Still Teaching

On a warm June morning four years ago, I locked my classroom door for the last time, tearfully hugged my colleague, turned in my laptop and keys, and called it a day on 34 years of teaching strings in an affluent suburban school district. I thought I was done. I thought I had conducted my last concert, answered my last parent email, and helped little fingers encircle a half-size violin bow for the last time.

Yesterday, I came home exhausted after watching 22 beginning string students come together for their first orchestra rehearsal. We plucked Merrily We Roll Along and D scale patterns and each section took turns plucking a line of Jingle Bells. They were so excited at the end of the rehearsal.  “Do we get to do this every week?” “This is so cool.” “I can’t wait ‘til the concert.” “I love this.”

So do I. I’m back at it in an urban charter school, working as an outside contractor for a local music company, so the state doesn’t get bent out of shape about my pension. It’s hard work, even for just one day a week.

I walk into this school on Tuesdays, inhaling the smell of baked chicken fingers, overheated laminator and pre-adolescent sweat, and know that a part of me is home. It is where I am comfortable. School and everything that goes with it are what I know.

I teach in a small gym where I have to haul chairs and stands, and a keyboard balanced on floor scooters, out of a closet loaded with playground toys, extension ladders and other paraphernalia the school has no other place to store. Starry-eyed music education majors should be told they will spend a great deal of their careers schlepping stuff—stands and chairs on and off the stage, instruments on and off the bus, timpani down hallways and across parking lots and that they will need a special certification to correctly load a rack of music stands. (Top folded down, load the center leg in first, all facing the same direction.)

I hear the same words coming out of my mouth. “Righty-tighty when you’re ready to play, lefty-loosey when you put it away,” to tighten and loosen bow hair. “No banana thumbs on the bow” “Keep those pinky fingers curved.” “Practicing is part of your homework. Did you tell your teacher you were too busy with soccer to do your math homework?” “Whose job is it to bring your instrument?” “We need more man or woman in that sound. Dig in.” “Low 2, guys, there are no sharps.” “Violin up, wrist down.” Ad infinitum. Same song, different school.

violin bow hold

The student population here is diverse, and many of these students are as jaded as I am. I love ‘em, and I can get away with saying things to them that I would probably not have said to students in my former school. They get it. Some live in situations where they must shoulder adult responsibilities or are exposed to adult problems at way too young an age. If I refer to parents, I will often include the phrase, “grown-ups at home” because they may not live with their natural parents.

I have brilliant students and troubled students and oddly enough, two students who have the same back problems that I do, so we have our own little support group. (Yes, I know you can’t reach down to tie your shoe when you’re wearing a back brace.) I have a beginning student who is autistic and excels at note-reading, although I am careful about touching him to fix his bow hold. I have a group of 7 (yes, 7!) beginning violas. I have a beginning bass player barely tall enough for the instrument who has flawless rhythm. Snaps his fingers exactly on the beat when other students are playing. I have four advanced violinists who can play independently as a quartet. I have a second-year player who pushed my buttons so far one week that I told him he was one of the rudest and most obnoxious students I ever taught. Fortunately, his parents were supportive when I contacted them, and there were no lawsuits involved.

But they’re all playing orchestral instruments. They’re making music and they’re learning and for the most part, having a good time. Some never practice and a few practice a lot and most fall somewhere in between. They rarely miss a lesson even with a convoluted rotating schedule that I tear my hair out trying to put together every Sunday afternoon.

Right now, we’re playing Chester and Wipe Out and a beautiful Copland-esque piece called Appalachian Hymn. Still lower grade stuff, but we’re slowly, slowly developing into an orchestra instead of a motley crew of beginners supported by the piano. We can now actually talk about dynamics and tempo changes instead of just trying to get through the piece without a crash and burn. My advanced students never complain that the music’s too easy and my weakest students never complain that it’s too hard. I try to choose material that’s accessible to all, but I don’t cut corners. They must learn to read and count and do the heavy lifting that’s required of a musician.

