30 June 2016
For a long time the second week in June sat quietly in my mind as an approaching pleasure. A little complicated, but all good. My 65th Vassar reunion on the first weekend would be followed by a simple wandering through New England seeing old friends, topped off by the weekend of my granddaughter Willa’s wedding in Basin Harbor, Vermont. What I underestimated entirely was the emotional impact of everything that would unfold.
On a bright clear Friday I loaded my beloved Honda Fit with a ridiculous variety of clothing and equipment for all imaginable happenings and set off with that feeling about driving that has never left me: pure pleasure, anonymity, freedom. Why does driving lift me into some odd state of sublimity? Yes, I know that’s not a word, but I like what it means to me.
On the way up I thought back about all our earlier reunions – about feeling guilty leaving my children, about listening to classmates discuss their lives, sometimes with a hint of competitiveness about our families. Most of us are alone now and we are the measure of ourselves.
Two women from the Vassar administration had asked me to encourage classmates to come back by 1:30 on Friday for a gathering of faculty, alumnae, and administration to explore the campus chaos that had developed over the Israeli/Palestnian problems. The young, highly respected Rabbi spoke and then opened the discussion to the floor. At this point, an alumna – I’m bad at guessing ages – perhaps in her forties – stood and yelled that she is Jewish, that there aren’t two sides to this question and that her homeland is being stolen. Every time the Rabbi tried to invite additional opinions, the objector stood and obliterated any discussion until finally, the disheartened Rabbi gave up and closed the gathering. Not just rude, it was a violation of all the college has taught about exploring ideas even through disagreement.
It was a shame because all of us have been reading about the discord on many campuses and this had been our one chance to explore the issues in depth. Mr. Post would have gaveled that woman down to protect discussion, but the naysayer shut up for no one.
Saturday was scheduled microscopically with busses and guides to take us to every stop, further evidence of our age and the college’s awareness that at 85-87 many would not be wandering the campus. During this whole busy day, we reconnected with old friends but, best of all, fell into discussions with women we hadn’t known well or at all. All gathered, all one age for a gentle exploring of ideas among fifty women who have lived through eight decades of cultural change. There was a lot of wisdom in that room along with a deep loyalty to the college that had given all of us a fine start to our adult lives from the day we arrived in September of 1947. One final, comforting thought: Donald Trump wouldn’t find one vote in that group.
It was at this point that I began to understand the meaning of old age exhaustion. After driving to Burlington to the house of an old friend and her partner, I collapsed and slept instead of wandering around New England as I had planned. They welcomed me, fed me, and gave me a spot to call my own in their lovely Vermont house, and then that night, Orlando happened. A march in honor of the victims of right wing hatred was announced for the next night.
We gathered in front of the church at the top of the hill above the town and marched in silence down through Burlington to City Hall. The paper the next day said there were 2000 of us. The silence was so complete that the only sound I heard was that of sneakered footsteps on the pavement. When we stood still there – gay, straight, alone, together, most people were crying. The mayor spoke, Bernie Sanders spoke humbly and quietly angry and when it was done we all began to drift away – slowly, as if we really didn’t want to leave. It felt like the apex of rage in an election season that has been driven by hate from every side. “Love, Not Hate” was no longer a slogan that night. It was a demand.
The Basin Harbor Club sits hard by Lake Champlain in Ferrisburg, Vermont. The fourth generation of the family who founded it runs it still and they have preserved the original flavor of simple cabins looking over the lake – no glitz – just an enormous piece of rolling acreage with all manner of small boats for the pleasure of their guests. One of the special ingredients of that pleasure is the certainty of delicious food every day. Add to that the remarkable good humor of the staff that makes it happen – a group of invisible, friendly elves.
It turns out that this year, much of the staff is from abroad – college students who work at Basin Harbor for five months and then have a sixth for personal travel before going home. To a one they were intelligent, quiet and fun to be with, ready to help in any way and invisible except at mealtime when they served full course meals at the speed of light.
That was the setting. The next terrific surprise was emotional. Four families who did not know each other had gathered – 180 of us, and instead of heading for people they knew, they table hopped, danced, wandered, walked, made new friends of people with familiar names that they hadn’t met before. That setting was what allowed people the leisure to appreciate each other.
And then, the bride and groom. Eric, whose parents started the company he now works for and Willa, my granddaughter, both beaming at 32, welcoming all who had come long distances to celebrate with them. Willa’s uncle ran the rehearsal and the wedding the next day with a gentle humor and warmth that the guests all loved. She was surrounded by friends; she was beautiful; he was handsome and quiet. The guests loved it all as they headed for dancing and dinner under big white tents near the water.
Only the next morning did we hear that Eric’s mother had been taken, in great pain, to the hospital following that perfect day. She reappeared for the wedding but still wasn’t well and after that we heard she had gone back to the hospital. She is a brave, warm woman determined to keep her sudden sickness from spoiling the fun she had helped to create for so many.
At breakfast the next morning the room was full of goodbyes and emotions that I sorted through on the long drive back to New Jersey. A new life for a fine bride and groom, hope for recovery for his mom, love for my three now middle-aged children, and pride in all eight of my adult grandchildren who had come from near and far – a Hollywood scriptwriter, a Washington on line car dispatcher, an assistant on Bernie Sanders’ staff, a stand-up comedian, a member of an online shoe sales startup, another in online cosmetics, an artist/teacher in classical realism, and an account manager in commercial business insurance.
And then, a new element in the chemistry. Of the 180 people who gathered, my ex-husband, his wife, and I were the oldest in the gathering by an entire generation. And the fun of that, as it is for so much of life over 80, is that irrelevance means freedom from responsibility, from duty, and work. We had been handed a fanciful new freedom just to love and appreciate what the two generations below us have become.