Now and Then

The last time I posted was two months ago, and that post, like this one, had to do with my experience as a student at St. Paul’s School. Truly, I am not obsessed with the place, and it isn’t all I think about. So if you’re new to the blog, dip back into the archives for other topics, or stay tuned for something new and different in the coming weeks.

To be honest, I was a bit spooked by the warmth of response to the prior piece, which dealt with sexual misconduct at the school. Don’t get me wrong, I was so appreciative that people a.) read it and b.) took the time to reach out to me with such supportive thoughts.   Thank you, thank you, if you’re still reading and haven’t found a more gripping distraction over the past two months, like the Trump-Warren Twitter battle. I admit I was taken aback to suddenly find myself in conversation with readers, and the private side of my nature was a skootch overwhelmed. So I curled up for a little while to recharge and live my life, working on other projects and concerns. I never intended to reintroduce myself to posting with another prep school story. But whatcha gonna do? It’s the work that’s before me: I got an assignment from no less a personage than my lovely St. Paul’s friend, Els Collins.  (We also went to Princeton together, but we drifted.  Silly girls.)   This week, we spent an afternoon on the Cape together, along with our SPS/Princeton classmate Nora, and before leaving, we agreed we’d each write about it.   Here’s the link for Els’ reflection.

Nora is a reluctant writer, which has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with confidence.  I hope to share her “assignment” here some day soon.   Here goes with mine:

F0rest.beachMonday was a beautiful day, in every way. After a crap spring of cold and drear, we’ve emerged into a halcyon June, enjoying days of 70˚ sunshine, crisp blue skies and fruity sunsets. It was perfect beach weather, sunny, breezy, and comfortably warm.  Nora and I programmed “Chatham” into Waze and hit the highway for the Cape, excited to visit Els, here from LA. She’s vacationing for a week with her husband Jimmie, their 27 year old son Chris (instantly likeable), along with his fiancée and their six month old baby girl.   (Omigosh: So entrancing.) We endured–or relished, depending on which one of us you ask–our teens together in a unique and cloistered school, St. Paul’s. Now and then, it’s a place of light and shadows, and each of us stood at a different exposure on that spectrum.

In the ‘70s, we girls clonked to class in our Frye boots, worrying about our grades, our crushes, our happy-sadness, our vulnerabilities.   Not terribly different than my Frye-sporting daughters now, although sans social media, thank God. We binged on late night ice cream or pizza, we told risqué jokes about experiences few of us yet had, we gossiped. We sang, played flute, acted in plays, and competed in sports. (Well, Nora and Els may have competed in sports. I slipped off to daydream.) Our soundtrack was Fleetwood Mac, Earth, Wind & Fire, Boz Scaggs, The Boss.  Strains of “Born to Run” wafted out of our dorm windows across grassy expanses. The ponds were ice-cold and the autumn colors took your breath away, even when you were so homesick you wanted to puke, but home wasn’t a place you could go back to, because your parents were divorcing. Plenty of our classmates smoked: cigarettes, weed, hash. I was too much of a rule-follower for that, but the repressed rebel in me secretly delighted in the risk-seeking antics of some of my racier peers. In the evenings, before we had to check in to our dorms for the night, we’d trek through the starry cold to the “Community Center”, a rustic skating shack, to socialize and smoke. The CC, as we called it, was daily restocked with a selection of Dunkin’ Donuts, delivered by cab from downtown Concord. To this day, the sight and smell of a croeller immediately evokes a cocktail of ambivalence: anxiety, mischief, freedom, joy. Another era.

And now we find ourselves at 56. Between us, we share nearly ninety years of marriage. Each of us is still yoked to the same guy we started out with. Els cares for her husband of thirty-one years, Jimmie, with unfussy grace and deep affection. At 89, he is a man of extraordinary charm and vigor, with a mischievous cast to his wit that makes me wish I knew him when he was my age, with three decades of friendship ahead of us. He’s no slouch: he remembers Beckett’s plays with far more clarity than I do, and I’m thirty-three years younger and wrote my undergraduate thesis about them.  A lifelong character actor, he just finished a celebrated run of the playwright’s “Endgame” in LA; he worried that his memory would trip him up, but it didn’t. Sitting across the shady lunch table from his adorable baby granddaughter, Jimmie got misty-eyed. He recalled a role he played in his thirties that demanded he relive his vulnerability as a 17 year-old. Time folds, unfolds, recapitulates, and shuffles—or lurches—forward. Or backwards. It’s all the same, even as things “change.” Beckett understood.

After lunch, Nora, Els and I headed for the beach, leaving Jimmie and “the kids” at the house. It’s a quick stroll: a couple of turns down charming Cape lanes with names like “Tobey Turtle’s Way” and “Aunt Deborah’s Lane,” beautiful marsh views unfurling as you head downhill towards the beach. On the way, Els confided that given the thirty-three year difference in their ages, they didn’t count on Jimmie being here to meet a grandchild, although of course they hoped for it. We asked her how she is faring, caring for a spouse in such a different life stage. “I’m just thankful for every day we have,” she answered, and there was nothing put-upon or saccharine in her response. “We’ve always known it would be like this for us at this point. But I’ve gotten to spend thirty-one years with someone I loved so much. So every day is a gift.”

