By Ken Trainor
I thought reunions were about coming to terms with getting older. Last weekend, I discovered it's about coming to terms with having once been young.
I've spent the last 40 years leaving my youth behind, occasionally glancing in the rear-view mirror to check its receding image, as if that were the measure of progress — leaving youth behind to get to what I was meant to do in life.
Youth shaped who I have become, and I'm grateful, but I didn't feel any longing to return — because you can't, of course, no matter how much you try to simulate it. Youth is a one-time fireflash.
You can, however, revisit and pay your respects.
Last Friday and Saturday night, I revisited a particularly vivid fireflash: The Loyola Rome Center class of 1972-73 reconvened to mark its 40th anniversary — on Friday night aboard the Spirit of Chicago, cruising Lake Michigan for several hours, not that we noticed much. We were too busy reconnecting, disguised in aging bodies, each cell of which, I'm told, has regenerated more than once since we first met in Rome for our "once-in-a-lifetime" year abroad (half-year in my case).
Time, our unshakeable companion, friend, mentor, teacher and nemesis, has its way with all of us and plays its tricks. But of all its arcs, none is quite so breathtaking as the one connecting age 21 and 61. At 21, most of life lies ahead, with its buffet of possibilities and tantalizing choices. At 61, most of life lies behind, a domino trail of decisions made and toppled consequences.
Reunions can be intimidating, the severity of contrasts and comparisons and all that. But I didn't sense any of this. Maybe at 61 you're more comfortable with yourself, however short of perfect it falls. At events like this, you find yourself spouting clichés with genuine feeling. "I can't believe I was ever that skinny." "I can't believe we were ever that young." Photo albums, seeing the light of day for the first time in decades, deliver their un-appealable verdict.
But they also provide proof of excitement, enjoyment, energy and expectation. And our 61-year-old incarnations prove that we have lived, some more adventurously than others, all as fully as our courage allowed.
Would we have done things differently if we knew then what we know now? Perhaps, but a different path would only elicit another set of questions and another trove of treasured memories.
The next night, looking around the banquet hall at Maggiano's in the Loop, it was as if, magically, we had all grown suddenly old. Everyone at 21 was so vibrant, so full of promise. I found the contrast unsettling, even mildly depressing.
Yet getting older — and hopefully wiser — has been the forefront focus of my life, as much about the blessings of age as its diminishment. I always viewed youth as an obstacle to overcome, an entrapment to escape, bailing the regrets that threatened to sink the boat. I never really wanted to be young. I wanted to grow gracefully old.
So I was enjoying the reconnections thoroughly, despite the undercurrent of melancholy. My classmates, who had mysteriously aged overnight, were mellower, more assured. They owned themselves. Yet youth flashed through the patina — the familiar sense of humor, the vivid stories recollected in tranquility. One woman didn't remember me until we laughed. "I remember the smile," she said. It no longer mattered what we had done, where we went, and who we traveled with once upon a time. I liked the updated versions better than the 20-somethings I only dimly remembered.
Still, I feared melancholy might win out — until the organizers showed a video compilation of still photos and film clips contributed by attendees, accompanied by evocative era-appropriate songs with apt lyrics. Most of the clips involved mugging for the camera in marvelous locales, clowning, cavorting and carousing, youth radiating like so many pulsars.
The energy won me over. It wasn't the getting old but the being young that I came to terms with. What a wonderful gift. Youth was not wasted on us. We had our moment.
That moment crossed the arc of decades, filling the room for the rest of the evening. The word "reunion" means united once more, presuming we were ever united. But if not re-union, there was a definite sense of "union" on this night, raising the experience to another level. Everyone seemed to feel it.
I know now what I knew then, that life is joy and doesn't play favorites with age groups. Joy is there still, waiting for the well, now grown considerably deeper, to be tapped.
We were older, but we were suddenly young again.