“Where are you going?” the shuttle driver asked as he drove me from the economy parking lot to Chicago’s Midway Airport.
“St. Louis,” was my two word answer. I’m not prone to chatting with strangers.
“Business or pleasure?”
“Pleasure.” I could see my driver was prone to chatting with strangers, so I expanded on the subject for his benefit. “I’m going to a reunion.”
“Family or school?” If this were “Twenty Questions,” there were seventeen to go.
“High school or college?” This driver would not be dismayed.
“I’m going to my grade school class reunion, the first ever.”
He twisted around in his seat and looked at me. His eyes did an analysis, but he was kind enough not to ask how many years ago I’d graduated from eighth grade.
“You mean you kept up with those kids?”
“Only one on a regular basis.”
By then we’d reached the terminal. I grabbed my luggage and stepped out of the shuttle bus as the driver said, “I don’t know anybody I graduated from grade school with. I don’t even know anybody from high school. I hope you have a great time.”
“Thanks,” I said, silently hoping the same thing. After all, it was fifty-five years ago that the thirty-two of us who represented St. Louis Cathedral Grade School’s class of ’57 were together for the last time. If my life was any indication, a lot happened in those fifty-five years.
* * * * *
Carol, the friend I’d kept in touch with all that time, and I had talked back and forth for years about trying to find our former classmates. But it never went beyond wondering where everybody was. I’m still unclear what changed this past January, but Carol contacted Kathi W, with whom she had stayed in contact. Soon they were planning a get-together in St. Louis at the end of April and suddenly the get-together became a reunion. The two of them searched Facebook and contacted various high schools around the city looking for classmates.
It was definitely a hit or miss approach. Back in the day, women took their husbands’ names when they married; so finding the girls was problematic. If it had been a high school or college reunion, we might have met the intended spouses; but in eighth grade none of us was seriously attached. We started looking for the boys instead.
We found Andy in Washington, D.C. We found Jim there too. And Bob R. in San Antonio and Bob D. in North Little Rock. I don’t know how we found Tony, but when we did he had stayed in St. Louis all his life and had also stayed in touch with some other classmates.
Our email list grew. By the time April arrived, we’d found almost half the class. Considering that many reunions are a year in the planning, this was amazing. However, finding our friends didn’t mean they could all come to St. Louis. A couple were gravely ill; others had previous commitments. But they all were glad to be back in touch.
* * * * *
Back then, we were a ragtag bunch of kids with mostly working class parents who wanted better for their offspring. Some of us were smart and some were not. Yet we found solace in each other’s company as we approached adolescence. We listened to Elvis and learned the Bunny Hop and discovered Spin the Bottle. We listened to the Everly Brothers and dreamed.
St. Louis Cathedral Grade School in the mid-nineteen fifties was defined by the nuns who taught us and the regimented Catholic upbringing they imposed on their charges. We learned to obey, because not doing so meant being singled out and possibly punished in a way that would get a teacher into hot water today.
I remember in seventh grade how the nun took Jackie G’s head and banged it against the blackboard for some infraction. His father had just died, and surely he was still distraught. But Sister paid no mind.
I remember our eighth grade nun, who was also the principal. On one occasion she took each student into the coat closet, grilled that person about a potential offense, and then administered what she thought was an appropriate punishment. I, who was mostly obedient and quiet, received several wraps on the legs with a wooden rule.
Today, we are a ragtag bunch of solidly senior citizens with families of our own. Our parents are dead, and we are involved with our own children and grandchildren. But somehow we remain connected. Maybe we should thank the Everly Brothers.
* * * * *
I loved St. Louis Cathedral Grade School and felt a sense of belonging never felt before. It was the fifth grade school I’d attended; so I was fairly adept as being pleasant enough to make friends, but also fairly adept at leaving them. This school was an exception.
I met Carol and joined the Grade School Eight, that elite group of girls who hung around together constantly. We spent weekends losing sleep at Mary Nina’s, knowing her mother would make breakfast in the morning; we held graduation parties in eighth grade and have photos to prove it.
After graduation, eighth graders vied to go to various Catholic high schools throughout the city. This might have meant a loosening of our bonds, but on weekends we were as close as ever. We continued to party with the guys we’d known and probably forsook new friends in favor of old ones.
