According to his website, “William Zinsser is a lifelong journalist and nonfiction writer—he began his career on the New York Herald Tribune in 1946—and is also a teacher, best known for his book On Writing Well, a companion held in affection by three generations of writers, reporters, editors, teachers and students.”
I first read this essay more than 25 years ago. I regret I don’t know where it was published and believe me, I looked. Please enjoy William Zinsser’s “On Reunions, Friendship, and Survival.”
Reunions. The very word sends anxiety through the populace. To go or not to go? Will I know anybody? Will anybody know me?
All things being equal, the decision should be easy: Don’t go. Most people would probably rather not – the distance in time is too great, the transaction too difficult. But all things are not equal. Somewhere in everybody’s past lurks one of nature’s most relentless forces – the reunion chairman. It is a force almost as hard to deflect as death and taxes.
The chairman’s letters start to arrive in October, promising a memorable weekend in June. It is no solution to throw the letters away and consider the matter solved. More will follow in winter and spring. By April they take on a tinge of sorrow and surprise that you – good old You! – haven’t yet sent in your acceptance card.
In May the chairman stops writing and begins to telephone the sluggards, catching them during their pre-dinner drink when they have relaxed their defenses that got them through the day. Unlike the thrown-away letters, the far-off voice on the phone – good old Bud! Good old Barb! – is not easily disposed of.
The voice is so genuinely eager. It points out how many years have passed since the old gang was last together and how many more will pass until it meets again. The use of “old gang,” meant to be convivial, is a reminder that the old gang is in fact getting old. The implanted thought remains to nag and to wheedle.
I have been watching this phenomenon at work since fall, marveling at its persistence. Now its season is rushing to an end and I marvel, once more, at its power.
This year the chairman’s letters and calls were not for me but for my wife. Her class was having its 25th reunion, and she had never been back, and, like 32 million other Americans, she had always said that she never would go back. Not that she disliked college; on the contrary. It was just normal reunion phobia.
Still, the idea kept tugging at her sleeve. As it turned out, many of our friends were in a similar fix, wrestling, right down to the wire, with the same decision. It didn’t matter how long they had been out in the world. People contemplating a 10th reunion at high school were as apprehensive as people being coaxed to a 25th at college. As the irreversible moment drew near, they got on the phone themselves to ferret old classmates out of their own past and persuade them to go.
Well, the weekend is here and they are all gone. My wife went back. Her roommate who had sworn that she would never go back went back. Our friends and neighbors went back, and presumably all the classmates that they had cajoled into going back went back. Once again the reunion chairman has triumphed over human shyness.
Meanwhile, the same process has operated in reverse, bringing men and women from many parts of America and many states of diffidence to colleges here in the East. I have just visited several to see what their reunions are like, wandering among classes that stretch backward in five-year intervals. The setting differs from one campus to another, but it’s very much the same trip.
The two classes that interested me most were those that had been out for 25 years and 50 years. In some ways the older men looked younger. (I happened to be at colleges that didn’t admit women until the late 1960’s.) The 25th reunion class had on its collective face the signs of striving, a certain tension and fatigue.
The men who were back for their 50th reunion were carefree and spry. Whether or not they had made it to the top didn’t matter. What mattered was that they had survived – no small feat in itself. Their faces were remarkably unlined, they laughed easily, and they bore the infirmities of age with casual gallantry.
But what I mainly felt in both classes – in fact, in every class – was a simple delight in old friendships. People were just plain glad to see one another again. Bud was right. Barb was right. All the letters and calls were worth the time and trouble.
If the thought of reunions makes us anxious, provoking such stiff resistance to the chairman’s call, perhaps it’s because Americans abhor defeat as surely as nature abhors a vacuum, and we feel that we can’t face our class unless we have some certified victories to bring along. One lesson of reunions is that victory and defeat are not so narrowly defined, and are not the same as “success” and “failure.” Friendship is a major achievement.
So is survival with grace.
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