In the past year, I’ve met up with a couple of old friends from my first years in college and, even earlier, with my best friend from junior high. It’s strange to reconnect with people from so many years back. The memories I share with them are so vivid. With one, I can recall sobbing in a park because neither of us had gotten into the sorority we’d wanted. With another, the night she met the boy who would eventually become her husband; almost 40 years later, they’re now grandparents.
It’s particularly odd to meet up with old friends after so many years, because I keep wondering about how well we know each other. We were friends so long ago, before we were fully formed, and now we see each other as middle-aged women. But we’re missing decades of life when we fell in and out of love, graduated from college, took our first jobs, found work we cared about, got married, got pregnant, had children, grew beyond adolescence and young-adulthood, became the people we are today. Because of the defining memories we shared, do we know each other really well? Or, because of those missing years — no, let’s be honest, those missing decades — are we almost strangers? Do we have everything in common or nothing?
These days, my memories — and hell, my memory itself — aren’t nearly as sharp. The years pass, and all that wealth of experience and life events gathers like a towering pile that threatens to tip over. Did something happen in the ’70s? The 80s? The 90s? This still-nameless decade?
Too many faces, names, occurrences, years. Fortunately, at this point in life, I have my own memory indexing system. Roughly, it consists of: Which of our four houses we were living in; which pregnancy I was in the midst of; how many kids we had at the time (zero, one or two); and before, during and after cancer.
When did the Challenger blow up? In the winter of 1986, when I was pregnant with our son. When did the price of silver spike when the Hunt brothers cornered the market? That would have been the winter of ’79-’80, when my husband and I were broke and — not coincidentally — sold our wedding silver at top dollar. This allowed us to get our electricity turned back on at our first house. (We’ve always been grateful to the Hunt family ever since and felt quite bad when the silver market collapsed on them.) When did O.J. Simpson get acquitted? That was in October 1995, when I made my first trip to the oncologist. My appointment was delayed, because the whole staff was gathered around TVs and radios for the verdict. Talk about bitter: I kept thinking that that lying, homicidal rat O.J. had gotten away with murder, but here I was — I’d never murdered anybody! — still having to go through chemotherapy.
Looking back, it’s odd how these memories become duller and less reliable, the older you get. Maybe, in a way, it’s merciful. Meeting friends from long ago makes me realize how much more impressionable I used to be, how sharp and painful my emotions once were, waiting for life to happen to me. Or maybe it’s simply that you move on as the years pass, beyond yourself and your own tiny orbit of hopes and expectations and hurt, and start to participate in the world and really live. The dress rehearsal is over and it’s time to get on with it.
Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker