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Reunions, Small, Big. Dread Them? Love Them? Whatever and Whenever

May 24, 2019 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Unlike other friends whose families moved frequently, we both grew up in one suburban community where we lived for decades. We went through one public school system, walked to school or stood at the bus stop with the same kids, made friends early on—some from kindergarten--and our parents continued to live in those places long after we graduated from our high schools. Margaret’s parents changed homes in St. Louis but stayed in the same school system and community. Barbara’s parents in Westchester County, New York, stayed in the same house for four decades. Her mother only moved to New York City after her father died; she worried about managing the lawn and snow removal and putting on a new roof. 

Our small communities were our anchors. They were safe and predictable. We knew who lived in which homes, what their parents were like—never home because they played golf or worked at their offices long hours, did volunteer work or were fabulous home cooks even before Julia (Child) emerged. We also knew the best shops, groceries and restaurants. The top delicatessen in Barbara’s town made the tastiest, mouth-watering rare roast beef or healthy all-white meat turkey sandwiches on rye with Russian dressing and coleslaw. Margaret’s family had their favorite steak place right down the street from their home called Flaming Pit. It was reasonably priced, and its steaks, chops or burgers would arrive with several side dishes. In retrospect, the food was ordinary which created a spate of family jokes. Margaret’s father would come home from work some nights and ask the family, “Want to go eat at Flaming S___.”  

Margaret moved back to her town from Chicago several years after marrying and starting her family. She got to see her childhood friends often. Barbara moved to New York City after marrying but was just 40 minutes away from her childhood community. Many of her childhood friends also lived in Manhattan. Both of us were diligent at staying in touch through phone calls and letters, and later emails and eventually texts. 

We didn’t need a formalized reunion to stay in contact with those we cared about from our school days. We each went to our high school reunions because it was relatively easy—even when Barbara moved away, she had family to visit back home as a good excuse. Add that to the fact that we’re reporters so we’re curious about people—what profession they pursued, whether they married or were in a relationship or chose to remain single, and whether they had children and later grandchildren. We also mourned the loss of parents and even their siblings whom we knew well in many cases. 

It goes without saying that we know people who dread reunions and some who absolutely refuse to go (“Never call me again,” said one person when Barbara tried to recruit him to a reunion). Maybe, it wasn’t at the top of our to-do list, but we didn’t have to be dragged, kicking and screaming. We each ended up enjoying them, put aside any bad memories from those days, and made a few new connections—Barbara now has two new close friends she made—one at her 40th and another at the 50th. Margaret also reconnected with some old friends. 

Interestingly, we each discovered how enjoyable it was to spend time with some of these people who had similar experiences to those we had by growing up in the same suburban communities. We had a shared history. We could commiserate about our Depression-era parents taking home sugar packets from restaurants or plastic shopping bags from grocery stores; recall the fear of atomic bomb air-raid drills and crouching in hallways or under our desks; the terror of the Cuban missile crisis and relief when the Russian boats turned around; where we each were the day the late President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas; whom we ate lunch with in high school and which mean girls ignored us; the pangs of lost loves and dateless Saturday nights spent with girlfriends; and the pressures of getting into college without having parents pave the way with huge contributions. Our folks never would have done that and certainly didn’t have the bucks to do so. 

As time went on, we shared about our own aches and pains or “organ recitals” as bones began to break, knees needed to be replaced, eye sight failed and cataract surgery was needed, and so on. Perspectives and values changed. As years went by, nobody was there to brag about how large their house was or how successful they had become. We came together out of a sincere desire to share that we had survived, could be together and that we wanted to hear how all of us planned to spend retirement years and where. Many of us debated whether to relocate near children—and the real attraction of being closer to grandchildren. Some of us entertained the possibility of second careers. 

With life speeding by, why did we need a 40th, 50th and soon 55th  reunion to get together? We didn’t. And invariably, someone would suggest gatherings at non-big reunion times, too. Margaret, who still lives in her hometown, organized a group of grade-school girls who live nearby in that town to get together periodically for brunch. Every two months or so, she sends a group email. “Where do you want to go and when?” She’ll offer a few dates.  “Let’s pick a place where we can hear one another?” Let’s face facts, our hearing which has declined with age has made it tough in a restaurant. Initially, when the group met, Margaret turned to one of the women who was mean to her in grade school and boldly asked, “You weren’t very nice to me in grade school. Why?” She turned red and apologized profusely. “I really like you. I don’t know why.” Margaret replied, “I like you, too.” That was then. It cleared the air. 

