Laura Fellman’s Memorable 40th Reunion Essay

Laura Fellman’s 40th Reunion Essay
West High School Class of 1958 – 40th Reunion
July 11, 1998

Madison, Wisconsin

Here we are, nearing the end of our sixth decade of life. We have fewer
hairs on the top of our heads and more in our ears. A narrow waist and a
broad mind seem to have changed places. Gray hair has suddenly turned
black. We have developed crows feet even a mother crow couldn’t love.
The five Bs are upon us: baldness; bridgework; bifocals; bay windows;
and bunions. We are too young to be this old.

In almost sixty years we have lived through countless changes. We were
born before television, before penicillin, before polio shots, frozen
foods, plastic, Xerox, contact lenses, Frisbees and The Pill.
We were born before radar, credit cards, split atoms, laser beams and
ball-point pens, before pantyhose, dishwashers, clothes dryers, electric
blankets, air conditioners, drip-dry clothes, and before man walked on
the moon.

We got married first and then lived together. How quaint can you be. In
our time, closets were for clothes, not coming out of. Bunnies were
small rabbits and rabbits were not Volkswagens. Designer Jeans were
scheming girls named Jean or Jeannie, and having a meaningful
relationship meant getting along well with our cousins.
We thought fast food was what you ate during Lent, and Outer Space was
the back of the Orpheum Theater balcony.

We were born before house-husbands, gay rights, computer dating, dual
careers and commuter marriages. We were born before day-care centres and
nursing homes. We never heard of FM radio, tape decks, electric
typewriters, artificial hearts, word processors, yogurt, and guys
wearing earrings. For us, time-sharing meant togetherness, not computers
or a condominium, and a “chip” meant a piece of wood, hardware meant
hardware, and software wasn’t even a word.

In 1940, “Made in Japan” meant junk and the term “making out” referred
to how you did on your exam. Pizzas, MacDonalds and instant coffee were
unheard of.

We hit the scene when there were 5 and 10 cent stores, where you bought
things for five and ten cents. For one nickel, you could ride a bus,
make a phone call, buy a Pepsi or enough stamps to mail one letter and
two postcards. You could buy a new Chevy Coupe for $600 but who could
afford one: a pity too, because gas was 11 cents a gallon.

In our day, cigarette smoking was fashionable, “grass” was mowed, “coke”
was a cold drink and “pot” was something you cooked in. Rock music was a
Grandma’s lullaby and AIDS were helpers in the Principal’s Office. We
were certainly not before the difference between the sexes was
discovered, but made do with what we had. And we were the last
generation that was so dumb as to think you needed a husband to have a

How much change we have adapted to and survived! A good reason for
celebrating the reunion of our youthful days.

The teen years were a significant time in our lives: A time in which we
learned about ourselves, developed goals and planned for the future. It
was a period in which we first faced the horrifying realities of adult
life, responsibility, and expectations.

In high school we were busy developing and experimenting with new social
roles and a life style. It was a period which provided a testing ground
for intimate relationships, for trying to get accepted by our peers, a
period of exploring our sexuality.

While trying to gain autonomy from our parents and shape an identity, we
sometimes went through a process of feeling fragmented and unclear, as
though we were shifting. As we tried on various roles and possible
identities we sometimes experienced great stress and turmoil. This was a
critical time for us as we were going through the first life transition
that involves making important decisions. On some level we knew these
decisions would influence the rest of our adult lives.

As we gained an increasing awareness of our abilities and interests, we
were also seeking occupational or vocational choices. And we were
deciding what we would stand for, what life-direction we would pursue,
who we were as members of society.

As we tackled problems successfully, we were forming self-esteem and
independence. Some of us were like me, lingering too long in uncertainty
and insecurity, perhaps not having enough experiences of success at that
stage of life to recognize our own unique identity. Those who were like
me were short changed on developing self-esteem and had to go through
many more years to change the process which some of our peers went
through with seemingly greater ease during our teen years.

