(This is the second in a series about a 40th college reunion. The first is Walla Walla Begin Again)
On Friday morning, I sat with Debi over coffee for a long time before walking the few miles to campus. Mary Ellis pulled up alongside as I walked along Birch, headed for the Marcus Street foot bridge across Mill Creek.
“Halloo,” she sang out.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m showing Phil all the churches I tried out.”
I looked at Phil and thought about my friend Nina (rhymes with Dinah) saying that she and her husband agreed years ago they wouldn’t attend each other’s reunions.
“How fun for Phil,” I said.
Mary Ellis laughed her infectious laugh. It gurgles and bubbles. It brings me along like my Aunt Frances’ laugh used to. When Mary-Ellis laughs, the world is a wonderful place. Phil, by the way, is a good sport.
I chugged along after that because Debi and I had a 10:00 class in Olin Hall: Shakespeare with Dr. Teresa DiPasquale. The text under under observation was “The Rape of Lucrece,” one of Shakespeare’s two long narrative poems and one which I had slogged through several summers ago and got nothing out of it that I didn’t hate. After one 50 minute class with Teresa, I am keen to read it again because now I have several ways to access it.
I so appreciated hearing a woman talk about this poem. I looked at the 19 year old boys sitting there while she talked rape, menstrual blood, and vagina and thought that this class could never have happened in the 70s. I also thought that a man should never teach this poem.
As I watched Teresa turning over the pages of her Shakespeare and saw all the notes written in the margins, I thought how much I wanted to be a student again. To sit here and talk about a text. A text. The word itself is enough to get me excited.
After lunch at the Walla Walla Bread Company, Mary-Ellis and I went for a walk together, she still noticing churches. In one parking lot was a labyrinth. Long ago we had walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco together. As I walked this one, I reflected that Mary-Ellis is my oldest friend in the sense of known for the longest continuous time. We’ve kept in touch for 40 years.
“And that was only because we didn’t live in the same town,” I said.
“I know you always say that,” Mary-Ellis said. “What do you mean?”
“There was a period of about fifteen years when I blew up every relationship I was in,” I said. (I had some dark times: read my book.)
Mary-Ellis is the only one of the group I could safely rely on to not bore me to death with sports talk. I love that John is passionate about running. I love that Debi, our little Putzer, is passionate about cycling and about the young cyclists she nurtures. I am passionate about singing and I recognize passion when I’m in its energy field. I like hearing about the running and the cycling up to a point but purely out of love. I think they sometimes mistake love for actual interest. Even Bruce ambushed a perfectly innocuous conversation with baseball statistics and scores and plays even after I told him I wasn’t interested and I truly did not want to hear any more.
It’s not that Mary-Ellis isn’t interested in sports. She is. She has a son who’s an athlete. But we go other places when we talk. We talked several times over the weekend about the self-doubt we had while at Whitman. We were confused and often lonely. I particularly felt isolated in my confusion. There was so much I didn’t understand about myself. In the 70s Whitman may have been a good place to be for academics, not so much for mental health.
Mary-Ellis and I pledged Alpha Phi together as juniors. We could hardly get through the initiation ceremony for giggling. People joined sororities and fraternities for different reasons: some took it as seriously as a religion. Others wanted to find friends. Mary-Ellis and I found each other.
Mid-afternoon I met up with Christoph, son of my neighbor Bill across the street from me in Seattle. He’s a sophomore and newly moved into the Phi Delta Theta house, a place I was afraid to go into when I was a student.
Christoph and I walked around campus talking about the buildings that are there now and the buildings that were there when I was a student. I saw the magnificent science building, definitely not there when I was. I pointed out where I lived in Jewett as a freshman.
The Phi Delt house was distinctly un-scary. I actually didn’t want a tour. I just wanted to step inside. My father was a Phi Delt at Whitman College in the 1930s.
Christoph mowed my lawn for me last spring. When I asked him his price, he said “Nothing. We are good to our alumni.”
I gave him a $25 tip. We are good to our students.
Mary-Ellis and Phil took me back to Debi and Jim’s house where I was to sit with Helen who has middle stage memory loss so Bruce could go on an alumni bike ride. I made tea and she and I talked a little bit. I spent some time trying to figure out the Smart TV, which was clearly smarter than I was. I finally got a woodworking video that demonstrated how to whittle a cookie mold out of wood. It ran for half an hour, and then started up again. Since Helen had enjoyed it the first time I knew she’d enjoy it again because it would all be new to her. It ran three times and I knit and drank tea.
I ordered a dozen cupcakes from a place called Frosted and called Jim to ask him to pick them up on his way home from work. Kind of fun not having a car and everyone being at my beck and call. It was actually a pleasant afternoon and I enjoyed being with Helen. Even when memory is stripped away, the essence of a person can still be there and she is a lovely person.
Debi came home for a break from her duties as reunion co-chair and put her feet up. She had been on the cycle ride in the capacity of domestique. If you don’t recognize this terminology I’m not in the mood to explain. My blog is a sports free zone except for when I want to complain:
Sitting around chatting someone mentioned “EPO” and I asked what it was.
“Well,” Debi intoned –she talks slowly. “If you are an endurance athlete of any kind, be it long distance running, be it cross country skiing, be it cycling, the more your oxygen carrying capacity—“
“For the love of God,” I said. “Can’t you just answer the question?”
“I was trying to,” she said earnestly.
“No, you weren’t. You were using an innocuous conversational moment to bore me to tears with sportspeak. You’re like an addict. I can’t listen to any more! What is EPO? One short sentence.”
“It’s a drug to increase red blood cells.”
“Thank you. Was that so hard?”
“I was also going to say,” she injected rapidly. “It was what brought Lance Armstrong down.”
There was a reunion supper at a brew pub that evening. I hadn’t signed up for it because I knew we would be shouting at each other over some hyperactive sub-woofer (Is that even a thing anymore? I’m trying to be cool.) in an enclosed space and I would hate it. Jim had planned to go “because Debi wants me to” but when he found out I was staying home, he got out of it. We spent two lovely hours not talking. Jim was on the computer and I wrote using one of the promotional pens we got at registration. They roll easily across the paper and are much nicer than the ones they gave us at the 35th reunion. They are really too good to give to Gwen who is feeding my cats; in any case, her house is more or less paper free. I think I came home with six of them.
A little before 8:00 Mary-Ellis called. “Are you in bed” she asked.
“Ha, ha, no I am up and ready to make music.”
Our little group got together with my guitar and John’s banjo and did some singing. John sang a few songs and Bruce performed Schubert’s “Die Forelle.” But it was Mary-Ellis’ night. She performed the Cowardly Lion, some funny lyrics to “Drink to Me Only with Mine Eyes” and “Boom Boom Badushka:”
“Boom Boom Badushka, that means that I love you,
And if you’ll be my baby, I’ll boom badushka you.”
Did we even know what that meant when we sang it at college? Or Mary-Ellis’ other comic song: “I’m a ding dong daddy from Dumas and you ought see me do my stuff?”
We surprised Mary Ellis with the cupcakes to celebrate her birthday and finished the evening with “Auld Lang Syne.”
And the morning and the evening were the second day.