Those Were the Days, My Friend
I graduated from Nerinx Hall, a Catholic girls high school in Webster Groves, Missouri, run by the Sisters of Loretto, in 1970. That means my 50th reunion was in 2020. Except COVID-19 had other ideas. That first year, it seemed like a small sacrifice that was disappointing but not tragic. In an effort to support the seniors who had much better reasons to be disappointed - no prom or graduation ceremony - we wrote letters of encouragement to them. Heidi Keibler Stevens wrote about that project in the Chicago Tribune.
Last year, we were beginning to get vaccinated, but the school wasn’t hosting large gatherings, so we put off the reunion another year. At the beginning of this month, we finally met. And a song that came out when we were seniors kept popping into my head:
Those were the days, my friend,
We thought they’d never end.
We’d sing and dance forever and a day.
We’d live the life we choose,
We’d fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.
Our class likes to get together. We’ve had formal reunions for the 5th (delayed one year because we all kept waiting for someone to take the lead), 10th, 20th, and every 5 years after that. No other class meets formally that often. There are also occasional smaller gatherings around Christmas. I’ve attended most of the reunions, except the 45th. I don’t remember why I didn’t go, but it must have been a damn good reason.
Nerinx has a long-standing tradition of inviting alums from the ‘50+’ classes to a mass and reception at school, something that also had not been held in 2020 or 2021. Our reunion weekend began with that event, and was the first time many of us had seen each other in a lot of years. There was a program with the mass songs and prayers and a list of alums from the classes of 1970-72 who have died. When I saw that list, my joy turned to grief, because my dear friend Christy’s name was at the top of the alphabetical list. She died in February.
Our class of 122 has lost 17, so we were used to having a list of classmates to recognize at every reunion. But Christy’s was the most recent death for any reunion, less than four months before we gathered. And she was truly loved by everyone.
Over the course of the weekend, she was never far from our thoughts or conversations. After the 50+ mass and reception, a dozen of us moved over to a favorite restaurant across the street, Cyrano’s, for the Irish wake we couldn’t have after her funeral because of bad weather. At a gathering in one classmate’s home on Saturday night, we were joined by Christy’s younger sister, who thanked us for supporting her, especially the cards we sent when she entered hospice care. I held up a lot better than I expected I would through all of that, until our prayer service on Sunday morning.
One of our traditions is to honor the girls who have died by presenting a rose for each one at the service. I was asked to bring up the last rose, for Christy, a request that didn’t surprise or upset me. I walked to the front, added hers to the 16 others in the vase, and sat down. When I did, my friend Judie grabbed my hand tight. And that was finally what opened the floodgates.
Later, I wondered why? Was it because I’d been able to keep myself (mostly) in control the whole weekend and it just had to get out? I think the real reason is the one that got me through the whole weekend: I was comfortable sharing my grief with others who also grieved Christy, something I hadn’t been able to do in person since her funeral.
Everyone experiences loss differently and that often means grieving alone. Grief doesn’t always manifest itself in ways that are obvious to those around us, other than tears or anger. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there and deeply felt.
COVID has complicated so many things in our world, but perhaps one of the most personal is the way we grieve. Normal, comforting rituals - wakes, funerals, memorial services - were canceled or moved online. The virtual aspect was great for people who otherwise would not have been able to be present. But that advantage only works for a while and to a point.
I spent that weekend laughing more than crying, which was my goal. I was surrounded by classmates who looked the same and different, who acted the same and different. That familiarity was a comfort I didn’t know I needed, even if I still wasn’t friends with all of them. That’s okay. It was a relief to be long past the need to impress each other. We shared our experiences and the grief we felt for those - classmates, teachers, and boyfriends - who are no longer with us. By the end of the weekend, that song made even more sense to me:
Oh, my friend, we're older but no wiser
For in our hearts, the dreams are still the same.