So, why do we come to High School reunions when, for some of us, our
memories of those teenage years were so fraught with insecurity and
searching, punctuated occasionally, of course, with an exhilarating
high? Why do we want to come here and relive that period of our lives?
Are we trying to make sense of our adolescence? Are we trying to feel
young again? Or to gain come perspective in our lives and the
experiences we have had?

For most of us, coming back probably evokes a tangled web of feelings
and reasons for returning. To begin with, reunions have a way of taking
us back to an innocent and simpler time of life, returning us to a
familiar place, a place where we feel a sense of belonging to a
community, a reconnection with our roots. An opportunity is provided
during these events, to relive the fun and happy feelings of high
school; the potluck before football games; singing in the school choir;
slumber parties where we did everything but slumber; ice skating at
Vilas Park; trips to the University Dairy for Dusty Road sundaes with
our friends – a chance to relive the best of childhood. Reunions give us
an opportunity not only to see how others have changed, but a chance to
fully accept how we have changed as well.

Some of us are anxious and uneasy here, not just by each other as we are
today but by each other’s ghost. We may have a need to revise our high
school experience. To now talk with the people we wouldn’t have dare
talk to then or spend time with people we were always interested in but
weren’t close to back then. Some of us may need to relive the scenes of
former mistakes, without the pain this time, to reassure ourselves that
we are better now than we were then, to rejoice in not only having
survived but triumphed, and to gain a sense of closure and satisfaction.
To see that age smoothes as it wrinkles.

We return as well to enjoy the affection we feel for one another, and
recognize the epiphanies of how deeply we have affected one another. We
are here to both deny and affirm the life process, coming to realize
that for 40 years we have been struggling with our lives while in our
memories our classmates have remained the same. And yet it is comforting
that despite gray and missing hair we are much the same, especially when
we laugh. We become aware that we have known one another all along, and
have always seen in each other the exciting selves that were struggling
to be born in those strangely conformist times of the 50’s.

And we are here to talk over life’s changes, from feeling reassured at
seeing the faces and knowing that people are still alive and still
carrying on their lives, as well as to have the opportunity to grieve
over lost and deceased classmates. We have a need to know how others
have struggled, how they survived and what they learned, restoring a
sense that our lives are coherent, significant and reasonably contented,
that life has provided us with some degree of wisdom, born of the
growing maturity, insights and acceptance wrung from our accumulated
experiences and hardships.

Perhaps we have returned with renewed determination to savour our lives.
The restless energy and uncertainty many of us emanate, like a
background humming, an almost unheard vibrato behind the steady melody
of jobs, marriages, retirements, grandchildren and travels, remind us
that we aren’t ready to stop yet. We are still going places, even if the
places aren’t as romantic and glamorous as the ones we once dreamed
about. In the end, memories become reality for a few days, which then
are put away as attic treasures to be discovered again sometime on a
rainy day, to comfort the present and lighten the future.

Leaving our 40th reunion may be both a sad experience and a relief. Most
of us would not want to be 17 again. We have struggled hard to become
who we are today and wouldn’t want to go back and do it all over again.
Perhaps the best way to reflect on these few days together is to give
ourselves plenty of credit for the intervening years…a kind of report
card we deserve; S for generally satisfactory; E for those events in
which we made an extraordinary effort; I for improvement; B+ for the
best we could do at the time; and an Incomplete because its not over

Perhaps most significantly, we come to connect as human beings. Around
us, beneath all the laughter, clinking glasses and glad cries of
recognition are people who, like us, have known silences. Dark quiet
places where the hidden self darts back and forth, like a gleaming fish
one only glimpses for moments before it disappears again in the tangled
weeds and black water. In the past 40 years, it would have been
impossible for any of us not to have visited those places, however
briefly. In the end then, as W. O. Mitchell put it so beautifully; “High
school reunions drawn humans together in a mortal family, uniting them
against the heart of darkness. Humans must comfort each other, defend
each other against the terror of being human.”

Let us honour every classmate whose lives have touched ours then, for
the love, lessons, and comfort they have brought us. Until we meet

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