Let me be blunt. My current state of connectedness with people is very much a product of the latter part of my life. What this means is that I have not really maintained contact with all that many people from my past. High school, college, and camp each boast wide-flung networks of folks who keep in touch. I only participate with a minute handful of them, and to be honest, many of those are friendships re-kindled only in later years. Medical school was a little better, mainly because I stuck around and settled nearby after it was over. Residency is like combat. I will be tight with those folks until the day I die, however much actual contact we may have.
Why might this be? I think because I didn’t like myself much when I was younger. What was to like about an insecure, overweight kid overly conceited about her inflated opinion of her own brilliance? And how could I expect anyone else to like me if I didn’t like myself?
Geography — and the lack of social media — played into this. I was the only person from my high school who went to my college, and the only person from my college to go to my medical school. I took full advantage of the opportunities to re-invent myself each time, slowly becoming comfortable in my skin. But everything in life is about people. I realize the truth of this the older I get, so I treat relationships differently. Still, the idea of reaching out/back to those from former iterations of myself seems overly daunting, despite the relative ease with which it can be accomplished via social media.
So last weekend when I traipsed back up to the college from which I graduated thirty years ago to see the NinjaBakerMaster join the ranks of its alumni, there were some odd feelings. I felt connected to the place, even though there were now buildings where there had previously been courtyards and vice versa. Still, enough was the same to trigger feelings of generalized nostalgia. This even despite the fact that it was now much more the NBM’s college than it was mine. I certainly don’t feel connected enough to my graduating class to attend out 30th college reunion taking place next month.
The graduation speakers ran the gamut from somnolent to awesome, the latter providing grist for deep contemplation. Or so they obviously intended. The university’s new president offered up the trope about remembering the people more than the places; the friends, professors, and colleagues whose relationships would influence the new graduates so much farther into the future than the classrooms, dorms, and laboratories. Yet he pointed out that they (and therefore by extension, me) would always be drawn back here, because:
Places don’t belong to people; people belong to places.
What a nice platitude, I thought, letting it wash over me. I heard it, registered it; came to the quick conclusion that it didn’t really apply to me, and let it go.
More speeches made; a cello performance; degrees conferred; mortarboards flung. Ceremony over.
Progeny located; pictures snapped; new seats found for the next event, coincidentally occurring in the same venue, so all we had to do was move closer to the front. During this lull of comings and goings (staggered bathroom breaks for all), this crotchety old guy in his 80s whom I’ve known for years dragged me over to a woman about my age.
It turned out she had been in my graduating class. As had her husband, who was also present (eventually also to be dragged over and introduced). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were there to see their own child graduate; many of us married classmates and had children, presumably around the same time. It was utterly predictable that classmates’ offspring should also be classmates. The thing is: I had never met them.
The university is relatively small as universities go, but it still wasn’t overly shocking that I would first meet people with whom I had graduated thirty years after the fact, so I continued to smile and nod. Being much more accomplished at small talk than I was back then, I asked the standard questions about where they lived and what kind of work they did.
One was a lawyer, the other a doctor. Big shock, that one.
But the answer to the geography question was interesting: they lived in South Jersey. From 300 miles away, that’s like home. Something else niggled at my brain, and the Jewish geography game began: did the MD know a dear friend of mine from medical school, now also living in South Jersey and practicing the same specialty.
The jaw dropped. They operate together every Thursday. They’re great friends and have been for years. Was I at the Bat Mitzvahs? I certainly was. As had they.
It turned out I’ve been in the same room on numerous occasions with not one but two classmates from this venerable New England institution of higher learning way back down in the Delaware valley — without ever knowing it. I may not think of myself as connected to the people of this place, but boy did it turn out I ever was.
And that was just the beginning. Hanging out with the parents of the NBM’s friends revealed shared interests, occupations, birthplaces, and home towns. A jaunt for ice cream jolted loose another memory: I’d been here before! Thirty years ago, it was where I’d first encountered the raspberry lime rickey. The taste of it released a flood of other memories, creating a truly magical evening — on top of the kvelling high of watching my kid graduate.
Turns out people really do belong to places. Even when the places are too polite to force themselves on us, it is inexorable; the pull of the past morphed into the present.