I once worked for a man who loved to chat. My coworkers warned me not to visit his office unless I had enough time to lose an hour or so listening to him philosophizing or telling stories about his youth. I actually enjoy getting to know what makes people tick so I was not averse to settling into a chair in front of his desk and listening to him taking up topics that don’t usually come up in a business meeting. He was a sweet man who had a way of spinning a tale that was folksy and interesting given my own propensity for relating the stories of my life.
One day he randomly began thinking about an old flame that he had in his high school days. He told me that he had once thought he was in love with the girl that he took to his senior prom, but his youthful romance never panned out. He moved on to college and then the beginning of a career where he met his wife with whom he had created a wonderful family and life. He assured me that he was still very much devoted to his wife, but he had sometimes thought that if anything ever happened to her, he might look up his old girlfriend to see if she was available. He felt that the two of them might enjoy living out their final years together because their common bond of the past would be comforting.
I suppose my boss’s theory intrigued me because I remember that conversation quite clearly. Many years later when I met with him for lunch one day I saw how grief stricken and lonely he was after his wife had died. As usual he talked my ear off, but I did not mind because I understood how important it was for him to have an outlet for his sorrow. I found myself wondering if he had tracked down his old girlfriend, but I dared not bring it up because he was still working out his feelings. Instead I allowed him to do all of the talking for probably three hours before we finally parted.
I did not hear from him for some time after that. I worried that he might be ill because he seemed to just drop out of sight. Then out of the blue a Christmas card arrived from him and I was excited to know that he was back with us so to speak. I opened it to see a different kind of handwriting than his. It was signed by a woman who quite proudly linked her name to his. I instantly remembered the name of the girlfriend that he had mentioned and knew that he had found her and renewed their youthful romance. Now she was his second wife just as he had imagined she might one day be.
It was a sweet story of the kind that I have seen repeated over and over again. As my boss had noted, we humans feel safer with people that we knew well when we were young. We do not fear the dating game nearly as much if we already share commonalities and relationships. It is a kind of comforting way to spend our golden years after our first spouses have died or left us. I have countless friends who have done just that and they have found happiness that they did not believe would be possible with old friends from high school or college. Theirs are stories worthy of romantic movies.
My own fifty year class reunion has led to renewal of old friendships and the beginning of new ones. The common memories of our youth along with our evolutions as adults somehow seem to mesh even decades after we once knew each other. It is as though we are able to complete each other’s sentences or thoughts. We may not think exactly alike, but our memories of past times fill in the gaps and demonstrate how much we were shaped by those crucial adolescent years. We are with people who knew us when we were awkward and lacking in confidence, unsure of who we were and who we might become. They seem to like us even with all of our flaws. We don’t have to put on airs around them.
In a typical fashion I could hardly wait to graduate from my high school and strike out in new directions. I was not the least bit interested in looking back although I did maintain friendships with many of my former classmates. I was intent on shedding the image that had become my personality, even though it was nothing like who I knew I actually was. I had to free myself from the classifications that teens often implant on each other…the popular crowd, the nerds, the shy nobodies.
My mother’s illness accelerated my transformation from an ugly duckling to a swan. I had to become an adult to keep her well. I no longer had the luxury of hiding behind my shyness. I became an advocate for her, and later for my children and my students. I became unafraid.
Now I enjoy being with old classmates and listening to each of their stories. It’s amazing how strong everyone has had to be and how wonderfully they have overcome mind numbing challenges. Many have found happiness just like my former boss did, others find comfort from just being with old friends. All of us have benefited from the foundations of our youth that had seemed so silly at the time. Now we see that we are the sum total of all of our experiences, but the lessons we learned from our parents and teachers have guided us all along to do the right things. It’s very nice to realize that the world continues moving forward, but our relationships never really wane. We are part of a very big family of good people who helped us to take our first steps forward into the world. Finding them again is a blessing.