Gazing at Aging Through the Reunion Prism

When I attended my first school reunion with a family member, just a few years after graduating from college, the people attending their 35th, 45th and 50th reunions seemed really old. At a Saturday luncheon table near the back of an old-fashioned field house, we watched and clapped, somewhat wondrously, as the different classes stood to be recognized, beginning with a man attending his 70th reunion who moved around slowly with a walker.

The old observatory at the school — now a National Landmark.

The old observatory at the school — now a National Landmark.

Gradually the master of ceremonies worked his way from the front to the back of the room – 65th, 60th, 55th, 50th, 45th. It wasn’t until we reached the class attending its 30th reunion that the alumni started to look, well … not old. It took half-an-hour to reach our tables filled with raucous young men who along with wives and partners, had barely finished with graduate school.

Looking back, I realize that luncheon offered me my first concrete understanding of the way we age — the way I age, actually. We all sat there observing benchmarks — characteristics that define what happens to human beings over 10, 20, or 30 years.

And sure enough, this weekend, here I am in Ohio attending a 50th reunion, though not mine. This time I’m sitting at a table that looks toward the back of the room — and at some fairly raucous young people. Did I mention that not one of the people at our 50-year tables looks old?

Differences exist between our group and those long-ago men returning to school after 50 years. Today not one of the “reunioneers” in our group appears to be a smoker, while smokers abounded among those aging celebrants and ashtrays were everywhere. While individuals in my group today have our share of ailments — a cane, a shaking hand, surgeries, eye issues, chronic health problems  — almost everyone, including the people with these health issues, is vigorous. Forty years ago, and I have pictures to prove it, the alums attending the 50th reunion were less so.

So an especially good aspect of these reunions is the opportunity to gaze through a prism to observe the ebb and flow of our lives. We can see with some slight, but not significant, variation just where we started as young adults, what stage of life is coming next, how we might be living in a few years, and more importantly at least for some of us, what we might look like down the road. In essence at these events, whether we understand it or not, we are celebrating the way we age.

Today my group is older, somewhat more dignified, and definitely wiser, exuberantly sharing what’s happened in our lives — jobs, adult children, retirement considerations, travel and, of course, memories of school — since we last got together. Quietly we remember several people who have died. We all have smart phones and, from what I’ve observed, we all know how to use them. We watch with a certain fascination as the youngest alums scream hellos, fall into one another’s arms, pose for selfies, and drink a bit more than we are drinking (and gaze curiously, from time-to-time at us). However, it seemed like only one person in the 50 year group — that would be me — noted down and planned to use the reunion’s Twitter hashtag.

The chapel service this morning reminded us once again about aging. Reunion classes left the chapel by reunion years — first the couple of alums from the 1930’s, then the small group from the 1940’s, a larger group from the 1950’s, and then our large group from the 1960’s. Young and old, we are, as each of these reunions proceed, learning more about the uncompromising process of aging.

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