The season of the reunion is upon us. Lagoon is offering incentives to families of more than 25 to gather on its terrace. Granite High School’s class of 1964 is planning a sock hop at a downtown hotel. A few Utahns are heading to St. Louis, where the VFW expects 10,000 guys to show up to its annual convention wearing embroidered hats piped in gold. And I am fresh from a reunion of Army pals whose friendship dates to a remote Ethiopian outpost during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Summer enables reunions; it doesn’t catalyze them. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, April quickened the blood such that “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” to shrines like Canterbury. June doesn’t bestir a similar longing in moderns to assemble in affinity groups for beer, burgers and banter. But you could say that the impetus for these get-togethers is in the marrow. Belonging to a group is a basic human need “felt along the heart,” in William Wordsworth’s words. Summertime simply provides the wherewithal—the long days, fair weather, vacation schedules and closed schools—for organizing a communal event.
A few years ago, I attended a Saturday-night gathering of 150 erstwhile co-workers in Massachusetts. By the time the dessert was eaten, the PowerPoint concluded and the roving microphone silenced, the audience was grumbling. The lengthy program had consumed the time available to refresh memories and renew friendships. Everyone felt cheated. All we wanted to do was to sit and talk. We lingered as busboys cleared the dishes, but we left the restaurant with our nostalgia craving unsatisfied.
The reunion is nostalgia realized. By attending one, you yield to the nostalgic urge. Attendance acknowledges the fact that who you are is attributable in part to the shared experience of a particular community. A reunion provides the opportunity to patch the holes in that group’s collective memory—sometimes with bittersweet effect. I look forward to rehashing the events of the good old days, and I enjoy being reminded of the details I have forgotten.
I appreciate nostalgia’s benefits intuitively, but I am ambivalent about reunions. I have never driven across town to socialize with my Highland High School class, but I have crisscrossed the country to attend reunions staged by this group or that association with which I have a history. Why one and not another? For a tangle of reasons: My high school days were mostly squandered, and I do not look back on them longingly. I didn’t play football or basketball, but I did play the viola in the orchestra. Joel Rosenberg, early on a gifted violinist, was the concertmaster. Last year, I ran into him and shook his hand. “I don’t remember you,” he said.
Memories of high school are nurtured by some, suppressed by others. Lynda Smart Brown has been organizing our class reunion for 40 years. Highland High’s class of 1963 included Rosenberg, Brown, me and 611 others. Seventy-nine have died. In 2013, 170 put in an appearance at the 50th reunion dinner, down from the 242 who attended in 2003. Brown says that it is mostly the same people who show up. A percentage of our classmates avoid the reunions. “High school was the most painful part of their lives, so they would never return to feel that pain again,” she says. Those who attend are partly nostalgic and partly interested in benchmarking themselves against their aging friends. “I think most people come to brag, share and see how everyone else is getting along,” she says.
Brown has got it about right. Truth be told, we are probably getting along thanks to some combination of dental implants, Clairol, titanium joints and Viagra. And who hasn’t had to squint at smartphone photos of someone’s adorable kids? But sharing is the connective tissue between the past and the present. We cultivate shared memories because without them, the bond of friendship erodes like the meniscuses of a diehard jogger. Why else would we be drawn together periodically to laugh at the same stories over and over? Those selfsame friendships are the goal of the nostalgic impulse. Every time we hear a story beginning with “remember the time … ,” we are on our way to a better place.
One of my favorite writers, Roger Rosenblatt, has written a book called Rules for Aging. His most insightful rule is: “Live in the past but don’t remember too much.” For people like me and Brown, the past has a certain allure. The people and places there are welcoming, and we can navigate our own experiences like an avatar in the virtual world of Second Life. However, the past is not without quagmires. As Rosenblatt implies, you can get yourself as mired as Gatsby if you are not careful.
There is no one with whom I share recollections of Highland High School. I was too immature in the early 1960s to forge any lasting friendships. The exception was Gary B. Johnston, my 12th-grade English teacher. Our friendship, which was life-changing for me, ended with his unexpected death in 1997. What high school memories I had were eclipsed by Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa was a long way from Utah in more ways than one. I arrived there with a college degree, a new wife and a lieutenant’s gold bar on my collar. By the time I left, I had enough memories and friends to sustain me for a lifetime.