I went to my 25th college reunion a couple of weeks ago. I was pretty unsure about it, actually: not only were most of my friends from school not going to be there, but Lisa and I met in college, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with being back in our old haunts without her. Her absence in all the places where she had been so vividly present was something I wasn't sure I was ready to face. Add to that the fact that the cheap housing was in the dorms....
On the other hand, we’d gone to my 20th reunion and had a really good time. I didn’t see many people that I’d known, but I’d met new people whom I liked quite a bit. And it was my father’s 50th reunion (he takes full credit for planning this, though he would have had to arrange for women’s admission to the college along with everything else). And, most of all, going back wasn't going to get any easier. I decided to take the chance. I signed up for the dorms, picked the events I wanted to do — and skipped out on Friday night and Saturday, (a) just in case it was too much and (b) so that I could have some time with my parents here at home.
I arrived back in Cambridge during the kind of downpour that makes you really wonder why you bothered, and was promptly taken in hand by a very cute, very sweet sophomore who took possession of my luggage, collected my room key, got me a ride to Hurlbut (a freshman dorm outside the Yard — the only one further from everything is Pennypacker), and made sure I knew how the locks worked. The charm was somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that, yes, she thought I was old — but it was raining hard enough that I wasn’t going to turn down her help.
It was very strange being in the dorms again. For one thing, all Harvard dorms have a very distinct smell, not unpleasant, kind of dry and clean and varnished, and for me that smell is associated with Lisa and our first days together. For another, it was far too quiet, so I was very glad I’d brought my iPod, even if listening to songs Lisa had given me made me cry. The beds are just as narrow as they ever were — we believed that the college deliberately bought skinny beds to discourage student sex, forgetting that all that really got discouraged was the sleeping part of “sleeping together” — but not uncomfortable; sharing a bathroom was about as unexciting as it ever was. It turned out I’d forgotten a nightshirt and shampoo, so I went out in the rain and bought both — the Coop had a bunch of books Lisa edited in their drama section — and then had a beer at John Harvard’s Brewpub, another place it seemed odd to be without Lisa.
It continued to rain. We conclusively disproved the claim that it never rains on a Harvard commencement — the alumni association managers were walking up and down the rows of chairs tossing plastic ponchos to the onlookers. It was a bit like getting peanuts at a baseball game, or like that used to be when I was young. Reunions bring out that phrasing quite a bit, I’ve discovered. My father, who encouraged me to march with my class (and sit out in the rain to watch the ceremonies), stayed in the Science Center and saw everything on the big screen. This is the man who told me I’d regret it if I missed marching.... And actually the procession was the point when I got to talk to two other people who’d gotten married during college. I’d never met anyone else who’d established their main relationship then, and it was nice to talk to people whose experiences were close to my own. So I suppose he was right, though not in the way he’d meant.
It rained some more on Friday, but by then I’d relearned some of the necessary skills to navigating Cambridge in the rain. Managing an umbrella in a crowd is a knack you never really lose.... I got to hear an interesting symposium on narrative (the current head of Yale Rep was in my class, something Lisa would have loved) and the results of the class survey, and then drove into Boston to collect my parents for the drive back to New Hampshire.
It rained Saturday, too, but I’d already made plans for that. Actually, Lisa and I had made the plans back in January when I decided I did want to go to the reunion. There is a historic house here in town that, among its many other attractions, has kept the last owner’s study as he left it, as a shrine to Harvard Class of ‘04. (That’s 1904.) Among the pennants and the other delights is the reunion photograph, taken at the White House because FDR (a classmate) was unable to attend a reunion in Cambridge. Lisa took great glee in picturing my father’s reaction to that, and I was not disappointed. Then Sunday, when the rain finally stopped, I took them up to Kittery to see the tombstone Lisa and I found on the lunch break of an otherwise not very helpful cancer seminar. It’s for the first pastor of the First Church in Kittery, and notes that he was a Harvard man — Class of 1690.
Some things, mercifully, never change.