Next year, this school will open a high school across the street from the beautifully restored old building that houses the current K-8 grades. I suspect that will mean a second day of teaching for me, and I’m not sure I want to do that. Theoretically, I am retired and I kind of like this writing thing and am not sure I want to be tied down two days a week. My husband works with the band students at the same school, and our hope was that if we got this program started, some dynamic young music teacher would be hired to take over and really build a viable band and orchestra program. I am not sure that’s going to happen, and I may be faced with a hard decision.

When that day comes, I know I will miss the drip-drop sound of little fingers plucking for the first time. I will miss the squeals of those early bowing attempts. I will miss watching a young lady whose family can barely afford her instrument rental playing with the most beautiful position and bow hold I’ve ever seen in a beginner. I will miss watching the kids team up to help the bass player carry his instrument down the hall, two at the neck and two at the endpin. I will miss a nine-year-old’s radiant smile when she looks up at me and says, “This was so much fun. Do we really have to go back to class?”

I will miss the magic of “Merrily We Roll Along.”

lesson book page

 

 

 

Symbiosis

We celebrate 20 years this week. Not all that impressive compared to friends who are reaching milestone anniversaries, easing into matriarch/patriarch roles while adding more chairs for grandchildren at holiday tables.

We’re in a different place because it took us a while to find each other. I got sidetracked by a promising first marriage that somehow lost its way. Brian was busy running a high school band program and helping to care for his father who became disabled from a stroke. We crossed paths at the christening of a friend’s daughter and then ran into each other again at a choral concert. A few weeks later, a friend called me and said, “Would you think about …” and I did, and I went, and there were roses left at my front door on a holiday I thought I would never again have a reason to celebrate, and we figured out that we were pretty good together, and we still are, 20 years later.

roses

Symbiosis is defined as the “interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.” Ah yes, we interact as different organisms. Brian moves through life like the golfer that he is—deliberately and thoughtfully and can occasionally over-think something to a fine point. He would prefer to sleep in on days when he doesn’t have to be somewhere. He loves drum corps and jazz and the Orioles.

I am into books and writing and food and tend to move, shall we say, efficiently. Let’s just get ‘er done starting at 7 AM. No lingering in pajamas. But then don’t start a project or an important conversation with me after 10 PM which is when the other occupant of this home is ready to sit down and get to work.

The spaces I inhabit for the most part are neat and tidy little worlds (yes, I will admit to some mild OCD tendencies) whereas Brian’s desk and car tend to be littered with extraneous papers, golf balls, and what I call “snivels” –various scraps containing once-important phone messages and notes which never seem to find their way to the trash can.

We have vastly different concepts of when to apply the brakes in traffic. Playing scrabble on my phone prevents me from making what I think of as helpful driving suggestions, as well as reducing the number of times I brace for impact.

When it comes to music, give me baroque, classical, anything that’s structured. I start to twitch five minutes into a jazz improvisation, and I can never understand why drum corps must always be so loud? 

Brian 5-27-13

I will never, ever play golf.  I cannot envision myself in those cute little skirts and pastel polo shirts, and the coordination required to swing a club?? Not going to happen.

tyson-dudley-122441

 

His family says I taught him to spend money. Point taken. I think I’ve done an excellent job with that. I am a when-in-doubt-throw-it-out person when it comes to food while he will reverently keep an opened container of Fischer’s caramel popcorn on the shelf for months. (“Smell it, it’s still good.”) I won’t even mention the contents of his refrigerator when he was single.

