Thursday, 11:45 P.M.
I am visiting my mother at her New York City apartment. Tomorrow, we'll go to her 60th Vassar College reunion. We're sipping beer, and she's telling stories about old friends and cherished college moments.Finally it's bedtime.
But first, we must boil the strawberries.
"They could go bad," she explains, dumping the clinging dregs from the green plastic pint container into a saucepan.
My mother is a lot of things—fiercely intelligent, archly funny, and sometimes a bit nutty—but she is never wasteful. She seals up her strawberry mush in a recycled mayonnaise jar. Puts it in the fridge. Then she climbs up on a step stool and roots around in an overhead cabinet until she finds another container. Into this one goes a cup of coffee left over from dinner.
Friday, 11 A.M.Going for a ride
The cab driver who's taking us to midtown to catch the Poughkeepsie bus is a classic garrulous New York City cabbie. I happen to mention we're going to a 60th college reunion, and he replies, "But she can't be your mother. I thought she was your sister." I roll my eyes—I'm 50 and my mother is 80—but my mother gets right into it with him: "Well, if your eyesight is so bad, maybe you shouldn't be driving."
He clams up for the rest of the ride.
Friday, 3 P.M. Meeting the old gang
The reception for the class of '41 is in a large central dormitory and administration building called — without much imagination — Main. The room for our get-together is grand, with high ceilings and walls decorated in a lush, jade Chinese wallpaper of geese and lily pads. Lest we forget where we are, foot-high golden V's are tucked into the molding in the four corners of the room.
I meet one of my mother's classmates, Marta, who is extremely pale and so thin you want to reach for her arm when she walks. Her blue eyes are sharp. She tells me about coming here from Austria right before the war. How frightened she was the time she heard a fellow shopper in a New York department store loudly criticizing Roosevelt. "Back home, you could get shot for saying such things," she says.
Marta also tells me another stoy that I will hear echoed over the next two days. Graduating as a science major, she wanted to study aeronautical engineering. She was told she qualified for acceptance to Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, but administrators warned her it would be difficult" for her there, since there were no toilet facilities in the labs for women. "So instead of an M.A.," she tells me, "I became a MA-MA."
This was not, it hardly needs to be said, an era when women easily became professionals, even those who were college graduates. Consider the statistics for the class of '41: Only one-fourth worked outside the home for a full 20 years. Of 252 gradates, 166 describe their roles as "chiefly housewife." More than half report doing regular volunteer work. And of the 74 who'd held full-time jobs, more than half, like my mother, were teachers.
Another occupation has become more common in recent years: caregiver. My mother was nurse to her mother, and, later, to my father, who had Alzheimer's. To this day, I've never heard her utter a single word of complaint. One woman tells me she visits her husband in a nursing home all day, every day, even though he no longer recognizes her. "My friends told me I shouldn't go so much," she says. "So for a few days I stayed away. When I came back the nurse said he'd stopped eating. So, now I go."
We are interrupted by Judith, a vigorous woman in a bright red dress who is breathless with excitement. "Do you want to see my diamond pin?" she asks. "Okay, sure," I say politely. The joke is on me. She opens a jewelry box and shows me a dime and a safety pin. Should have seen this coming: Judith is wearing huge red earrings, one says IN and the other says OUT.
Friday, 8:30 P.M. Sharing a memory
My mother has something to tell me. We've just finished a tasty buffet dinner under a white tent, sitting with her very dearest old friends, many of them theater majors, as she was. They've updated each other on travels, aches, medicines, children, grandchildren, husbands. We pass around the script for a skit, written mostly by Ruth, a professor's wife, that they'll perform at tomorrow night's banquet. The topic is language, words that have disappeared ("rumble seat," "nylons") and words that have gained common currency but still feel alien and amusing ("user-friendly," "glass ceiling," "significant other").
The subtext, of course, is change, something that's on my mother's mind a lot lately. But as we're sipping coffee, she leans over and tells me something that is about not-change— her theory of continuity.
Memories can be handed down from generation to generation, my mother believes. When she was very young, her grandmother lived with her in their New York City apartment. My mother would regularly brush out her grandmother's long hair. And while she was doing it, her grandmother would describe brushing her own grandmother's hair. This earlier brushing took place in New Milford, Connecticut, where the family had lived for generations. It was a town my mother knew well. And so, she says, her grandmother's memory eventually became her own. She describes for me the sun coming in tthe south-facing window of the sitting room in her grandmother's childhood home, the feel of the wooden bristle brush in her grandmother's five-year-old hands. As she describes it, she closes her eyes, and I can see she's really there, brushing her great-great-grandmother's hair. I do a little calculation: The scene she's depicting would have taken place in the 1850s.
Friday, 11:30 P.M. Doing the boogie
My mother and four friends have passed up the obvious option of going to bed. Instead, we're squeezed around a table at the Mug, a basement campus pub. It's packed with young men and women, recent graduates sharing their own reunions. (Vassar went coed in 1969.) Madonna is pulsating from large speakers. Margaret, one of our crowd, is dancing exuberantly by herself. (As a girl, she was considered clumsy, she tells me. So she was sent to study dance with a disciple of lsadora Duncan, and she's been dancing ever since.) She insists that we all join her on the crowded dance floor. The six of us gather in a circle. We dance. Ruth, who's tall and slim but not what you'd call athletic, makes determined up-and-down moves with her fists. My mother, whom I've never seen dance to rock music, much less disco, gamely shuffles her feet a bit. "Come on," Ruth shouts to her, pumping her hands up and down. "It's ther-a-peu-tic!" My mother smiles a wry smile and pumps.
Later, as I'm fighting my way through the dense crowd, ferrying clusters of full beer mugs from the bar to our table, a woman with a "Class of '96" badge blocks my way and asks, "What year are they?"
"Class of '41," I say.
"Awesome!" she squeals.
Saturday, 7 P.M. Inheriting a memory
The banquet dinner for the class of '41 begins with a remembrance of classmates who have died. The names, more than 100, are listed on a program. I am struck by how unemotionally this tribute is received. There's little or no reaction. Of course, by a certain age, death might be a familiar presence, I think to myself.
But then the speaker says, "...And, I'm sorry to report that since the printing of this list, two more of us have passed away." A gasp punctuates the silence as she names the newly dead.
After dinner, my mother and her friends stand and perform their skit. It begins as a series of comments about life in 1941 ("I've never seen TV, but I've heard of it"), then flashes forward to 2001, when high tech rules the day, but, according to Ruth's script, most young people are pretty clueless:
"Do we know where the trade winds are? Or how to find Oslo and Shanghai, Kinsale and Petra?"
"But our grandchildren don't"
"They know Planet Krypton, but they can't find Crete."
There's more in this vein. Then comes the closing line, which draws a good laugh:
"You just can't trust anyone under 80!"
Suddenly, I see them as they were in their early 20s, beautiful, privileged, exquisitely well-educated. I can imagine them putting on a skit like this one—witty and satirical and just a little bit smart-alecky. Each of them is intimately acquainted with the lessons of the Depression. Most of them expect to go forth, marry, and raise children. The European war has already begun; in a matter of months, it will become their war too. And so my understanding of my mother's precious years at college now includes a living picture. She has given me the gift of a memory. She has given me a piece of her life.
— Steven Slon
–This article first appeared in AARP The Magazine