coming together

June was bracketed by reunions.  At the beginning of the month, Sue and I attended my 45th high school reunion.  At the end, there was a gathering of my mom’s family.

The dictionary I got when I graduated way back when has this as a definition of reunion:  “A gathering of the members of a group who have been separated.”

My classmates and I shared a time and place.  We were born within months of each other and found ourselves in or around Luverne, a small town on the prairie in southwest Minnesota.  Fate brought us together, but we dispersed after graduation, the daily interactions with each other becoming a thing of the past.  The web of relationships became a network of one-to-one connections, many of which faded away as the years went by (although some have been revived via social media).

More than ten percent of the members of my class of 135 have passed away.  A year ago, I had reached out to someone about the arrangements for the reunion.  He responded, “Hope to see an old friend of 50 years.”  But he died suddenly in the fall.

I was tapped to lead a little program at the reunion.  Reading the names of those no longer with us was emotional for me; at one point I had to start over.  I knew them all, in one way or another, and some very well.

The other time my voice broke was when I was acknowledging the attendance of a friend who meant a great deal to me; I hadn’t seen him in over four decades.  What a joy to be with him after all these years.

Of course, there were a lot of people who couldn’t attend because of conflicts, and others who chose not to, for whatever reasons.

I remember talking with a classmate many years ago about coming to the next reunion we would have.  He said, “High school wasn’t that great of a time for me.”  Coming together for him may have meant opening old wounds.

Two years ago, I read a piece in the StarTribune titled, “Too late for kindness: Why didn’t I protect a bullied classmate in high school?”  It gets to me every time I read it.  “To my effin’ grave,” the author lamented in the last line, talking about the regrets he carries for the treatment of “the class oddball,” now gone.

The theme of the yearbook when we were seniors was “there is a season.”  The famous words from Ecclesiastes were interspersed with pictures from the big world out there and from the little world we inhabited.  Having lived these many years, the theme is no longer an abstraction.  To be sure, our personal ups and downs couldn’t all be covered in the brief conversations during our short evening together, but we knew that we had all been through a lot.  That made the gathering even sweeter.

A date has already been set to celebrate a half-century since we first went our separate ways, but we left not knowing what the future holds for any of us.

Four weeks after that night, we spent a great weekend with relatives.  Speaking of fate, the words of To Kill a Mockingbird apply:  “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

My mom was the oldest of six children who grew up in the tiny town of Rogers, North Dakota, founded at the intersection of two rail lines.  We met there, sixty or so of us, ranging in age from more than ninety to less than one.  My mom and her youngest sibling, Uncle Danny, are no longer living, although they were there in pictures and stories and memories of what once was.

Unlike at the class reunion, with this group you could see the sweep of generations.  You could notice familiar features and mannerisms among the young and old.

Some members of the family live in close proximity.  Many of us do not, but we’ve managed to keep in touch pretty well and see each other as often as we can.  Most of us are clustered in the Midwest, although we range from coast to coast.

Among us, we manage to tag each end of the political spectrum and spots in between.  “No politics!” my grandmother said decades ago in trying to head off some trouble, not knowing that today’s standoffs would be more harsh than ever and sometimes tear families and friends apart.  Thankfully, that scrum was left out of both of the reunions we attended in June.  We could see each other as people, not as opinions.

It’s hard not to get misty-eyed when reflecting on those who have shaped you, who have seen you at your best and worst — and who, despite your failings, would be there for you if you needed help.  They moved me and molded me in innumerable ways.  I’m sure I haven’t thanked them enough.

Subscribe: email | twitter