Reunited after 40 Years
This was one of those rare enthralling phone calls jolting me out of my reverie and leaving me slightly befuddled for the rest of the evening yet it was a call that will be etched on my mind for a long time. Hearing that instantly recognisable voice on the end of the line after forty years left me stunned and barely able to respond as I struggled to hold back the tears. Nostalgic tears of sadness, shock, delight, surprise, joy, a sentimental yelp for a lost youth perhaps and a simpering after a more innocent time. And yet at the forefront of my mind the insistent questioning, why now, why today.
It was my mother’s birthday when I took that call and she would have been 90 years old. Ever since I left Ireland in 1982, my mother was vociferous in her encouragement to retain contact with cousins and school friends as well as relatives near and far and she never ceased to question me about this while blissfully ignoring my irritation at being badgered now that I was a young adult, an indignant one at that. Keeping the connection to Ireland and more importantly Home was hugely important to her in life and evidently in death too. Surely it was no coincidence that Regina should happen to contact me on that particular day after four decades had elapsed.
Through a rather circuitous route the girls managed to find my phone number after several failed attempts. Regina had been one of my best school friends at a convent boarding school in rural Ireland in the 1970s. We ‘graduated’ in 1977 along with ninety other pupils including a small group of boys. Only seven of us girls were boarders in that intake year though there were more than ninety boarders in total in the school. Earlier this year a couple of former classmates decided to organise a reunion and evidently worked tirelessly to contact as many as possible. By all accounts, they have the skills and determination of budding private investigators because they managed to trace all but two former pupils, sadly three of our year group are deceased. Our reunion was planned for late July and the expectation was that more than half the class would be coming together for the first time since 1977.
The next few hours after this phone call were a series of emotional highs and lows veering between laughter and tears while I deliberated with my family about whether or not I fly over especially as I had only two weeks’ notice and a couple of plans would need rescheduling. Such was my emotional state and to great family amusement, every half hour or so my daughter would put her head around the kitchen door and ask, ‘have you stopped crying yet Mum?”. How we laughed. As time went by, I barely thought of much else: how can I lose thirty pounds in the space of two weeks, would I like or dislike any of my old classmates and most of all, am I being slightly reckless spending a weekend with fifty virtual strangers whom I have never known as adults.
Finally the day arrived and I flew from London to Dublin on a beautiful sunny July day. I was anxious to check in at the hotel as discreetly as possible because I needed time to relax after travelling as well as time to prepare before the ‘meet and greet’. The 4.30 pm start would have to begin without me and besides I needed time to compose myself in the circumstances.
Working for decades in the corporate world in London, I was used to walking into a room full of strangers and it never really fazed me. Added to the mix, the youthful cloak of shyness had long since been discarded so I retain hardly a slither of my adolescent reserve much to my children’s dismay. At 6.30pm I was ready and exiting the lift on the ground floor lobby feeling admittedly a tad apprehensive for a change. As I looked to my right there was a large gathering of people. Instinctively I decided this wasn’t my group because they were much too old. As it turned out, unknown to me at that point there were about ten former teachers joining us, some of whom were in their eighth decade and included the Headmistress. I jest not. As I proceeded across the lobby, I could sense a dozen eyes searing my back and for a nanosecond the doubtful voice in my head screamed ‘turn around and make for the lift’! But as I did an about-turn, Mary Lennon called my name as she swept towards me, arms outstretched, she was a stranger to me. Only later did I recall her vividly and subsequently remember her to be one of the cleverest and kindest people in school.
As people approached and spoke my name I felt more disconcerted than I can ever recall. I was confounded, would I remember or recognise anyone let alone keep up with the reminiscences that were evidently crystal clear to everyone but me. Someone shouted to me across the lobby, ‘I slept with you” to howls of laughter. Whoever she was, she went on to explain why but I cannot recall what the occasion might have been such was my anxiety at that moment. Several others introduced themselves to me while I was still struggling from the previous conversation but after a while my recall began to improve, my recollections became more vivid, perhaps not surprising given the immersive quality of the situation.
Nevertheless, my relief was palpable when I eventually spotted Regina sorting the dinner seating arrangements and I approached her to screams of delight embracing through tears of laughter and elation. Age may not have withered me yet for I am fortunate to have good genes but extraordinarily, Regina looks just the same, almost exactly as she did forty years ago, still beautiful and still in possession of a rare charismatic aura that is instantly apparent. The deep hearty laugh was the same and we howled raucously exactly as we used to all those years ago.
Large social gatherings do not typically lend themselves to deep and meaningful conversations and many of mine were naturally superficial given the circumstances. Most conversations veered around work, home, children, husbands. Almost all were married with children and some were grandparents. One classmate has eight children. Yes eight. In the intervening decades, my peers have become nurses, doctors, teachers, civil servants, a dance teacher and an opera singer. Many had been full time mums and are now actively supporting their children’s business ventures. Judging by those I spoke to my overall impression was that here was a group of women who may have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but looked flourishing and evidently fulfilled with a lust for life yet happy in their skin. In particular, there were a few conversations that had a real depth and substance and could have gone on for hours but were tantalisingly curtailed given the staccato nature of our conversations – so many people, so little time. One rich and meaningful conversation was with Regina and another was with my Spanish teacher, Miss McCann, who (until now) had no idea that she played a pivotal role in shaping my life.
Starting when I was just seventeen Miss McCann sent me to Madrid for two consecutive summers to work as an au pair. As I reminisce now I can recognise that this was a formative experience because it sparked a wider interest in the world, in people, perspectives and places and set me on a quest to travel as much as possible. Since then, between work and leisure travel, I have been on most continents and visited more than thirty countries alongside solo trips most notably to Kenya and Jerusalem. Travelling is often challenging especially when things don’t go according to plan and never more so than when travelling alone. Etched in my mind still is my arrival at Madrid Barajas airport on a muggy June night in 1976 with no one there to meet me (the family I was due to stay with were expecting me the following day) an innocent naive seventeen year old used to the confines of a rural convent looking forlorn in the baggage hall like an unclaimed suitcase when the carousel comes to a halt because all the bags have been collected and the passengers have dispersed. Only I remain and wait….and wait….and wait. Nonetheless all good preparation, no doubt, for what was to come later on flying into Bagdad or war ravaged Beirut.
Big occasions such as this call for embarrassments or humiliations great or small and I did not fail to deliver but at least my faux pas raised howls of laughter at breakfast next morning. Going in to dinner the night before, as we were about to cross the lobby to the restaurant, a hand touched my arm and called my name and although I responded how good it was ‘to see you too’, I had no idea who he was. As we chatted, my first thought was that he had not aged at all well, but then he mentioned that he got married after he left the school, to which I responded, ‘Gosh, you were very young to get married’. Now he looked just as puzzled as I felt, “Oh no, I was 32 when I married”, he said aghast. The penny finally dropped, he was my history teacher, not a pupil. Hardly had that moment passed when the second baffling thought came galloping through i.e., ‘why is he so short’. In my mind’s eye, all teachers were at least two feet taller than their pupils.
Once the dormant memories, untapped till now, began to resurface I could finally begin to enjoy the fraternal warmth and deep affinity with my old classmates. On reflection, I was sorry when it all came to an end and we went our separate ways back to the normal routine of life but not before agreeing to meet again next July (God sparing) when we will pick up where we left off. With an eye on mortality, no time can be lost because there is a richness in these resurgent relationships which should be explored not relinquished.
7 Nov ’17