For G and J
What happens when people meet again after many years of separation? Might they find they have nothing in common and go their separate ways? Or might the bonds formed early outlast all the changes a lifetime brings?
This past Monday, a high school friend and his wife spent the afternoon with my husband and me. The friend and I had reconnected at a class reunion a few years ago, but just like during the intervening years after our graduation, we had been out of touch since the reunion. So we got together for lunch and wound up spending the afternoon getting reacquainted, reminiscing, and swapping stories.
His wife is a musician, so she and I have that in common (although I’d say I’m a sleeper musician; I don’t play the piano much these days). She brought her harp for me to see—a beautifully crafted Thormahlen “Swan,” a real work of art. She demonstrated how to tune it and then she played it for us, such lovely music. I brought out my almost-brand-new dulcimer, untouched ever since I broke a string about a year ago. He helped me tune it and gave me some rudimentary instruction. “Find a teacher,” they both said. “Learn it. It’s fun.” They are into adventures and new learning, a fine example for me.
My friend and I found, just as we did three years ago at the reunion, that we have much in common, not just our upbringing, but our faith journeys, our politics, our love of travel and books and music. We grew up in the red clay hills of north Mississippi, a rural, poor part of the state (in case you have misconceptions about Mississippi, pockets of extreme poverty were not and are not limited to the Delta). His father was a Baptist minister, his family huge. My dad owned an automobile parts store; I was an only child. My friend and I didn’t know each other until he moved to town at the end of our ninth grade year. He was a shy boy, good-looking, sweet, and smart. He reminded me that he asked me to prom our junior year, but I already had a date. He moved on to date one of my best friends.
After high school, we went our very separate ways. What surprised us when we reconnected, I think, was how we had “outgrown” the place where we grew up, and yet how shaped we are, despite our different paths and experiences, by that time and place and people. Both of us had strong, hard-working fathers who sacrificed for us and for others. Both of us had home-making mothers whose chief duties were to mother us. We had good teachers who expected much. We had the good wishes of our friends—many of whom stayed behind in that small town—as we left that place behind. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We all chose our paths, but he and I chose “the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
My friend’s wife and I have a lot in common. We talked music and children and grandchildren and shared photos. He and my husband swapped father stories for much of the afternoon, poignant memories of words said or unsaid, connections and failures. I enjoyed watching them get to know each other in that way.
Our reunion turned out to be bittersweet. I’m grateful for the renewal of friendship, but I grieve that interim of years, all that time lost when we might have enjoyed each other’s company, when we might have been there for illnesses or hard times. But those aren’t the only “lost years.” There’s my husband’s life before we met, and the lives of my children since they left home, and the bits and pieces of lives that have crossed with mine only briefly. The don’t-knows are endless.
As a fiction writer, it’s the most natural thing in the world to imagine them. And if they become fodder for the imagination—isn’t there some redemption in that? It’s a little like inventing character: taking the bits and pieces I know and weaving them into the don’t-know of their lives.
So forgive me, old friends, and new, if some fragment of you winds up in a story. It’s a compliment, really, to your reality. To your existence as part of my life.
Is there somebody you’re “longing to see,” as the old song goes? Somebody whose missing years you would take back or re-invent, if you could? Try writing about her. Try imagining what she would say to you if she could.
Share your thoughts here, please. I’d love to know what this piece and this little exercise trigger for you.