Another group of Margaret’s childhood friends always gets together when one or two of them who live out of town, come to visit. “Who’s going to organize a lunch?” We’ve taken turns. Or, for a while after the 50th reunion, a different group would get together for dinner, rotating homes. We’d each cook what we did best, bring out wine, schmooze— “How’s your brother, what are you up to these days, what about your children and grandchildren?” And then we’d reminisce. “I remember how kind your mother was to me when I was upset about one of our friends who was mean to us,” or, “Your mother was the best cook. I loved being invited for dinner. The first time I ever tasted an artichoke was in your home.” There were also the mothers who were terrible cooks, like one of Margaret’s friends whose mother one time was making a turkey and forgot to turn on the oven. We couldn’t figure out why it was taking so long to cook. They also had terrible snacks in their home—as in no snacks, so Margaret would bring her own. We still laugh about it. 

Barbara’s circle started getting together in different ways and for different reasons. In years past, several classmates would gather for dinner when one friend, from kindergarten, came to New York from San Francisco for an art fair twice a year. He would email or call Barbara and say, “Would you get together a group?” She’d send out an email blast to those she knew would want to see him, pick a centrally located economical restaurant and we’d have a wonderful time catching up and planning our next gathering. The group remained basically the same but occasionally a new member would show up. Sometimes, a spouse or partner also would come but often not.  

The week before her 40th  reunion, a large group of gals got together for a pot-luck dinner at one classmate’s home. It was the first time many of us had seen each other in 10 years. We brought food, sat in a circle, and each had five minutes or so to share their news. There were tales of remaining single, divorcing, and so on. It was warm and wonderful and there was a promise to do it again before the 50th. We did, and the same hostess was gracious. More came, including some who had felt ostracized in high school and were so happy to be together. 

After the 50th, there were a few small gatherings and recently someone initiated an email blast for another gals’ dinner. But several added names, the list grew, and the hospitable hostess again offered her home since there were too many to gather and speak easily in a restaurant. More of us had begun wearing hearing aids or entertaining the thought and knew we wouldn’t be able to hear well with so much noise. Barbara also attended a coed dinner when her San Francisco friend came in and wanted a group to toast all their 70th birthdays together. It was held in a too noisy restaurant and was difficult to hear and talk since we were seated in the main dining room rather than a private space. Yet, it still felt good to show up. 

Sometimes the connections seem forced; there’s not enough glue to become friends beyond these gatherings. However, a group gathering is good because there’s still a caring about these long-ago bonds. And we both realize how lucky we are to have them. 

Barbara’s children live far from the two cities where they were raised, and because they moved several times, they don’t have the same type of bond she did with her longest-time friends; two dating from their elementary-school bus stop. Margaret’s children have all moved away. They keep in touch with their friends through social media, but it’s not the same. When her older son, who moved back home for 10 years, visits, he has so many friends to spend time with, Margaret barely sees him. Her other two children have lost touch with many of their childhood friends with one or two exceptions. We both know how lucky we are to have retained our childhood ties. 

Here’s our recipe to make these smaller, more spontaneous gatherings work and our main advice—don’t wait for the big one to do so:

  1. Take the initiative if nobody else does. Start an email string with a, “Let’s get together for drinks, lunch or dinner” at a mutually agreeable time. Throw out a few dates; not everybody will be able to come to all but pick the one that’s most popular.
  2. Be inclusive. Mention in the email that anybody should add a name. As Margaret’s mother taught both of us, it’s important to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. We had enough of that back in junior high and high school.
  3. Go for the right setting. If possible, gather in someone’s home if the group is bigger than six or eight. Otherwise, it’s too hard to talk, have meaningful conversations with a large number at a restaurant. If you go to a restaurant, be sure to ask for a private room if available and a round table. Long tables limit conversation to the person across from you or adjacent, and then you might feel like you are watching a tennis match. And who needs neck strain at our ages. If you get together at home, share costs, or rotate homes. Everyone takes a turn. Or, start a kitty to order take-out or make it a pot luck dinner and assign parts of the meal: food, drinks, napkins, paper plates and so on. You don’t want to have five lasagnas or just 10 bottles of wine. Well, maybe you do want the 10 bottles, but you want some food, too.
  4. Get everyone in on the conversation. Be sure that everyone is included. Get caught up. Have everyone give a 5-minute talk about what’s important. It might be a trip or retirement. Sometimes pick a topic—where are you headed? What most concerns you these days? Try to limit the “organ recital,” if it starts to veer out of control unless someone has a major health concern, needs and wants to share it and ask for advice.
  5. End the evening with talk about the next gathering. It doesn’t have to be etched in stone but have an idea such as let’s get together in another six months.
  6. Make a list of those to be included in the gathering and assign a new person to organize it. That doesn’t preclude making suggestions—let’s do dinner next time instead of brunch--or offering to help.

 

 

 

 

 




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