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By Cara Sheridan O’Donnell.

O'Donnell Irish EyesO'Donnell Irish EyesHigh school reunions in the United States are a big deal, events to anticipate with equal parts equanimity and trepidation.  Even the most self-confident of men in every class worries:  Could his classmates have grown so fat and bald that they will fail to recognize him?  At least one gal in every class, having shed the avoirdupois, remolded the crooked nose, and repaired the mousy-brown flyaway hair that had plagued her throughout her teenage years, suffers her own brand of pre-reunion jitters:  She prays that no classmates will see right through her elegant new persona and squeal gleefully upon recognizing the plain-Jane chubster disguise she once wore.

The goal set by the planners of my last “big” reunion—my 40th, to be exact—was that attendees would have the time of their lives. Beginning about one year before the gala, an informal planning committee was established. Its first order of business was to locate every member of our two graduating classes.  You see, during our years at St. Mary’s High School, which is now a fully coeducational private college-preparatory school in Manhasset, New York, we boys and girls were educated in two separate buildings, each with its own administration, faculty, and staff.  While extracurricular romances could potentially blossom in this environment, our single-sex educational arrangement neither encouraged nor facilitated such shenanigans in any way.  In fact, despite the relatively small size of our combined class of about 300, very few girls knew more than two dozen (“separately but equally” educated) classmates from the boys’ school, and vice versa. 

Forty years after our graduation, with the exception of a few high-school sweethearts who did later marry, our class remained divided along gender lines.  We were still largely unfamiliar with about half of the members of our class.  However, in planning our 40th reunion, that changed.  Once located, classmates were invited to join a couple of social-networking sites, through which (and along with the help of many group e-mails) we got to know one another as new acquaintances or to renew old friendships.  By the time our reunion rolled around, most of us were up to date on events in the lives of one another.  As a result, we were well equipped to carry out the real business of a reunion:  To pare away four decades’ worth of the laugh- and wisdom lines, post-pregnancy jelly rolls, shiny pates, and well-earned gray hairs we had acquired (oh-so-gradually) over the years, thus revealing our inner adolescence and all of its madcap, devil-may-care components.  To say that a good time was had by all at that reunion is an understatement.  The evening might not have been the time of their lives for some revelers, but I challenge anyone who was there to say that it was a flop!

Since that momentous party, quite a few of my girls’-school classmates and I have met every couple of months for lunch or brunch, extending invitations (well in advance of each event) through our web-site  connections, telephone calls to the technologically challenged, and other channels.  If one of us learns that someone who has long since moved out of state will be on Long Island for a brief visit, we make every effort to schedule a lunch date during her stay here.  We meet in groups of as few as three or four and up to 20 or so.

There is a beauty to these gatherings which is difficult to describe to anyone who has not experienced anything like them.  Although several of us enjoyed close friendships during our high school years, most of us separated when we went off to college and then quietly, inexorably drifted apart, sometimes geographically but most often as the result of our respective careers and/or new family responsibilities. But by the time our regular “mini-reunions” began (now almost five years ago), most of us had both the time and inclination needed to rediscover and reexamine the ties that first bound us.

We delight in a common history which encompasses far more than memories of eccentric and/or brilliant teachers and high-school hijinks. Oh, sure, we do groan when reminiscing about having to wear pleated, gray, wool uniform skirts and navy-blue blazers in classrooms without air conditioning.  Our utilitarian polyester gym uniforms, guaranteed to accentuate the flaws of every single body type known to mankind, are the stuff of legend.  Whoever designed those bloomers and shirtwaists will no doubt spend eternity in a special hell guarded by a similarly (and deliciously) condemned branch of the parochial school fashion police.  We discuss (and, finally, fully appreciate) the sacrifices our parents made to educate us and wonder if our lives might have taken different directions had our parents not made those sacrifices.  We rejoice with the person who reveals a triumph and cry genuine tears of sympathy for the woman who shares a personal tragedy.  We care.

What else do we discuss?  In the hours we spend at a single gathering, our conversations might revolve around our joint replacements, diabetic complications, special diets, marital-status changes, the appearance of errant but supremely pluckable chin hairs, retirement parties, plans for downsizing, various cancers conquered, children, grandchildren, tattoos, LASIK surgery, the priestly ordination of women, dogs, cats, *Peaches & Herb, in-laws, parents’ health problems, deaths, births, travels, hair styles we love and loathe, lactose intolerance, music, pap smears, liverwurst (yes, liverwurst!), an upcoming art exhibition by a classmate, what to order for lunch, and myriad other topics of universal interest.  So far-reaching are our lunchtime topics of conversation that the better question would be, “What topics do we not discuss?”  Our conversations often lead to questions and, while we don’t claim to have all the answers to any of them (nor do we agree at all times when debating the fine points of a controversial issue), we are comfortable enough with one another to express our opinions freely and/or confident enough about our friendship to agree to disagree.  We are as mixed a bag now as we were back in the 1960s.

Through our tears and laughter (and sometimes tears of laughter), we are unanimous in our agreement about one thing above all others, though:  Just as we were God’s works in progress back in the mid-1960s, so we are to this day.

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