My 50th high school reunion is this summer. I’d love to go. But vanity and I long ago parted company and while I probably don’t look any worse than most women my age, I no longer have to whip out my ID to get the senior discount.
I tell myself that it is a long and expensive trip from Raton, N.M., to Butte, Mont., to see people I haven’t seen in 50 years. But the long drive and the expense aren’t the only reasons I’m reluctant to go. It’s that long-abandoned vanity rearing its ugly head. I don’t look like I did at 18. My hair, then waist-length and a shiny copper-penny color, is now gray and so short I don’t need a comb.
In high school I had to wear thick glasses for nearsightedness. Now, for the first time in my life, I don’t need to wear glasses -- I’ve had successful cataract surgery. But the glasses I no longer wear might help hide some of the wrinkles around my eyes.
I feel that somehow I shouldn’t have let it happen. If only I’d been more careful, my skin would still be firm and elastic, not wrinkled and sagging. My hair would still be luxurious, not wispy and gray. The past 50 years wouldn’t be etched so deeply into my face and neck. I’ve read that high-school reunions are one of the leading reasons people go on diets. I made peace long ago (I thought) with the fact that I’d never be thin again. I’m ashamed to admit that I have thought about trying to lose weight for the reunion -- for a weekend during which I’ll see people I’ll never seen again. The key word is “thought” about it.
At 18, I railed against what I perceived to be the many flaws in my body and appearance. Someone should have told me that I’d never look that good again, that my concerns about how my body looks would someday be replaced by gratitude that any part of it still works and doesn’t hurt. Would I have listened though? Probably not.
I remember when my mother attended her 50th college reunion. Although she was delighted to see her college roommate and she enjoyed the reunion, it was a poignant and bittersweet experience. Almost all of the men in her class had died. The bubbly, blonde twins that had been so adorable were now gray-haired and in twin wheelchairs.
Shall I go to my reunion and have all my old schoolmates wonder who in the world I am? Will I even recognize any of them?
Time hasn’t stood still for them either. No doubt some of them are dead. Probably others are suffering various infirmities. Not one of us would be able to pass for 18 again.
Even though my body, hair, eyes, and skin have suffered the ravages of time, I have somehow arrived at an appreciation of myself and my body that I didn’t have at 18 and wouldn’t have until many years later. It has taken me a long time to accept myself and celebrate the body that, while it has aged and not always gracefully, hasn’t yet let me down and still allows me to greet each day with optimism and hope.
So if I feel such a sense of contentment about who I have become and appreciation for the body that I was so critical of in my youth, why does the prospect of seeing my classmates for the first time in 50 years terrify me?
Because in 1958, it seemed that our entire lives were ahead of us. There was the thrill of anticipating all the wonderful things that were going to happen: the true love, the happy marriage, the beautiful children, the great achievements, the successful career. The happiness and contentment I enjoy now have been attained only through learning to want what I have instead of hanging onto those old dreams that didn’t come true.
I’m probably not the only one in my high-school graduating class who has gotten old, whose marriage ended in divorce, who didn’t write the great American novel, who didn’t make a million dollars. Surely I’m not the only one who postponed having children until the perfect relationship came along, only to have menopause arrive before Mr. Right did.
Perhaps meeting my classmates will be a comfort of sorts. Maybe we’ll all find that our insecurities and teenage angst have been replaced by the self-acceptance that only comes with maturity. Just maybe we will have the wisdom to pat ourselves on the back for surviving.
Jeannie Pomeroy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Raton, New Mexico.