Ben and I were very surprised that we decided to attend his 35th Harvard reunion on Memorial Day weekend. We don’t usually go in for this sort of thing – but it was a biggie - three days of symposia, lunches, dinners and concerts and besides, we would be staying in a college dorm. How could we resist?
We were even more surprised when drinking gin and tonic on the lawn in front of Winthrop House, we saw how old our companions had become. Surely these broad beamed women and white haired gentleman were not our peers? I mean, could that venerable white haired gent with the monogrammed shirt and tiny bow tie actually have been a hippie like us, in 1976? Why do we look like our parents?
It wasn’t so much individuals, we decided. It was the group as a whole. After a few friendly conversations we went up to our dorm room. The room was cleared out– recalling the experience of a Freshman’s arrival day – the scruffy hardwood floors, the desks and empty book cases pushed against the wall, the big fireplace (and sign prohibiting its use), ancient window seats from which you looked onto courtyard trees and the Charles River. Oh, and bunk beds~
I feared for Ben's safety as he hoisted himself to the top bunk, and dangled his feet over the edge. “I hope I don’t fall out,” he said. They had kindly provided us with thin Harvard blankets; we snuggled down, and cracked open the window. "Goodnight Skipper!" I said. I was awakened in the middle of the night by a chorus of male voices from the quad below: “I’m leaving on a jet plane – Don’t know when I’ll be back again…” Wow. Graduates leaving campus. What was it – 3 am?
The college experience seemed particularly poignant, because our own two sons are currently bookends of the undergrad experience - our youngest Elliot graduating high school in a week, and Alex about to finish at the University of Edinburgh. And here were we thirty five years out and observing it all.
Friday began with breakfast, followed by a memorial service in the chapel where the names of those who had passed on were read aloud. It was a long list, followed by the melancholy tolling of a bell. Afterwards I watched Ben and his classmates assemble for a group photograph on the steps of the Widener Library. What a happy group! The lawn was hung with left over banners from Wednesday’s graduation. We walked out and sat on the lawn surrounded by the beautiful brick buildings of Harvard. We talked about our college days, under the tall reassuring trees. Then there was lunch in a big marquee, and several speeches and a very hot sun – and the jovial alumni of 1976 were very much their age. What we lacked in muscle tone and hair we made up for in good nature. We heard people reflect about how we would not be the same people in fifteen years – for our 50th reunion. A 50th reunion was taking place, in a different tent across a different lawn. Maybe I should have popped in to mingle with them. It would have made me feel a little younger.
My father used to tell a joke: how far can a rabbit run into the wood? Half way – because after that he’s running out of the wood. Turns out that running out feels sort of the same as running in. You are still the same rabbit. And after the shocking realization that you’re on your way out, after more conversations and a Tuscan lunch, we began to feel that perhaps this was our crowd after all. The only thing missing was sex appeal. No one is sexy any more, but nobody cares to be either. What steals over people’s faces instead is sweetness and wisdom. The shocking part is that nobody is hungry. They are curious yes, but not with the edge of those who hope for a networking opportunity and want to get something out of you.
After lunch and various symposiums run by accomplished, articulate and very friendly people we go back to our dorm for a nap. Yup. That’s who we are now – people who feel like a bit of a nap, if we are going to hold strong for the evening entertainment at Symphony Hall.
But before lying down, I look out of the window and see another marquee in front of Winthrop House, where the 5th 10th and 15th reunions are underway. Harvard sure has the reunion thing down pat. This more youthful crowd of alumni is picnicking and playing Frisbee on the lawn. There’s an ice cream truck and several paddling pools set up for the toddlers. A mother chases after a tiny child who totters precariously across the grass. I remember what it feels like to be those people – how conversations are constantly interrupted– and how very difficult it is to feel like you are still a serious and engaging person when you have to break off your dialog every few minutes to attend to children.
That evening we go to a concert – Yo Yo Ma – another member of the Harvard class of ‘76 - will be playing with the Boston Pops. We drive in a motorcade of school buses to Symphony Hall. The police stop traffic so that we can pass. We are being made to feel important, although the buses themselves are terribly hot and clearly not designed for people our size or disposition. But everyone is cheerful nonetheless – and we make a lively audience for the Boston Pops. Symphony Hall is wonderful. The program is conducted by John Williams and Yo Yo Ma plays absolutely beautifully.
Saturday begins with breakfast in the dining hall. Ben and I happen to sit next to one of the most lively conversationalists we’ve encountered so far– a man who invented iris recognition, now used in airport security. But that’s the kind of reunion this is – where everyone you meet is engaging, accomplished and good natured. Breakfast is followed by more symposiums on health care and the foibles of the two party political system, and then we lunch at Ben’s old house, Kirkland House. Throughout the day I am struck by everybody’s intelligence, accomplishment and articulate engagement on a wide range of issues, as well as the calm wisdom that seems to have come to them with age.
Later at the talent show and dinner dance my thoughts are less generous. Things are winding down. We take to the floor in a spectacular hall that everybody remembers as the exam room at Sanders Theater. Why are we so OLD, I wonder yet again. We are dancing to the Rolling Stones. We are singing along. We are making fools of ourselves and we don’t care a bit. I wonder if I should give up on my dreams. Isn’t it terribly undignified to go on dreaming into your fifties? Isn’t it time for wise reflection. I worry that I am my own worst nightmare – mutton dressed as lamb. I wonder if I am fighting age too much and if it’s embarrassing to be scrambling to get my book published. Do I want to be one of these people, and can I do anything about the fact that I am one of these people, whether I like it or not?
Some of my hopes and dreams have not come true. But my hopes might be irrelevant. In their place other things have happened. So far, I am not a celebrated novelist or a professor at an esteemed university. There again, I’ve lived in many different countries, learned several languages, and I never expected to do any of that. I’ve been married happily for twenty seven years. I never imagined my three wonderful children, but we had them anyway, and we raised them, and we love them and they are healthy and happy and most importantly we really like them as people. I don’t really know if my hopes made a blind bit of difference to my life so far, or if I’ve turned out worse or better because of them.