But none of that matters. The second half of the definition is where the magic lies. “Typically to the advantage of both” “A mutually beneficial relationship.” Oh my, have I benefited. From living with someone who knows how to fix almost anything. Who will take the dogs out in the middle of the night when it’s pouring rain or clean up their puke, wielding the spot-lifter with gusto at 2 am while I stay warm in my bed. (Who also has been known to climb up on an extension ladder to clean out the gutters during said rainstorms with me standing at the bottom yelling, “Do you have to do this now? You’re not getting any younger.” but that’s another story.)

stjohnyork-new-look-8 (2)

Who gave up attending his family’s church to worship with me after I explained to him that to a cradle Episcopalian, other denominations feel like Lions’ Club meetings. Gotta’ have liturgy. Who would compose pieces for my middle school strings when I needed something to fit a concert theme. Who gently corrects my rhythm on choral music because, well, sometimes I have a little trouble with that. Who never gets upset when there’s no supper because I’ve spent the entire day writing a story.

 

Ten years ago, we buried my dad in October and his mother two months later.  One expected, one not. Both parents loved the fact that we were together. Our happiness made them happy in their last years. We looked at each other going to the cemetery after his mother’s funeral, thinking “How can we be in the lead car of a funeral procession again so soon? We have no siblings, so we were nearly annihilated ourselves in the months that followed, coping with estates and the bureaucracy of death.

gravestone (2)

 

 

And then there was the night Brian spent alone in a Manhattan hospital with only God to talk to. I was in the ICU with eight pints of New York blood coursing through my veins because I nearly bled to death during spinal fusion surgery. But we soldiered through that one, too. At home, he walked the floors with me on nights when the post-op pain was so excruciating I couldn’t sleep. We’d sit downstairs in the dark because the recliner was the only place I could get comfortable, and listen to the hoot owl in the trees in the backyard. He was my spotter as I did laps around the dining room table, learning to navigate with a straightened spine. Fixing my back was the hardest thing I ever did in my life and I couldn’t have done it without him. And much to his relief, all that New York blood did not turn me into a Yankees’ fan.

NYU hospital

I feel like I’ve been the main beneficiary in this deal. I can’t bring myself to even contemplate the terrifying prospect of what life would be like without this man beside me.  So, thank you, Brian, for this most glorious symbiosis, this “close union of two dissimilar organisms” this “cooperative relationship,”… this incredible marriage. Happy Anniversary.

Wedding pic in church (2)

 

 

Learning Again

I find it both exhilarating and scary to be a student at my age. I don’t mean just learning from travel and nice little lectures offered at the local college. I mean going for it full-force. Cranking out a product for someone else to evaluate when it’s not required for a degree or a job promotion. When there’s no “have to” involved. To risk criticism and even failure simply because you want to learn to do something you’ve never done before, or you want to get better at something you’ve done forever. 

Two years ago, I started taking on-line writing classes at an exploratory level and discovered I really enjoyed the genre known as creative non-fiction, which applies techniques of fictional story-telling to actual events and can encompass everything from full-length memoirs to personal essays. I’ve worked with a local writing coach and attended my first writers’ conference where I sucked up seminars like the proverbial sponge and had an opportunity to meet a favorite author in person. (I also found writers to be a much less cranky group than the typical crowd at music educator conferences.)  

Currently I’m taking an on-line class with students who are far better writers than I am. The instructor is very supportive and although I have yet to submit my work for peer review because I’m too intimidated, I know this class is taking my skills to another level. As I read the work of experienced writers, the more critical I become of my own work and the more I strive to improve. I am so grateful that there is still time and still room in my head for this to happen at age 60.

The other place where I find myself pushing the learning envelope is with choral singing. Unlike writing, I have been a choral singer and professional music educator for my entire adult life. So, we’re talking about stuff firmly established in my wheelhouse. 

A little over a year ago, my husband and I made the difficult choice to leave our current choral group and audition for what might be considered the premier vocal ensemble in our region, if not the state. It was a gamble for people like us on the far side of 50.

We were accepted and welcomed into the orbit of a conductor who would pick up our voices like old rugs, take them outside and give them a good shake. Who would transform our been-there-done-that piece-three-times-wake-me-when-it’s-over mentality to “My God, this song is gorgeous. Where has this music been all my life?”

