This blog has been a long time coming – perhaps appropriate when talking about school friends I haven’t seen in decades. In my quest to keep myself busy, I totally burned myself out last weekend, filling days with marching for NHS, pedicures and shopping, in between socialising every night. I definitely need to improve my social stamina, as it has taken me a few days to recover.
I am now in Florence with the Wizard, continuing to exhaust myself trekking the streets, and fretting about anything that comes to mind.
Back to last weekend – I am pleased to report that I pulled on my big girl boots, told my demons to pipe down and attended the school reunion drinks. I won’t lie – I ran through the gamut of self-soothing excuses for not going. I had a wonderful dinner with a very dear friend the night before and was tempted to assure myself I had done enough. In the end, knowing that some people I wanted to see where travelling from up North, spurred me out the door.
It’s more than 30 years since I met most of these people (over 35 in some cases – a third of a century), and more than 20 since I last spoke to them. These are the faces of my childhood – the best friends of my memories and anecdotes – the chroniclers of first kisses and dirty books – the players in a thousand tales of laughter and tears – the historians of my life.
I was beyond impressed at the quality and details of their recollections. I expect my memory to fail me, and accept this is partly deliberate laziness and fear. The reunion was like a seance – with these witches dragging repressed memories from my gibbering psyche. At times like flashbacks – a word, a question – and suddenly these visual memories bubble up to the surface, things I forgot I knew: where someone lived, what their sister was like, a story about a boy, a teacher’s name. A mannerism would take me straight back to those classrooms and playgrounds. I was a child again, at once 7 and 10 and 16, groped by the past from the all angles, dragged from one scene to another.
We went to Catholic school – a peculiarity which moulds and marks us still. A central role I played in the Judy Blume book scandal shames me still – not the book but the fact that the nun compelled me to name the source (forgive me Lord, for being a grass). The Ursuline sisters loom large in our memories, and I wonder if they lurk a little in the corner of our bedrooms, still whispering that men are dirty and trying to give us cock-fright (forgive me Lord, I tend towards awe).
And more, so much more, in such a short space of hours…
We all look good for our age – in some cases, damn near preserved in stasis. Perhaps 40 is not so aged after all.
I am well remembered for being “clever” and developing early, the millstones of my school years (more on that another time).
In a group of women of our age, it never fails to amaze and upset me how many feel disappointed in their careers. All these little sparks still burning, still seeking that purpose that will make them flame brightly. While child rearing plays a part in that, I wish we instilled little girls with more ambition for themselves, rather than assuring them that a husband and kids is everything they need.
There are certainly people I want to see again and talk to more. It is comforting how much you can still like someone, still feel connection and familiarity after so many years, as though an unshakable foundation was built in those years of pleated skirts and lunchboxes. In sales training I was taught that “I like you” are the most powerful words at our disposal. And there is much truth in it. Without flattery or wares to sell, I can confirm that I wholeheartedly like the people I met with this weekend.
But, oh my word, the stories… I mentioned previously string theory and all the little connections that hold us together. Spending time with the people who are part of the stories of my life, listening to them tell the stories of my life, I realised it was these stories that hold the connections. The stories are the holders of our past, the keepers of our memories. From the smallest moment to the weight of history, we bind ourselves to one another, to time, with these stories. What are historians if not storytellers? How do you tell me who someone is, how you feel about them, without telling me stories? Even the worst of our past – the most embarrassing drunken exploits, the brushes with death, the heartbreak – become stories; stories we share with our friends, stories they repeat back to us years later, like reading a child their favourite bedtime book.
You cannot make new ‘old friends’ and you cannot change your past. Like that tatty pair of shoes you cannot bear to throw out because they are so comfortable, there is much to cherish in the old.
As I sit with old friends, last weekend, this week, I find comfort and joy in the past, and in the present. Cheers to that!