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Voices / Column

The serious game of the what-ifs

Class renunions can be reminders of our roots

Saxtons River

My husband is forever wondering what happened to someone.

“Whatever happened to that guy from M*A*S*H who pretended to be a transvestite to get out of the army?” he’ll ask. “What happened to your friend from Pittsburgh?” “Whatever happened to that actor...”

Once, we both wondered what would have happened if the woman he called for a date in the spring of 1970 had been home instead of me. What if he hadn’t decided on the spur of the moment to ask me out instead, and what if I’d been busy? What if we hadn’t agreed a year later to travel together to Florida, where we became engaged?

That got us thinking of lots of other “what if” questions.

What if he hadn’t been bequeathed money with which to take the British Civil Service exam that landed him a position in the British Treasury? Without that job, which led to a posting in Washington, D.C., where we met, we’d never have met and had our two kids!

Lots of people are into historical “what if”s.

What if there had been no Roman Empire or Magna Carta? What if paganism had defeated Christianity? What if the American Revolution had failed? What if we’d lost World War II?

Here’s my favorite historical “what if” question: What if Hitler had been accepted to art school? (The would-be painter was rejected twice by the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts.)

I think about other “what if” questions that aren’t heavy. For example, what if Lucy and Desi hadn’t married? What if Ingrid Bergman refused to get on that plane with Laszlo?

What if June Cleaver had a job? What if Hemingway was verbose? F. Scott Fitzgerald sober?

* * *

Recently, I had a chance to play another version of the game. The occasion was my 50th high school reunion, and I wondered what had become of my classmates. What did the two perennial prom queens look like now? What had become of the first guy I’d ever had a crush on?

Choosing my outfit carefully, I pulled on my Spandex and set off with my husband for my hometown. When we reached the hotel ballroom I immediately felt frumpy, fat, and short on hair follicles compared to several of my former classmates who still had a certain slender pizzazz and thick heads of (dyed) hair.

But my angst quickly dissipated when I spotted Florence, a classmate from kindergarten to 12th grade. When we were in elementary school, we played Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and I loved her for always letting me be Jeanette.

I also recognized my once-best-friend, Janice. She hadn’t changed at all, her Italian face so lovely, her smile wide, black hair still curly.

As we embraced, I whispered, “I’m still Jewish. Can you talk to me?”

She looked puzzled until I reminded her that her strict Baptist parents had forbidden her to associate with me when we were sophomores because I had no hope of being saved.

Janice had married a Baptist missionary, but our different backgrounds and lifestyles disappeared as we hugged, remembering the joy of our long-ago friendship.

Then I spotted the two former beauties. The difference between them couldn’t have been more marked.

One looked our age, her once-flowing red tresses having morphed into tired blonde curls surrounding a full face. She had earned a Ph.D. in psychology.

The other woman was bedecked in a skintight, sequined dress and silver stilettos, a hairpiece sitting atop her very made-up face. She looked like an aging Barbie doll, which made me feel sad.

It was fun to see others and question them about absent class members, among them my first crush, who had died of a brain tumor. There were reports of more deaths, some in the Vietnam War.

“Whatever happened to Didi?” we asked. “Where is Ann Louise? What became of Tim?”

One by one, we enlightened one another and, as the evening wore on, I recognized more people, the years melting away as we danced to1960s music and laughed about the good old days.

* * *

Sometimes “what if” and “whatever happened to” questions are simply amusing. Other times they are futile or frustrating queries.

In the case of a reunion with people who were part of our formative years, they can be reminders of our roots, helping us to recall influential events and people. Such moments can represent important milestones in our personal journeys.

Although I didn’t remain in the community where I grew up, as many of my classmates did, I remember vividly, and often fondly, the times we shared as children and young adults.

They weren’t always easy years — I was never part of the in crowd — but seeing my classmates again, I realized that we had all grown to be nice folks.

Somehow, that validated the experience of small-town, 20th-century America and reminded me that there is something sturdy in our collective memories and fabric.

That was good to know after so many years.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #161 (Wednesday, July 18, 2012).

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