To say this conductor has revitalized and re-energized our passion for choral singing is an understatement. I find myself hearing her voice in my head, every time I sing, especially when I’m with my church choir and have to sing soprano. We have rediscovered what it means to practice and what it feels like to once again be inspired by a teacher. We are surrounded by singers who are younger and better than us. We must bring our A game to every rehearsal and performance.

Susquehanna Chorale 2017

I guess that’s my point. Where in the aging instruction book does it say, stop giving your best? Where does it say, just keeping on keeping on is good enough? While our bodies are still functional, why should we drop down to our B or C game? Yes, it’s scary to step out into uncharted territory. I cringe every time I hit the submit button on a piece I’ve written, knowing that it will probably get rejected but that means I must write it better the next time. I worry that I’m going to forget part of the memorized piece in the concert especially when there’s syncopated clapping involved, (Rhythm was never my strong suit.) but that means I must practice it yet again. I find I have to push back hard against the forces of complacency that say, “Stay safe. Stay comfortable. Just keep doing what you know you can do. Why work so hard when you don’t have to?”

Because the process feels good. It means I’m not stagnant, that there’s movement beneath the surface, even if that movement is mostly flailing. And sometimes there are rewards. The reward of singing with a group in which our voices are worked like dough in the master baker’s hands—mixed and kneaded and given time to rise and rest until the most delicate and sumptuous creation comes out of the oven. The reward of a writing mentor reading one of my pieces and saying, “This makes me just want to slam my head on the table and say, why I couldn’t I have written that?” The reward of a letter written in a shaky hand sent to my church after a piece I wrote was published on a denominational website, asking for more of my essays. Umm—I’m a beginner. I don’t really have a collection yet. But I’m working on it.

 

 

Church Kitchens

I belong to a church which holds an event we call Freezer Sale on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. From late June through November, a dedicated crew of parishioners spends every Saturday in the church kitchen preparing hundreds of soups, entrees, sides, and pies. Each item is made from scratch and then packaged, labeled with ingredients and cooking instructions, and tucked away into one of a dozen gigantic freezers in the basement.

When I tell people what we do, they are astounded that we are willing to devote most of our Saturday mornings for six months of the year to church. Astounded at the sheer labor intensity of cooking massive amounts of chicken and ground beef, stirring and cooling gallons of soup, peeling bushels of potatoes and apples, and rolling endless numbers of pie crusts. Astounded at the amount of planning and shopping and folding of boxes and schlepping of food down the steps to the freezers.  Astounded that this is not a once-and-done weekend marathon but an ongoing project for half the year, and that our church members happily volunteer to do it.

But they don’t see the powerful impact of this project from the inside. Yes, the profits go to support a variety of outreach ministries in the community. But I think what happens to those of us doing the cooking may be where the true ministry lies. We share our stories while we chop onions. We vent our worries and fears while rolling pie crusts. We laugh at the latest antics of grandchildren or pets while we load the cantankerous dishwasher.  We sit down afterwards to rest and share a communion of sorts. Coffee and baked goods after the liturgy of the kitchen.

One of our elderly parishioners used to come in every week to fold pie boxes or paste labels on items. He was disappointed if there were no boxes to fold. Someone would always keep an eye on him when he toddled down the treacherous stairs to the restroom.

Another gentleman only comes on days when we’re peeling potatoes or apples. He sits in the circle gathered around the trash can where we throw the peels, and regales us with stories of his days in the British Navy.

Freezer sale potato peeling

A young woman away at college pursuing her culinary dreams comes home for a weekend and shows us everything she’s learned about biscuit dough.

When we need something, whether it’s a few new skillets or a few new freezers, someone among us steps up and makes sure we get it.

We bring what we have to the kitchen. Whether it’s cooking skills or financial skills to figure out the pricing or connections to farmers who can get us good produce or simply a willingness to help, it is all welcomed and needed and cherished, as is every person who shows up on Saturday morning and says, “What can I do?”

