It’s a paradox of ones senior years that as short-term memory deteriorates, distant experiences come into sharp focus. In the long span of years from my twenties to my sixties, I fled the past. My goal was to reinvent myself, because previous decades seemed boring, confining, or downright depressing. The past hung around in the margins like a dark shadow, but I never looked right at it.
In the past five years all that has changed. I’ve reconnected with high school friends via Facebook and it’s wonderful. I had assumed that the white bread, conservative, lightly educated, non-inclusive world of 1960 New Jersey had produced a batch of judgmental adults who would hardly feel like peers, for I’m a liberal gay woman with a graduate degree and a radically inclusive philosophy of life. What a mistake!
Reconnecting with high school friends proved a lesson in false assumptions. It’s true that my home town was rife with unworldly bigotry, opinionated ignorance and right-wing politics back then. What I failed to take into account was that neither the town nor my friends stood still. How could I not have know that? Dan, whom I met in kindergarten, has led a life of social responsibility. A liberal Democrat, he’s a union man who espoused the labor cause in early adulthood and never looked back. A couple of years ago, we emailed back and forth and I told him I’m gay. “Yeah, your mom told my mom years ago,” he responded. Sad that I didn’t notice growing up how open and accepting Dan and his family were. Linda, still a conservative, lives with multiple sclerosis in California. Her activity is limited so she spends lots of time on the internet and has become the glue that holds our high school friends together. Her warmth, courage and generosity are inspiring. I love reading her “daily dose” of news, photos, and thoughts.
As soon as I immersed myself in recovering distant friendships, pleasant childhood memories flooded back in vivid colors. On Saturday mornings while my parents and brothers slept in, I would get up early and enjoy complete freedom while feeling very grown up. I don’t remember whether I made my own breakfast ( I was perhaps seven or eight). I do remember climbing the big maple tree by the street and sitting in the top branches for what seemed like ages. From above my parents’ bedroom window, I’d look down, feeling adventurous because I was out and about and they weren’t. At the same time, I enjoyed the comfort of their near-by presence. But the biggest thrill of sitting in that tree was the view of the Hudson River and the New York City skyline. I’d find the Empire State Building (then the tallest building in New York) and think about my dad’s office in the near-by Chrysler building. Once I saw a beautiful ocean liner steaming it’s way up from the harbor; later my mother told me the Queen Mary had docked that day.
No matter how difficult childhood and ones teen years can be, there are always halcyon moments. Whether it was a familiar cityscape or the teeming world of nature, I remember discovering beauty everywhere. The lilies of the valley lining the walk from the back door to the public sidewalk. Hanging out in the soda shop with my girlfriends as a teen. A rabbit who lived briefly between our garage and the neighbors’. The luxury of clean sheets every Monday night. The heady aroma of bread baking. I’m thankful to the aging process for bringing those moments back. I’m only sorry I didn’t allow them to sustain me through the rest of my adulthood. But isn’t that what aging is about? “If I knew then what I know now.”