If you’d asked me, forty years ago, which of my prep school friends would make an unconventional but utterly authentic choice of spouse, I would have told you, “Els Collins.” Even then, Els had an easy self-possession that I admired. She was grounded and funny, original and independent. We didn’t become close friends until late junior year, when I was still coming into myself. My sophomore year (we called it “Fourth Form” at St. Paul’s), I felt like a square peg in a round place and time of life—I was sensitive and dramatic, lonely for genuine connection, non-confrontational, with an irreverent wit escaping in exaggerated bursts that took me by surprise, like a button popping off your shirt, exposing your bra.  In contrast, Els embodied natural calm and authenticity. It’s no wonder she has enjoyed a long and fulfilling career in theater as a stage manager, both in practice, and as a teacher.   Most importantly, she has always been kind. That was not a quality expressly cultivated by St. Paul’s. But boy, did you ever appreciate it when it crossed your path.

Nora, more like me, was a raw nerve in adolescence. She inhabited the difficult space of being both a student and the elder daughter of the stentorian classics teacher at the school, a campus personality of great uprightness. St. Paul’s was her childhood home and her high school community. Navigating the shoals between those two shores wasn’t easy.   Only my closest friends knew anything about my dysfunctional family back home—my mother’s recovery from alcoholism, my father’s anxiety, my brother’s expulsions and arrests. But Nora’s quirky clan could be observed up close in our shared habitat: her emphatic, ramrod-straight father and fragile mother, a boundary-testing younger sister, a tow-headed and beloved young brother, whom the family tragically lost to a cycling accident in his twenties. Nora wrestled with how she fit into the rarified milieu of St. Paul’s, with so many of us hailing from places like Greenwich, Lake Forest, or the posher zip codes of Manhattan. Yet she fit everywhere, with the other faculty kids, the local boarders from Concord, the preppier rowers, the highbrow academics.

Nora’s intensity of mind and temperament commingled with natural talent to make her equally adept at rowing and debate. She gave her whole heart to her passions. Her dad was both Shakespeare scholar and classicist, and like him, she was eloquent.  Then and now: You could blindfold me and I could pick her out of a crowd just by her distinctive, flute-like laugh. She still holds together our entire class with voluptuously written, newsy emails and a heartfelt urgency to bridge the gaps of time, geography and experience that come with one’s fifties. She corrals little gatherings of classmates in different venues—a small group of East Coast alumnae gathering annually in New York; or most recently, a collection of classmates who call LA home. It’s remarkable how eagerly people of all different stripes want to reconnect. Yet, minus Nora’s instinct and touch for reaching out, without being impelled by the sheer force of her desire, we might all carry on in our individual orbits, and miss sharing the textured richness of how we’ve grown. As Nora put it in the car on our way to Chatham, “I’ve encountered all these absolute gems; people in our class I didn’t know well then, and to see who they are now is incredible.”  We spent time Monday afternoon discussing some of them, Els and I tossing out names: “How’s Quinny?” or “Have you heard from Loring?”, with Nora updating us on their whereabouts and well-being. We didn’t stump her once. I felt myself missing other friends from that time: Kelley, or Barbie, and wishing they were there with us.

“Incredible” is the right word to describe the afternoon with Els and Nora in Chatham;, to feel the years fall away and be somehow girlish, steeped in the effortless familiarity of old friendships. We hunkered down on our beach towels as the wind whipped around us. We laughed that the last time we’d been to the beach together was thirty-eight years ago when our entire senior class chartered buses and “snuck” off campus for a day at Hampton Beach. I scaled the dune for an al fresco pee down by the marsh – something I haven’t done in years, I can assure you. There was an easy joyfulness to our visit. Since Hampton Beach in 1978, we’ve gotten our share of nicks and dents: We’ve had a few career highlights and the inevitable low points. We’ve struggled as mothers to do the best for our kids. We’ve lost parents, a sibling, pets, keys, memories, and once or twice, our sense of purpose. We are grayer, more wrinkled; we can’t eat the way we used to; we are newly myopic or find ourselves saying, “I’m sorry – what did you say?” The AARP cards come in the mail, and we are at first insulted, then disconcerted. Our health is pretty damn good. Our senses of humor are fully intact. Our vitality shines. We are grateful.

And we are each so beautifully wise.  I wish I’d known at seventeen that we’d have this new day on the beach, with the past and present of our affection interplaying, and our essential timelessness unveiled and deepening. But I probably couldn’t have understood or appreciated it then as I do now.


18899-14CLOV: They said to me, That’s love, yes, yes, not a doubt, now you see how easy it is. They said to me, That’s friendship, yes, yes, no question, you’ve found it. They said to me, Here’s the place, stop, raise your head and look at all that beauty…

                   –Samuel Beckett, Endgame