Bev with corn

Just like worship in the sanctuary, work in the church kitchen requires blind faith. While we husk corn on a hot summer morning, we don’t see the elderly widow savoring her chicken corn soup on a cold night three months later. While we wait for the onions to caramelize, we don’t see the family tearing into chicken enchiladas while an exhausted mom sips a glass of wine, knowing her children will be fed something nourishing that they enjoy. Nor do we see the college student microwaving a container of homemade mac and cheese while cramming for exams, a welcome change from his usual fare of pizza or ramen noodles. We don’t see what our profits may provide—a winter coat for a child, a rental or fuel oil payment, Christmas gifts in a room that might otherwise be empty.

We know that our faith is a lot like the freezer sale— not a once-and-done Sunday only project, but an ongoing effort that requires lots of people helping us along the way. That it’s not always easy and that we don’t give up even when the dishwasher leaks and the soup won’t thicken, and we run out of cheese for the quiches. That we believe in the far-reaching and abundant Grace of something we can’t see or touch. That showing up in the church kitchen on Saturday mornings is our way of saying, “Here I am, Lord. What can I do?”

 Freezer sale pies

Sand Buckets and IV Bags

We’re at the Ocean Pines house this week for some fall clean-up after the last rental of the season. It’s beautiful this time of year. The crowds are gone, the weather is still pleasant enough to enjoy the outdoors, and life just moves at a slower pace. No more summer frenzy. As we walked along the boardwalk today, I couldn’t help but think about the family we saw on the beach when we were here in early September.

They had arranged their chairs and umbrellas in a circle, so you couldn’t see what was in the middle. A little girl scampered around, playing in the sand, running in the surf with her dad—just being a kid at the seashore. Parts of her scalp showed through a thinning web of long black hair, and in some places, her hair was completely gone.

The little girl began to chase the seagulls, straying further from where her family was sitting. One of my friends, a daycare director whose wandering child radar kicked in, took her by the hand and led her back to her family. She beamed up at my friend, pointed to the birds, but didn’t say anything.

As we were leaving, they were packing up their chairs and umbrellas. In the sand stood a metal rod that I at first thought was a camera tripod. When I looked more closely I realized that it was an IV pole with an empty plastic bag and tubing hanging from it. The child had been given medication while she was at the beach. That family circled their wagons to surround her and make sure she got what she needed. Whatever it took. Salt air and liquid nourishment. Or liquid poison if it was chemo. Sand buckets and IV bags. Chasing seagulls and chasing cancer. Lord, have mercy.

I keep seeing that IV pole in the sand. I can’t decide if it was a beacon of pain or hope. How does a parent stick a pole in the sand so they can stick a needle in their daughter to keep her alive while she’s playing at the beach? Do you shove it into the sand proudly, fiercely, like planting the flag on the North Pole, saying, damn it, we will conquer despite the odds? Does her family say, “We claim the life of this child as our mission even it means packing bags of medication in amongst the boogie boards and beach towels.”? Did they arrange their chairs in a circle to hide the reality of serious illness from the rest of the vacationers, or did they do it to bring themselves closer to her, to provide her with a canopy of normalcy in what must be a terrifying world for all of them?

I am at the age now when little jolts of illness are starting to spring up among my friends. A cancer diagnosis here. Diabetes and a mild stroke there. Like kids setting off firecrackers on the Fourth of July–snap, pop, an occasional boom. You know to expect it, it’s some distance away, but you’re still startled by the sound. The increasing vulnerability of our bodies comes with the territory. Our warranties have expired and frequent maintenance is essential. It should not come with the territory when you’re three years old. But sometimes it does and if that means bringing chemo to the beach, then that’s what you do.

I wonder what that family thought as they stared out at the ocean. Was the sound of the surf as soothing and relaxing for them as for the rest of us? Or did the constant wash of the tide rolling in and out cause them to think too much about the passage of time? Will we be here again next year? Will all of us be here?

When I was a child, the last day we were at the beach, I would trace the year in the sand, as a sort of good luck omen that I would be back next year. On that day this summer, I wish I would have run down to the water’s edge and written 2017 in the wet sand. A prayer for that little girl.

