So my beloved Mom is turning 80 in a few days and we are planning a birthday blowout for her, courtesy of a lot of hard work from my 2 sisters and to be so graciously hosted by my unofficial third sister (and legit Burke cousin) in the land of the Hamptons. Not only is it a golden opportunity to let my Mom know how much she is loved and how well she has lived her life – and the grace and courage and empathy and wisdom and generous heart she has displayed throughout it – but to let her see how much she means to so many people. It’s a milestone birthday, of course, and one that comes without my darling Dad by her side, as he had been for all her birthdays (except one) since she was 18.
I was chatting with my Mom’s cousin (who is my unofficial second Mom, a title I gave her and one I hope she likes) about the party and how it’s killing all of us to keep this secret from her, to not spill the beans, to make this truly a surprise. So far we’ve done it but we all keep telling each other what torture it is. But one of the things I started talking about with my cousin is how much she knows my Mom will appreciate that 3 of her cousins, who she has known since she was a very young girl, will be there to celebrate this day with her. And she said, in essence, how wonderful to have people there who knew you when you were so young, who grew up with you, who shared so many wonderful times and memories with you that so many others don’t share. And the pool of people who share those memories with my Mom has gotten smaller and smaller the last few years as more and more of her family members have been called back home by God.
It got me thinking of my own pool of people who share memories with me and made me realize that we each have different groups along the way. There are those cousins who I spent many happy days with in my youth but, sadly, I don’t see or really keep in contact with that many of them any more, although they will always be a huge part of the tapestry of my childhood. And then there is a very small pool of people from my college years, most notably the funniest man I have ever known, the man who always referred to my Dad as “my best friend, Vinnie”, the man who has been a friend for 30+ years and still makes me smile to this very day.
There’s another group from the 30+ years I spent at my job, both people I worked with on a regular basis at one time or another (including my dear friend, Deborah, the bravest and most hard-working woman I have ever known), or customers who I developed a friendship with and who I still keep in touch with, even though I’ve moved into another phase of my life. Sometimes – and I’m not sure it’s just me, although I suspect it’s not – you find it easier to become friendly with – and confide in – someone who’s just a voice on the phone, as many of my long-distance customers were. The inability to see a person’s body language, their reactions, when you open up to them can be a powerful thing. It frees you to not edit yourself and I think we all can edit ourselves based upon the non-verbal feedback you get when you’re talking to someone in person. But I digress.
The largest and most enduring (and endearing) pool of people I have is the girls I went to high school with. And I know it’s not politically correct to refer to these women, all of whom now receive the AARP magazine (whether we want to or not), as girls but that’s how I see them when I look at them. When I see them at our reunions every 5 years, most of them look exactly the same to me as they did when we were 15 or 16. And perhaps I carry around an enhanced memory of high school, imagining it as better than it was because there were times when I was in school when I know that I was not happy. And I know there are plenty of girls from my high school for whom the thought of attending a reunion is awful; it’s a place, a time they don’t want to revisit. But maybe, for most of us, the unhappy times fade in our memories and you think that almost everyone must go through that because I know my great kid struggles with days now where he can’t wait to escape high school, even though I know it is an emotion that will pass usually as quickly as it comes.
But I don’t think I do imagine high school as a happier place than it was. I forged friendships with girls I met by mere chance – because our names were close alphabetically so we sat near each other, or we took more Academic subjects than Commercial, or we were put into Pitman classes (instead of Gregg. And, sorry Gregg girls, but Pitman rocks!) And the randomness of that, the fact that you never know which chance encounter, which class selection, which girl you sat next to at lunch or roomed with on our Washington DC junior trip, or took drivers ed with might be the girl who stayed a presence in your life for 40+ years. I’ve spoken about this before when I talked about the random series of events that led me to my great good friends in California and how vigilant we have to be, how much attention needs to be paid to what seems a mere moment in time, a blip on our radar screen. Everything means something, maybe not something huge but it does mean something to us if we listen to it or pay attention to it.
And the advent of Facebook has expanded my world of knowing – sometimes for the first time and sometimes much better – these girls. High school – maybe even beyond high school – can be a series of smaller groups, cliques where you only really get to know people who you’ve managed to connect with. But that leaves so many other girls whose backstory you never learn, whose friendship you never really made, who you never were able to click with just because of our different paths that didn’t intersect. But Facebook has really changed that for me. I’ve become friendly with so many girls who I scarcely knew in high school and learned so much about them and from them, that it has enriched my life enormously. And when I write my random thoughts here about getting through each day, it’s my high school girls who are truly the most supportive, the ones who lift me up and make me believe in myself and give me the confidence to do and try more, confidence I don’t normally have.
So I am grateful to all the groups of people who have welcomed me into their lives from my youngest days as a Burke/Hughes/Gilbride cousin to today, when I’m a very blessed woman looking forward to being able to thank my high school girls – old friends and newly made friends – at our 40th reunion for helping me, making me, shaping me into the woman I am today. No matter what happens, my memories of all of you will be the things I cherish today and all the tomorrows still ahead of me.