* * * * *
As we began finding classmates and planning the April reunion, I was as enthusiastic as Carol and Kathi W. But as the time approached I fretted. There were so many wonderful memories crowding my mind that I wondered if seeing these friends years later would obliterate how I remembered them back then. I hoped it wouldn’t, but you never know.
Would Kathi W’s smile be the same? And what about her absurd sense of mischief? She was the one who put a cigarette in the hand of the statue of Joan of Arc. She was the one who took the ladder away when Carol G. was dusting the top of one of the larger statues in the church..
And Mary Nina? Would she still have those same hand gestures where both arms stab the air in front of her? Would she still be the thinnest of us? And the sharpest?
Everyone one of the Grade School Eight had distinguishing characteristics, and I hoped they would still be intact. I was afraid they wouldn’t be. Which is why I made my airline reservations and answered the shuttle driver’s questions in a pensive mood.
* * * * *
The first night of the reunion weekend we met at the Courtyard by Marriott near the airport. The object was to meet casually, have some drinks, and reminisce while those who’d traveled a distance that day could retire early and rest after getting re-acquainted.
We started at 5 PM. Carol and I were in the Bistro waiting. It took a moment to focus on each classmate as he or she walked into the hotel. But Carol was really good at recognizing everyone, and she would call out their name. Then the classmate would be greeted with screams and hugs. Not very subtle for people our age, but then I believe we resorted to our old eighth grade behaviors.
Bob D. and his wife, Ginny, arrived first. All these years, Bob had kept two portraits of our class, and he brought them to the reunion. The first was taken on May Day 1957, when all the girls wore white dresses; the second was our formal eighth grade graduation photo taken on the steps of our school in cap and gown the same month. That night at the hotel we pored over those photos to recognize other classmates.
We were still going strong when the bistro that fed us and provided libations closed. I wondered why we didn’t keep in closer contact all these years, especially when the reunion felt so natural. But in the nineteen fifties, there were no cell phones or computers or emails or Facebook. There were only telephones for immediate contact and stamps for letters sent afield. I might have been more sensitive than most to this since my mother accepted a job in another town after my freshman year of high school and we moved three hundred fifty miles south to Little Rock, Arkansas. I dearly needed to rely on stamps after that.
But maybe we lost touch because eighth grade, even then, was not a pinnacle of academic achievement. At the very least, we were all expected to finish high school. Some of us were also expected to attend college. Women in particular were on the cusp of expanding their options. So in this framework, grade school got dismissed.
* * * * *
Carol L. hosted a luncheon the next day for the women only. Of the Grade School Eight, seven attended; and the lone absentee, Kathi M, called while we were enjoying appetizers. Over lunch we went around the table and provided a Reader’s Digest condensed version of our lives during the past fifty-five years.
Enough of us had been divorced to mirror the national statistic that one in two marriages fails. All of us had children; most of us were on friendly terms with them. We’d all moved around – some in the St. Louis general area, others to different states. I suspect I took the record for the most moves, since I’ve lived in thirty-four places in twice as many years.
Through our stories we were reduced to laughter and tears, thankfully not in equal amounts. We’d all buried our parents. Some of us had also buried siblings. Connie S and Kathi W. lost many of their possessions in fires; Carol L. and Mary Nina had experienced traumatic situations with grandchildren. Still, laughter won, because you need laughter if you’re going to face being almost seventy.
* * * * *
Culpepper’s on Euclid Avenue. When we all lived in the old neighborhood – it wasn’t called Central West End then — Culpepper’s was known for its wonderful pizza. Searching the Internet, Carol and I were surprised that the restaurant was still there; and we salivated at the idea of pizza. So for the final event of our reunion, Carol reserved a room there.
We gathered as old friends and continued to share memories of eighth grade and stories of our lives since graduation, as Ginny snapped photos from every angle. We finally ordered and – if anybody else besides Carol and I noticed – they didn’t mention that pizza is no longer on Culpepper’s menu. Wings and mozzarella sticks and trendy salads have replaced it.
At first, I was disappointed; but then I thought Culpepper’s is a metaphor for our little group. None of us is the same as we were in 1957; we’ve changed with the times, but we’re still here too.
The next morning I reversed my travels, and when the shuttle driver took me to my car, he didn’t even ask where I’d been. I was glad, since I was still savoring the weekend.