By Harriet P. Gross
It all started when my cousin attended a college fraternity reunion where discussion turned to graduation 60 years ago. Two of the wives, my sorority sisters ‘way back then’, asked him about me. “She’ll be in town in just a couple of weeks,” he said. What happened was like a rolling snowball in July that culminated in a very special reunion of our own.
In those “olden” days, it was common for young Jewish women to attend a local school — in our case, the University of Pittsburgh — while living at home under parental roofs.
It was also common for women to major in education, marry the nice Jewish boys they met in college, teach until the children came along, then resume their careers when their own kids started school.
But I went to graduate school, found a nice Jewish man from out of town, and moved away after marrying him. Teaching was not for me; writing was. I did it first at home, after the children came along; when they started school, I was firmly planted in a newspaper office. And the years scampered by…
On a recent Monday, six of us came together for the first time in as many decades. We sat in a fancy restaurant at a round table covered in fine white cloth, a tribute to what had been a major emphasis in our college education as young women of the ‘50s: “Gracious Living.”
Of my five companions, two still live in the community where they grew up; the other three have homes in nearby suburbs. They have never, as I have, moved away from that early comfort zone.
Gilda was the only one I recognized instantly; I would know her even if I passed her while running for a plane in a crowded airport.
Three of the others came into focus more slowly; Hannah has snow-white hair, Marlene’s is silver; Joan is much fuller of face.
Marian — I refrained from asking who she was, and eventually I knew, but this heavy-set woman with a cane bore no resemblance at all to the girl I had known so well so long ago.
Hannah speaks Pittsburgh patois like a native, even though German was her first language; her parents had taken her away when Hitler was rising to power, over the pleas of family who said he would lose the next election and everything would go back to the way it had always been. Those were never seen again.
Joan still sounds like the Brooklynite she originally was; her family moved to this city after her high school graduation. These two, and Gilda, are retired teachers, Joan from a Yeshiva school. Marlene has taught as well, but in later life she’s forged a new, part-time career as founder of a community volunteer program for seniors.
They didn’t recognize me at first. I am much more outspoken now, and much thinner than I was then, changes caused by experience and genes: the longer my father lived, the slimmer he became.
We began by reminiscing, then came into the realities of who we are now. And we like each other even more than we did when we were occupied with school academics and sorority activities. Now we have real lives to share.
So we’ll do this again in October, when I’ll return to Pittsburgh for our 60th college homecoming. At least two others who were unable to make this first reunion are saving the date in advance so we can crowd around that same white-clothed table and talk about our lives.
None of us is remarkable, but none of us is ordinary, either. Our stories were born in our long-ago commonality, but have gone far beyond it.
Next time, we’ll take a picture to send to our sorority’s headquarters for publication in its quarterly. “This is what the Class of 1954 looks like today,” we’ll say. And we’ll all be smiling.