bye. They would be out very late, and the next morning, in a voice hoarse from shouting above the dance music, Mom would tell us stories about all the people who showed up. If it was my father’s class reunion they had attended, Dad (Canton Timken, ’43) would say proudly, “Your mother flitted around the room talking to everyone! She knew more people than I did! She knows the whole city of Canton!”

It’s true that my mother, who couldn’t pronounce my husband’s French surname for the first 10 years of our marriage, before she died in her 80s had the names, faces, and life histories of all of her 500 classmates permanently engraved on her brain. Add her gargantuan appetite for nostalgia, and you have the Queen of Reunions. In one two year period, my parents attended four family reunions, two high school reunions, and my father’s WWII outfit’s reunion.

Some of those in that “Greatest Generation,” having been through the Great Depression and World War II, tend to want to remember more than some other generations, I think. I don’t have quite the appetite that my parents do for reunions. I never attend the ones at my college, which I hated anyhow. I attend family reunions when I am in town, which wasn’t too often before I moved back. And yet, I have attended all of my high school reunions to date, which are getting more and more like a verse from Peter Nelson’s song, “Summer of Love”:

We are married with children, mortgages too
And we can't believe all the things we used to do.
We can still sing along to that song by the Byrds
Though it's harder each year to remember the words.

Still my work is nothing compared to that of Marsha Brown, perhaps the world’s only self-effacing former football queen, beautiful as always, who manages to get to keep track of and often attend funerals of many classmates and their parents, who manages to stay in touch with several of us, still penning real letters in large, “A+” in penmanship script. Or Dave Motts, class VP and now the Business Manager of the Pro-Football Hall of Fame, whose management skills may be what keeps our reunion machine going. Or Kathy Paris, who is such a cheerful nagger of those who have yet to attend. 


At breakfast with my husband one morning recently, my dream from the previous night came back and hung over me like Joe Btfsplk’s cloud.

"Paul, I dreamed it was the prom, and I didn’t have a date,” I sighed. “Sometimes it seems like all of high school was about not having a date.
He nodded empathetically.

“For you too?” I couldn’t imagine dating as an issue for Paul since he went to an all-boys school. “Really?”

“Oh yes, and….” As his thought trailed away, he looked uncomfortable, shrugged off the thought, and continued in a brighter voice, “I wouldn’t want to think about high school as much as you are going to in order to write that essay on class reunions.”

Actually, attending Paul’s class reunions from a high school that was not only all male but small, private, and in the East, has helped me to see my own most large, public, co-ed Midwest high school in sharper focus, as though attending his gave me stronger glasses to hold up to my aging eyes, delineating the scene more clearly.


The first difference struck me the moment I walked into Paul’s fifteenth reunion and saw more dark, expensive suits and ties than I have seen in a lifetime. (Paul, in his light seersucker jacket and open-necked shirt, was the only one out of uniform.) Perhaps the dress is indicative of these graduates’ careers in the professional managerial class. The men dress this way every day for their jobs as dentists, bankers, and businessmen.

Meanwhile, at my reunion, the clothing among both men and women is most varied, from the people who think they are still dressing for the prom to the very casual types. Some men come in suits, some do not—certainly no one living in Florida does. The women wear pants, dresses, and skirts with hemlines and necklines rising and plunging less along fashion lines than personality lines. I agonize over what to wear, and even as I type this, I wonder if I will be able to stand the backache I’d get from wearing my open-toed lavender pumps, or if I have to put on the Earth Shoe Mary Janes I find myself wearing in self-preservation these days.

There are fewer professionals in my class than in Paul’s; I would guess that most of my classmates who are professionals are teachers. We tended to have “jobs” rather than “careers” early in our lives, especially the women, and many came to our careers very late, some after children were raised. As Wendy Wasserstein once noted, we are of that generation of women who were sent to universities to marry a professional, not become one, so that when we graduated in 1972 and our elders asked us what we were going to do for a living, we suddenly found that the expectations for women, like many other facets of life, had undergone quite a metamorphosis in just four years while we were in college.

As I stood at my 20th reunion in 1988 with my new husband, watching Jean Housos tear up the dance floor as she has been doing since fifth grade (she has such moves, she could be a Swiss clock on steroids), Paul noticed a salient factor of my youth that I’d have missed. “I can’t believe how much Motown they’re playing,” he said.

Certainly if my high school dances rocked to the Beatles, the Who, the Beach Boys, Herman’s Hermits, the Byrds, and the Stones, they also rolled to the Supremes, the Temptations, Aretha, and Hendrix, even though my class was 100% white and the school was 99% white. (The school system was quietly integrated in 1963 by four families, none with children my age.) To dance at my class reunions is to realize how close we were to Detroit, just three hours away, and Cleveland, home of the Moondog Coronation Ball.

Of course, the biggest difference in our schools, and so in our reunions, dawned on me as we walked into his, and I realized that every woman in the room was a “mate,” that the only way to gain entrance to the event was to be a male or attached to one. I had never in my life been anywhere before where the sole criteria for a woman’s presence was her being attached to a man. (Roles for women have indeed expanded.) Out of 70 men in the class, only one man once in two reunions attended without a wife. And he came with a waitress from his restaurant.

People come to my high school reunion paired as well as unpaired (either single, divorced, widowed, or in the process of divorcing that jerk across the room.) In that sense, and in many other ways, our reunions remind me more of sock hops than proms. In another way too: more people on the prowl. At my 15th reunion I watched the most handsome, unmarried pair stalk each other for all the world as they did their junior and senior years without ever going out. And if we do not come to stalk, we do look for the persons we might have chosen and didn’t, the secret crushes and former steadies.

My breakfast melodramatics notwithstanding, high school was not all a matter of not dating for me, and in retrospect, I am grateful that I spent the first eighteen years of my life working and playing in the company of boys. I was unready for dating then and learned to know men first as friends and colleagues, perhaps the most useful lesson I learned in school.

Then there is size. “One cannot have too large a party,” Jane Austen once noted, and certainly the Perry High School class of 1968, with 356 graduates (most don’t come, but still…) constitutes a large if not too-large party, a shockingly loud one after attending Paul’s small quiet one. This, too, is fitting since noise is the salient sensory impression in my high school memories. (Proust had madeleines; I have decibals.) From the high-ceiling cafeteria jammed with hundreds of students to the weekly hour and a half pep rallies held in a city that considers itself the cradle of football, Perry High was a constant din. Built beside a railroad track where the trains ran regularly between Chicago and New York, the school air filled many times a day with trains rushing by so loudly that we could not shout over them. My memories of classes and football halftime shows by the marching band are punctuated with stop-action scenes of teachers waiting with their lips posed to finish sentences, horn players with embouchures hovering over their mouthpieces to repeat a chorus once the train had passed.

So I like the rowdiness of our reunions. For long stretches of the evening, I just stare, brain-numbed, letting the sound of a too-loud band or DJ rush over me while everyone tries to shout above the music. That part reminds me more of high school than anything.

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