Calliopes and Such

I recently received a forwarded email from someone looking for pictures of an old trolley car that was being restored. My father was a railroad and transportation historian and had hundreds, if not thousands of pictures and negatives in his collection. This individual wondered if I still had any of them, which I don’t, since they were all sold at auction.

He went on to share fond memories of my dad and mentioned that he plays the steam calliope that toddles along through the Halloween parade held in my hometown the last Thursday in October. Wow. My father died on the night of that parade ten years ago, and I will never forget the eerie sound of the calliope a block or two away playing “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” which my dad would have loved. This gentleman played it that night and went on to say that he would be thinking of my dad when he played it in this year’s parade, bringing sudden tears to my eyes.

Most of us who have lost a loved one can tell stories of odd things that happened when that person passed. An appearance of their favorite wild bird or an out-of-season butterfly fluttering by the window. An extraordinary gesture from a nurse or caregiver. A last cuddle with a family pet.  Waiting for the arrival of a child who lives far away, or a spouse to leave the room, before he or she moves on to the next world.

A friend of mine received a cryptic text message the day after her father’s funeral that said, “in heaven now” with no identifying number. A hospital floor nurse caring for my husband’s aunt sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to Aunt Marie, not knowing that it was her favorite hymn. When my husband was a little boy, the phone rang just as he and his family were preparing to go away. As his father picked up the phone, Brian thought, “Uncle Dick’s dead.” Uncle Dick, who was like a beloved grandfather to Brian, had collapsed and died while buying a newspaper at the drugstore.

People who know me will confirm that I am a skeptic, firmly rooted in reality. No “woo-woo” stuff for this girl. I remember one of my high school boyfriends took me to his Pentecostal church for a New Year’s Eve service where people gave testimonials, including one where a woman claimed she saw Jesus in the mist coming out of her vaporizer. We Episcopalians tend to play our religion cards close to the vest and are not given to testimonials, especially on New Year’s Eve. I glanced over at my date that night and thought, “This relationship has no future.”

But I am also a person of great faith, so I am not in a hurry to write off these odd occurrences as strictly coincidental or the product of an imagination overwhelmed with grief. I like to think of them as times when the Holy Spirit gently places an arm around our shoulders and whispers, “I’m just going to send you a little message that I’m here and that it’s all going to be ok in the end. Just hang on, I’ll be in touch.” Even those of us who are non-believers must admit that things happen which simply cannot be rationally explained by science or circumstance.

Late October always brings back memories of the end of my dad’s life. Sitting in his bedroom listening to the relentless drone of the oxygen machine. Every time I open the refrigerator, seeing that box of medication intended for his last hours; the one containing the Ativan and the extra morphine vials, discreetly provided by the hospice staff. The dining car bell he used to summon his nurses, now silent for days on the bedside table. Reading the words of Evening Prayer with him at bedtime as he barely whispers the Lord’s Prayer, dry lips struggling to form the syllables. Late night phone calls from the nurses reporting on his respiration and physical signs of impending death.

The Halloween parade lurching along past the house on the night that he died. Thumping drums from the bands, flashing lights from the floats and police cars. Streets blocked off delaying the arrival of the hearse, the funeral director apologetic as he appears at the door. And as the gurney bearing my father’s body is carefully maneuvered through the hallways and doors, off in the distance, the calliope plays its haunting recessional.

 

Reunion

Nine of us have come together for a reunion weekend in a little town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an enclave of upscale homes nestled along the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. We were freshmen in the same hall of a dorm at a small college in south central Pennsylvania in the fall of 1975.  Something about that first year away from home bonded us, despite different majors and the fact that a few of us transferred to other schools. After graduation, we scattered to our respective lives, gathering at Christmas until the babies and the jobs and the buffeting of life made even that too hard to do.

