Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gaudeamus Igitur

I had a life-forming ("life-changing" doesn't seem accurate when you're 17) experience at Smith College. Mind you, it's nuts that I even wound up there, coming as I did from Orange County, CA, with absolutely no ambition. I was at a college fair my senior year, rolling my eyes while my friend shmoozed someone at the Cornell booth, when a cool gal named Stephanie started chatting with me from the next booth. She had just graduated from Smith, and asked if she could send me an information packet. I wrote down my address, just to be polite. Next thing I knew, my dad was all excited about it (he went to Princeton, and dated Smith girls, as he calls them) and there was an application, an acceptance and a grand tour which lasted most of the day (my dad and brother dumped me off and I became an honorary Smithie for the day, lunching at the houses, sitting in classes, hanging in the hallways.) I still didn't think it was a good idea ("Why are there no men? Is it a religious thing?") but my parents exerted a certain pressure, and suddenly it was September and I was flying 3,000 miles to go live in an ivy-covered "house" (no dorms at Smith) with 83 other women. And so began one of the great adventures of my life.

Smith is small--about 2,700 students--and gorgeous (it's a National Arboretum.) The entire student population lives on campus. The dining staff leaves bowls of cookies and apples out between meals. There's a grand piano in the TV room. You go down to breakfast in your pajamas. Sometimes people ask me if it was like a sorority. I say that I don't know, having never been in a sorority, but I doubt it's a regular occurrence in sororities to be discussing Rabelais in the hallway over pizza at 2 a.m. Smith is filled with smart women--we like to say that "At Smith, if something's going to get done, a woman is going to do it." Being at Smith made me more confident, and independent. My Smith friends and I are still, after nearly 20 years, the ones who ask "What the hell?" when something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

So, twenty years, yeah. That's a long time. I've been back for every reunion, and it always feels like picking up right where we left off. One year, eight of us drove to Target to buy matching $5 white platform shoes so we could march in the alumnae parade with the correct color footwear. We go to Packards for beer and burgers and whoop it up like teenagers. We watch the alumnae parade (in which our gang is moving ever closer to the front of the line) and get a little misty-eyed. We drink and dance and talk and laugh and cry.

The last time I went to a reunion, I was a bit put-out by a new development. A lot of my classmates had brought--horrors!--their small, loud children. True, I had brought my husband for the first time, and that changes things. But the children...hogging the bathrooms, screeching at mealtimes, crying in the middle of the night through the thin 19th century walls. It was a drag. What was even more of a drag was that I was currently doped up on some fertility drug crapcake that made me moody and weepy and pissed. I was 36 years old and noticing I was not so much like these women after all. They were having families. I was having shots. I felt like I was standing on the other side of an ever-widening faultline, watching the people get tinier and less distinct. More than the weather was unseasonally gray and frosty.

It's been more than four years since that weekend, and a lot has changed, as my Faithful Readers well know. I've had my own kid for the last 18 months, and no longer wonder who the nurse is talking about when she says, "I have a mom here..." I no longer find it wondrously strange that a very short person can always been found directly on my heels, beseeching me for more snacks. It's my life now, too.

This past weekend I was reunited with two of my close pals from the halycon days of Smith. Re lives in Seattle, and Noriko in Los Angeles. The former has a 3-year-old daughter, the latter daughters of 6 and 2. Re set up a beach date and we got together for a picnic, sand castle-building, tide pool-trolling, big wave-shrieking-and-fleeing, and snack-filled circle time. In the brief interludes between these activities, we talked and laughed and caught up on each other's lives. It was wonderful. And along the way, I had the privilege of seeing my friends with their children, and our children together. Cadence taught me how to navigate the rocky tidepools. Maia gently guided Jarrah in and out of the waves. It was a veritable love fest. Everyone was holding hands. It couldn't have been an easier day, or a sweeter one.

I discovered that Noriko, who was able to pack up my sophomore dorm room into about five boxes while I watched in awe, and Re, who when I lived with her in Boston after college managed to eek out palatable dinners with nothing but tuna fish and Kraft dinner, now apply their myriad talents to toddler-wrangling--no surprise. My friends, who were smart, forthright, curious, and personable at 21, are now raising daughters who--also no surprise--take after them in many ways.

It was a healing experience to spend time with my Smith friends as the person I am now--and as a parent. It made me hopeful that I might have some qualities I would be proud to pass on to my daughter, who doesn't share my genes, but shares my house, my days, my life. I was deeply touched by how natural (and there's a word that's anathema in adoption, so often used to distinguish biological parenting) it felt to be a mom alongside other moms, especially ones whom I admire, with whom I have a history that far precedes motherhood. And how they welcomed me and my daughter into their space, as if I had never spent five years being someone else, a miserable, shriveled husk of a person who could think of nothing but what I didn't have, what I couldn't become.

As I get older, I sometimes find myself in the middle of a moment that I can tell is important in some way, a moment that throws the rest of life into relief. These are the moments when I can observe that change has taken place, and remarkably, that the change is okay, even good. At the same time, I can appreciate, with a pinpricking poignancy, that something else has now receded, become fully a memory, a part of my past that is truly behind me. What makes that memory--now a complete, whole thing just out of my reach--so important is viewing it from the place I am now. A place I am glad to be standing, where it is not at all hard to find myself grateful.


Anonymous said...


Mary said...

A really lovely post. I can just imagine Smith. It sounds magical. O.K.-maybe Joy can leave the state.



Jen said...

Wow. I think this may be one of the most beautiful things you've ever written, Sam.

And so moving!

Miss J

Anonymous said...

I agree: grateful says it all.

Caroline said...

I agree. Beautiful.

And I want to go to Smith, too. Got a time machine?