by Carol A Westbrook

Fall is almost over and, thankfully, so is homecoming season. I’ve never been to a college homecoming weekend, and hope I never have to go to one. I can sit through a football game, but I can’t abide the class reunion party.

Most people love reunions. Me… not so much. Especially school reunions.  There are those who look back longingly at their school years as the best time of their lives. Many keep in touch with their former classmates. They remember all of their friends, and who sat next to whom in 5th grade, that horrible gym teacher, and their high school crushes. They enthusiastically volunteer to organize the next reunion.  Reunions let them see how the drama of their school years finally played out. Did that really smart boy become a doctor? Who finally married my high school sweetheart? Is my old best friend is still the same?

I certainly enjoyed my school years, but they weren’t the best years of my life by any stretch. Frankly, I don’t remember much of my primary and secondary school years because I was happy to move on. I couldn’t wait to leave my sheltered background and enter the real world. (Yep, that’s my 5th grade class below). And college at the University of Chicago in the sixties was not filled with the typical memories that generate homecomings:  there were no football games, sororities, and dances. College for me was filled with books and serious discussions. I remember the intellectual life but not too many of the people–except for a few boyfriends (the less said, the better.

In truth, the main reason I don’t like reunions is that I’m terrible with names. I can usually get by with a face I recognize, but after a few decades the faces change–and so do the names of most of my married girlfriends (and mine). There’s nothing to connect the face with the name. This becomes a real problem at my age, where we are having 40- and 50-year reunions–and no one looks the same as they do in the yearbooks. As my husband put it, “I couldn’t wait to get to the reunion to see all the good-looking girls I remember from high school, but all I saw were their grandmothers.” So it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable for me to attend reunions because I don’t know who most of these people are. That kind of takes the fun out of it.

My medical school 40th reunion was probably the only one I enjoyed, because I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me. The simple reason is that I graduated with a different class year than I started with due to some extra years of training. I knew a few of these classmates from my senior year, but I wasn’t part of the group that had been together for four years. I volunteered to organize an event because I lived in Chicago and had a brewery nearby. That’s how we came to have our class party at Chicago’s Half Acre Brewery.  The craft beer was flowing, the stories were coming fast, and I made some new friends. We took our reunion picture around the brewing tanks. It was one big, fun party. What started out as an anonymous reunion turned into a fun group of gregarious doctors from different places getting together and doing what doctors do–telling stories about clinical things (and boring their spouses).

As much as I dislike school reunions, I truly enjoy family reunions, because I know everyone. I grew up in a very large, close-knit Polish-Catholic family. I had 15 or 16 uncles and aunts from both sides, and all had large families of their own–my cousins. All told there are around 40 first cousins, give or take. When I was a child this was my family; the uncles and aunts were like stepparents, and the cousins were my playmates and partners in crime. I know all of them even though I only keep in touch regularly with a few of them now. Yet, when I do see any of them we can take up where we left off–even from 20 years ago. I don’t know all their spouses, and few of their children or grandchildren.  (That’s why nametags come in so handy for reunions).

Many of my cousins have nothing in common with me, from education, profession, where we live, but we still enjoy each other’s company. What we do have in common is blood, and somehow that counts. We all look alike, as you can see from the photo that was taken at a cousins’ reunion a few years ago. And we had the same grandparents, and our parents were aunts and uncles to the others, so there are lots of stories to be shared — or different versions of the same story. Throw us all in one room and we can have a great time. Our spouses, on the other hand, find it painful to last through an entire evening, since they don’t have these same ties and common childhood memories. It must be like marrying into an English aristocratic family, and always feeling like you just don’t belong (and you don’t!).

And then there are those reunions which are painful not because you don’t remember anything, but because you remember too much. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about reunions with an old flame, maybe a boyfriend who dumped you, or a girl who stole your heart but married someone else. After a lifetime of “if onlys” you finally have a chance to meet again. A long phone call, or maybe even a meeting over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. How exciting!

If you are contacted by an old flame for a reunion, take my advice:  don’t do it! Don’t pick up the phone! Don’t send the email! Don’t friend him on Facebook! The chance of a Hollywood-style happy ending is slim. You will discover that your old boyfriend, on his third marriage, is fat, bald and broke.  Or that girl, the beautiful heartbreaker, is now a bitter old woman whose children are estranged and whose husband left her. It could have been you! Now you see what might have been–it might have been worse. Those hopes and dreams you kept alive for years are gone in a blink, and you have lost a little bit of your soul. Better to just enjoy the dreams.

On the other hand, the most fun I’ve had at reunions were those where I didn’t have any connection at all.  There was that professional conference a few years back, where I attended a cocktail party where I didn’t know a soul. No worries. We all had name tags, and I walked up to people I had never met before, holding a cocktail in my left hand, extending my right hand, and pretending we were old friends.

“Nice to see you again, (reading from the name tag), Jake,” I’d say, giving a hearty handshake.  “Are you still up to no good at the University of (reading from the name tag)?” You’d be surprised to see how many of them responded as if they knew me, and even ordered the same cocktail as I was drinking! It was a jolly good time with my old friends (reading from the name tag).

And then there was that time that my husband and I were staying in a hotel with no plans for the evening. We wandered down to the lobby and found there was a party going on–food, drinks and a live band. We joined the crowd, who welcomed us as if we were old friends.  And then we realized it was a wedding. The maid of honor, who was already pretty tipsy at the time, said we were welcome to stay, and treated us like family. We danced with everyone, hugged each other and had an all-around good time with people we didn’t know. Yes, I admit, we crashed a wedding. The nice thing about weddings is that no one knows you, but thinks that you’re from the other side’s family, so you get a warm welcome. And you also get a lot of good drink and dance music. I highly recommend it, if you have the nerve.

The strangest reunion ever, though, was my father’s army WWII veteran’s army reunion–with the German army. In 1977, About 80 Veterans of the US Army’s 70th Division met with a German division that they fought in France and Germany a little over 30 years previously. The reunion began in the French town of Epinal, where the German vets laid wreaths on the graves of American soldiers, then crossed the Rhine to journey to Bucholz, Germany. In Bucholz, the mayor held a reception for the former enemies, who then gathered at the Bucholz graveyard to lay wreaths at the Germans’ graves. This was followed by a dinner-dance where veterans from both sides danced with their wives and socialized with their former enemies. My parents had the time of their lives; my dad got to see his old army buddies, and my mother finally got to see where the places which her fiancé wrote to her about during the war. They came home with memories and many souvenirs–including a German beer stein, and a taste for good Rhine wine.