Last weekend I had the pleasure of joining a lovely group of women in Dana Point, CA for their monthly book club meeting. I was the invited guest for the evening to discuss my book, “It Had To Happen This Way.” This was a thrill for me because it was the first time since I published my memoir that I have had the opportunity to talk with people I am not accainted with who have read my story.
The host of the evening was a former high school classmate of mine; a woman I hadn’t seen for 52 years. Phyllis Bierman Wachenheim and I attended Clayton High School in Clayton, Missouri. It was magical to spend time with Phyllis. It felt as though I had been transported to another time zone. I was so comfortable being with her. After our 48 hours together I could not get her out of my mind. She was the same beautiful soul I remembered from my youth. Friendships we make throughout our life are invaluable but I am especially appreciative of my earliest connections. According to Phyllis she was absolutely shocked by my story because no one knew of the deep, deep secrets I kept all those years. It is because of these wonderful friends and their families that I had the courage to survive and now am healthy, happy and well. I share these feelings in the story below.
Joy of Connections
An invitation unlike any I had ever received; brilliant orange and blue with a greyhound bounding through a large letter C, which stands for Clayton. I was being invited to my 50th Class Reunion in Clayton, Missouri a suburb of St. Louis. I was overwhelmed with a fusion of excitement, fear, wonder and curiosity. I could feel the rhythm of my heart, throbbing in my chest. I knew it was going to be a journey of emotions. Will I recognize my classmates, and they me? Is it possible to catch up with 50 years of living? Am I too scared to go alone? Giving it much thought, I decided to leave my teenage daughter and husband at home to fend for themselves. What I hadn’t anticipated about this trip, was finding buried treasure.
The community of Clayton, Missouri is unique. It always has been and is still today. Even as a child I knew I was fortunate to live in such a cosmopolitan city. But the fact of its sophistication seems to be lost on anyone who doesn’t live there. Having lived in California for the past 40 years I have often spoken of Clayton with fond remembrance. No one ever seems to have heard of this marvelous city but that doesn’t stop me from gloating about my past. Times were different in the 1940’s and 50’s when I attended Glenridge Elementary School and then went on to graduate in 1959 from Clayton High. Unfortunately our high school class wasn’t diverse ethnically; but the folks who were drawn to this community were liberal, open-minded and well-educated.
“I have nothing to wear!” I spoke dramatically out loud to myself. My days are spent in my studio/office and in my car. I wear the same clothes, although comfortable, over and over adnauseam. It just doesn’t feel right to wear fine clothing when there is a good chance of paint splattering or stains from dirt and dust clinging from soccer fields. I want to be comfortable when I work but for this special occasion, I knew right where to go to dress myself. In the village where I live there is a small shop run by a lovely woman who truly enjoys helping women feel confident in the clothes they choose. She imports garments from Paris and Canada from talented designers at a fifth of the cost of New York or L.A. It was great fun trying on many different outfits, mixing and matching, adding up to at least eight different looks. As I lined my bed with all my purchases, choosing jewelry to compliment each outfit, I had a flash-back. I had done this before in my teens with clothes I made for myself. I was in an entirely different state of mind back then; obsessive-compulsive.
I thought, “Today I am a healthy woman and am eager to reconnect with my dear school friends who were instrumental in grounding me during the years I spent growing up hiding secrets behind closed doors. Will they know how sick I was and are they aware of the unbalanced dynamics of my family life?”
The first day I arrived in St. Louis I rented a car and drove straight to my old neighborhood. It was amazingly as beautiful as I remembered it. When I turned left on Byron Street I was surprised to find that all the cars were pointing in same direction. It now was ONE WAY. It was surreal as I parked and got out of the car. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Do I have the right to investigate the premises? What will people think if they see a strange woman casing their property? It didn’t matter. I had to see where it all happened: my father’s death at age 45 when I was nine years old, the intruder who got away, denial of my brother’s illness, several hospitalizations, and alcoholism permeating our household. I found myself walking around the apartment building many times before I could focus on the windows at the back of the building. What had always seemed like a black hole amidst a sea of green trees now had a different story. I was able to stand there silently and forgive my parents and also forgive myself for any grievances and pain inflicted upon us.
Then I remembered the reason I came to Clayton; my reunion. What had saved my life (and not my brother John who committed suicide in 1988) was the loving link I had and still have with my neighbors and classmates. I needed to explore the area of my childhood where the roots had grown deep enough to carry me through years of codependency and then through many more years of therapy and on to wellness. Several of the parents of my schoolmates had helped out when they had become aware of the severe problems in our household. I was invited to slumber parties (that is what we called them then), dinners, and sometimes even weekend holidays. Because of the innocence of children these wonderful friends were not actually aware of what was going on in my home. It didn’t matter, they cared, and listened, played, made me laugh, and gave me hope for a better future. Because I was so often included with devoted families I actually believed that it could happen to me. I hung on to this picture for 30 years. The children themselves, now adults, I was about to see in just a few hours.
The first event of the weekend was a luncheon hosted by one of my oldest and dearest friends. Before arriving she had e-mailed me and said, “Kay, I have a surprise guest, just for you.” My reaction was, “What if I don’t recognize her! Help!” To my delight it was my college roommate from neighboring University City. We were roommates our freshman year at the University of Missouri, Columbia. I hadn’t seen her since I had been in her wedding about 48 years ago. Thus began the strange feeling that permeated the weekend. I was suspended in a time-warp, hovering between youth and adulthood. One by one our “girlfriends”, now many of whom are grandmothers anxiously joined the party. There were sighs of glee, little hugs and giant bear hugs, but most of all a shared feeling of connectedness. It was as if our friendship as children had carried us to this point today. Interestingly at this age, we didn’t talk about degrees, careers, children, or grandchildren. Our success has been in living our lives to the fullest with the fondest memories of our time spent together.
The atmosphere was electric at the spectacular kick-off cocktail party later that evening. Classmates, wearing picture nametags with their graduation photo, and many spouses, crowded together happily. As I looked around the room I saw the most youthful joyous faces. Then, as in a dream, the fleeting image of the collective group with gray hair, wrinkles, and extra pounds. But the reality was, everything had changed and nothing had changed. For the next few hours we were kids again.
Saturday night was the reunion dinner celebration at a lovely Italian restaurant. It felt like I was going to a ball. We chose our own seat at large round tables accommodating about 12-15 people. It was pointed out that at our table every person had gone to Glenridge, our elementary school. We passed large plates of food that contributed to the intimacy. It couldn’t have been better. After dinner we honored 17 of our classmates who have passed with a chime and a moment of silence. It was heartfelt and quite moving. We were then asked to speak for one minute to share the highlights of our life. One by one as we went around the room it seemed as though there was a light coming from within, illuminating each guest. Although I don’t remember the exact words that were spoken, I will never forget the flow of energy connecting the group. It is an honor and privilege to be a part of this special Clayton High School Class of 1959. I feel blessed.