Nancy is our cat-herder, the one who fans the flames of friendship, who will not relinquish her hold on this crowd of aging freshmen. Who mows down our excuses of why we can’t get together, sending relentless emails until we all just give up and say, “Ok, ok, Nance, we’ll come.” She prods our slightly resistant and oh-so-busy souls into spending a weekend with people we haven’t seen in years. Part of her motivation is “We’re turning 60 and we need to this. Now!”

We’re all a bit shopworn these days. Illness, tragedy, and painful relationships have etched lines on our faces and carved scars on our body, both physical and emotional. Only one of us still has living parents. Several of us love someone who is struggling with addiction. One of us has dedicated her life to caring for a special needs child, whose disabilities resulted from the colossal ineptitude of a drunken obstetrician. Another recently shouldered the burden of both her parents’ final days and tells sad and beautiful stories of that journey. In the past year, one of us fought a grueling breast cancer battle and won. We celebrate her return to health.

After a Friday afternoon arrival filled with awkward hugs and “We can’t believe we’re finally doing this,” and “Look at this incredible house,” we discover we cannot stop talking. I didn’t realize until after the weekend was over, that no one ever turned on a TV and we barely looked at our phones. Our time is spent fully engaged with each other. Years of bottled up stories and feelings pour forth and maybe it’s easier because we rarely see each other and there is no one to judge. We feel safe with people who shared our first days away from the security of our parents. It’s as though we all went home for a forty-year weekend and can’t wait to tell everyone what happened while we were there.

A group of us spends Saturday in the harbor village, picturesque and crowded on a gloriously warm autumn day. We shop and then eat lunch in a crowded bar. The waitress snaps a picture of us huddled together in our corner booth. We take a boat ride on the river followed by mid-afternoon ice cream cones and a wine-tasting. We talk about where we’ve traveled and where we still hope to go. Cathy wants to go to Scotland and so does Marge and maybe they will go together next summer. There is a surreal quality to the day, like we’ve just been whisked into some kind of time warp, grown-up versions of those wide-eyed freshmen, together once more.

Rather than going out to restaurants, Nancy plans lovely candlelit dinners on the screened-in porch. Our faces are bathed in flattering light, crystal tears from both laughter and sadness sparkling on our cheeks. Someone places her phone in a bucket to amplify the music from Pandora’s 70’s station. We drink wine and eat crab cakes and broiled salmon. The second night one of us suggests we say grace, so we clasp each other’s hands and thank God for the food and renewed health and the opportunity to be together after all these years.

We leaf through old picture albums, marveling at our young faces in the yellowing photos. Our long straight hair with feathered bangs. Boyfriends with 70’s moustaches sporting pastel tuxedos with giant lapels.

“Remember that guy? Who was dating him? Isn’t he the one who dumped buckets of water in our room that night? No, that was someone else. He’s the one who threw Pam’s stereo out the window when they broke up. Remember when I got written up the first week for letting guys in the girls’ bathroom? Ruthanne, why were you always in your underwear? Oh my God, look at those dresses. I wonder whatever happened to that girl who had the sideburns? Was she the one who kept the rat in the cage? It wasn’t a rat, it was a hamster. His name was Thurber. Remember he’d go rolling down the hall in his little plastic ball?”

I can still smell the popcorn and hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blasting out of our rooms.

We all hug each other for real when we leave on Sunday, the awkwardness gone. We’ve dived beneath the surface of brief emails and chirpy Christmas letters. We’ve been at the bedsides. Watched a beloved family member struggle with whatever substance has them in its evil grip. Sat across the desk from a doctor or attorney delivering bad news. Seen the sinister shadows on the x-rays, sat in the reclining chair while the life-saving drugs drip into our veins. Reassured a parent, lost in the haze of dementia, as they ramble on about something that happened years ago.

We are powerful sisters. We are women who will listen patiently to each other’s stories. Forever. Who laugh and cry together about the past and stride bravely into the future, ready to take on whatever it brings. Who, despite the years and miles of distance that separate us, will always be there to place a gentle hand on an elbow when one of us is groping blindly in the darkness. Like a college freshman in her first weeks away from home.