I had to read the email twice before I could register it. It was from my old friend Brenda (my oldest friend, really: we’ve been mates since we were three years old), and this is what it said:
“Are you in Canada yet?” she asked. Then she got to the point: “You’ll never guess who called me today. Marcia phoned to say ‘Happy 50th Anniversary’. It was 50 years ago today, May 29, that we graduated. Imagine! 50 years.” She added, “I don’t feel like it’s all that long ago.”
Well, that’s an understatement. I couldn’t even fit “50 years ago” into the same sentence with “high school graduation” for several moments.
It took me back, I can tell you. I remembered our graduating class, all 16 of us—the largest-ever class to graduate from Tomahawk, Alberta—being bussed to a nearby town to have our grad photos taken. I remembered the roses in my corsage, and shopping for my dress. I remembered Russell asking me if I’d go as his date, and I said yes, and he did a little jig with delight and relief (have I ever made anyone that happy since?!). And I remembered some of the big night itself, when our class, parents and friends filled the school hall. I gave the valedictory address and I must have been at my sentimental best because I remembered both Brenda and Marcia hugging me with tears on their faces afterwards. I remembered fragments of the dance that followed, a gala affair as close as Tomahawk School could come to a prom.
But 50 years ago?? You must be kidding.
My high school graduation had something about it that’s extremely rare. When I started Grade 1, we were a large baby-boomer class in a rural area. Over the next 12 years, a couple of kids left our class and a few more joined it. But by and large the people I graduated with were the same people I started school with. For six hours a day, two hundred days a year, twelve years (that’s 14,400 hours, ahem) we were together.
One of the most poignant experiences I’ve had was seven years ago when Marcia and Brenda organised a reunion of this group. They arranged it for a time when I was in Canada for a visit, and I flew out to Edmonton and thence drove to Tomahawk. I found the local cafe, which was booked out for the occasion, and walked into this roomful of strangers. Who were all these wrinkly, grey-haired, balding people? Within two minutes I’d met everyone and within five minutes they were all as familiar as…well, as familiar as someone you’ve spent 14,400 hours of your life with. No matter that Marcia’s hair was no longer its fiery orange, or that Orest’s freckles were hidden inside his wrinkles—Lillie’s laugh was still as infectious and Russell was still threatening to pull out the chair as you sat down.
And when we stuffed ourselves into three or four cars and drove up to the school, it was cacaphony as memories burst out—when we got in trouble, when we got each other in trouble, when we won big games, when Kennedy was shot, when polio swept through the school. Everything about the day was as familiar and reassuring as favourite old shoes.
A few weeks ago, Rick’s men’s group had a discussion about friendship, and the Shedder guys shared a bit about it with us afterward. I would call these eight or nine men close friends: they see each other weekly, they share intimately, they know each other inside out, they have important values in common. But they were exploring nostalgia about losing old friendships. Rick is in the unusual position of having kept in close contact with quite a number of his old school friends; most times when he’s back in Canada, a dozen or so of them will get together, swap stories and dredge up favourite memories. The other men’s group guys talked about how they haven’t really kept up with school friends. And there was an acknowledgement that there are no friends like those old friends. When guys are in school, the friendships are active and articulated. They seek each other out, they have regular contact, they throw their arms around each other, they have adventures. As life moves on, that easy camaraderie peels away.
Some time in the next month or two I’ll get in a great visit with Brenda. We’ll see Rick’s old friends and will spend lots of time with cousins I’ve known forever. They will be rich and rewarding experiences.
A final sobering thought: at a seminar on co-housing and ageing I attended last weekend, the presenter asked: how many of your friends will you be able to visit easily when you can no longer drive? I think of my mother’s dear old friends, some of whom are still alive—but she no longer sees them because no one can travel. She wonders about them and misses them.
It reminds me to celebrate my own deep-rooted friendships while I can do so in person. And I’m grateful that technology will let us stay in touch, perhaps all our lives. Once the flight to and from Australia is too arduous, or my driver’s licence is respectfully shredded, Brenda and I can still email and teleconference and keep up that wonderful old connection.