I have the blessing of memory. I remember those who came before me. I take them with me. Maya Angelou
It was propped against a window sill in a corner of the old congregational church that is now used as a gathering place for events like ours, this high school fortieth reunion. It was a simple construct, this memory board with photos of our classmates, fresh-faced and eager and seventeen years old, taken the summer before our senior year at Morse High. I’m not sure how many photos were glued onto this board, perhaps thirty. Thirty!!! Thirty classmates out of the 200 of us had died, had left their body homes since our graduation day back in 1974, one an especially good friend of mine back then, a fellow counselor at Y-Day Camp, Elaine, bangs freshly-cut, smiling out at me from her place in the third row of photos.
As my friend Chilloa and I gazed at the board trying to make sense of it all, the music blared and we had to shout over the lyrics to “Joy to the World”. And how can it be a somber affair when you’re shouting the same way that you shouted when the music was blaring during those high school days, and your friend Anita, who now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, has joined you and it has been a long long time since you’ve seen this good friend?!? How can you help but turn away from the board and jump up and down and hug this buddy of yours who is now all grown up and beautiful but still the girl, too, that you once knew?!? How can you resist just walking away from that board and joining the others, the living breathing flailing almost-sixty-year-old classmates who are hopping up and down and screaming out the words and pointing to each other: “Joy to the world! Joy to you and me!”
It happened right before I flew to coastal Maine for this reunion, two weeks ago now, on a Tuesday evening on a mountain bike trail in our hometown of Ishpeming, Michigan, that a beloved friend of my husband’s keeled over on his bike and died of an apparent heart attack. He had just finished creating this trail an hour before and was enthusiastically trying it out with a few of his friends. Carroll, a short jovial Scottish guy in his early sixties was a man of tremendous heart, a joy to the world; a joy to you and me. The day after his passing, 150 people showed up for the Wednesday Night Ride, a weekly ride that Carroll helped to birth seventeen years ago on the west end of Marquette County’s abundance of wilderness trails. This tribe of bikers slowly and ceremoniously rode past Carroll’s house in downtown Ishpeming and then crossed the highway to the trail that Carroll recently had created, the trail already marked with a beautiful wooden sign, “The Carroll Jackson Trail”. And after his funeral a week later, a packed event filled with story-telling and music and guys and gals dressed in their mountain bike jerseys, one of the main streets in Marquette was closed off so this tribe of people who love to bike and love Carroll could follow the hearse to Carroll’s favorite local brewery where the story-telling continued.
Stories connect us and they heal our hearts and they bring the past into the present. In November of 1991 I attended the Common Boundary: Sacred Stories Conference in Washington DC where I was mesmerized by a majestic woman with a deep and booming voice who was speaking to us, the audience of over a thousand people. “We live in direct relation to the sheroes and heroes that come before us,” she said. I felt it then, the truth of Maya Angelou’s words, and now, over twenty years later, I feel it even more profoundly. I, like Maya Angelou, take them with me, my mother and my father, my aunts and uncles and grandparents, the poets and writers and artists who have inspired me with their creations. I take them with me, or maybe I don’t take them at all; maybe they come of their own free will, breathing life into my own creations and moments. This feels right to me, to connect, not only with stories and memories of the past, but also in this living breathing way with those who have come before me. But what about connecting with those who have walked beside me, my peers in this lifetime journey who have left their body homes?
There was a moment at our reunion, when the music stopped, and our classmate, Earl, with his booming voice, took center stage. He lifted his glass to the heavens and instructed that we do the same. And we toasted to those who were no longer with us, those thirty or so classmates who were now pasted on the memory board in the corner of this gathering place, those who, in Earl’s words, were gone. I couldn’t quite do it. I can’t bear to think that way. And it doesn’t ring true to me to think that way. Are they really gone? Or does our thinking that way make them seem as though they are gone?
I know my mother’s not gone. I’ve known this since her passing two-and-a-half-years ago. She makes her presence known in subtle and in not-so-subtle ways. She, the bird lover, often brings her love to me on the wings of the birds, especially in messages from the cardinals. It was this past Mother’s Day in Knoxville, Tennessee, the day after our son Chris’s wedding that I was filled up with my own sense of motherhood, not thinking of my mother at all as I walked down a street lined with blooming magnolia trees. As I reveled in the fullness of the moment, a cardinal flew out of a magnolia and landed on the sidewalk across from me. The cardinal and I looked at each other and then I continued walking, and the cardinal continued walking, too. For one city block, one whole city block, the cardinal, on one side of the street and me on the other, walked together, and I knew it was my mother speaking to me. This kind of thing happens all the time, especially when I’m already feeling filled up and receptive.
Cam misses his friend, Carroll. He misses the trail reports and the bi-weekly biking dates. He misses Carroll’s easy laugh and boyish enthusiasm. He misses his physical form. My classmate Earl misses his friend Scott whose photo is pasted on the board. I’m sure for all of us at a fortieth reunion there was a sense of poignancy, a knowing that there will be a time when all of us are pasted up on that board. And yet, I have never had so much fun at a reunion. I have never felt so free and uninhibited around this group of people who I have known since childhood. I have never allowed myself to be so loud, to laugh so hard, to high-five with Earl that we are still, forty years later, the “most talkative” that we were deemed in our high school year book. I have never done the can-can before in a chorus line while a classmate sings “New York. New York”! I have never loved so fully, never felt so fully alive. And I’m pretty sure that those classmates, those ones with photos pasted on the board, were enjoying themselves too.