by Nola Garrett
Since our 50th reunion we’ve met every year on the east bank of French Creek, not in Waterford, PA where our high school, Fort LeBouef still stands six miles north, but a hundred yards from the intersection of U.S. Route 19 and U.S. Route 6N just across Polick’s Bridge on the site of what used to be Mitchell’s farm machine shed. We are the guests of our classmate Marvin Cross, who has worked hard and prospered well enough, I suspect, to buy out the rest of lock, stock and barrel. However, you’d never get Marvin to own up to my suspicions. Marvin bought this abandoned farm from the many Mitchells who could never get around to settling the family estate. Too many Mitchells. Too much work to farm, even though these fields hold some of the best soil in the entire state, courtesy of French Creek’s yearly flood deposits on the glacial moraine that make up these hundreds of flat acres, a couple of miles from Mill Village. Marvin tore down the main house, a couple of hired-man houses, other outbuildings, and uses the restored main barn for winter storage for some of his road construction company equipment. Marvin has planted these fields with soybeans, the most lush bean fields I’ve ever seen, and he’s renovated the machine shed into a summer cabin and picnic space that holds in comfort what’s left of the Class of ’58 and their spouses.
At 2:00 p.m. the second Saturday of August, Marvin’s wife greets us at the door. Marvin provides the beverages, strolls, jokes constantly among us while pouring good quality red wine and soft drinks for those us who can no longer drink alcohol. We pay ten dollars apiece for a simple catered supper delivered at 4:00 p.m., and Marvin patrols, garbage bag in hand gathering our wine glasses, plastic, and paperware. We talk. We use the bathroom a lot. We keep talking, looking at class photos, newspaper obituaries, remembering, wondering what happened….
I’ve attended our 5th, 15th, 20th, and the most recent three reunions. This year for me was different, or rather this year for two reasons I felt different. First, I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever felt in my life. I’ve accepted the reality of my second husband’s divorcing me and embraced living and writing alone here in what has become my condo. And, my classmate and long time friend, Susan Duran Heide, flew from Naples, FL to stay with me for a few days before we drove to our reunion. Susan was our class Valedictorian (I ranked fifth), and she, like me, married a Lutheran pastor. I was the maid of honor in her wedding. She was widowed in her mid thirties, returned to college, earned an English education degree, taught high school English in the Upper St. Clair schools for many years, then returned to Pitt for her doctorate and taught at the University of Wisconsin until she retired to Florida.
Susan and I always have a lot to talk about. This visit was especially warm and talk-filled. It was good to have a buddy while getting dressed to figure out if there is any suitable attire for a 57th high school reunion. Because she still has good legs, she opted for Bermuda shorts. Given my veiny legs, still punctuated with the scars from my recent shingles bout, I wore footless, black leggings under a knee-length, hand-dyed, batik cotton dress that I had bought at last year’s Arts Festival. However, it turned out that there is a suitable women’s uniform for a 57th reunion—long polyester pants topped with a print cotton blouse.
As I chatted with classmates, I kept hearing that Alice Robinson, who had become a registered nurse, was quietly sitting in a far corner, and had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Although Alice and I had both attended Mill Village grade school and Fort LeBoeuf high school, I never knew her very well. She was a big-boned girl with dark wavy hair who pretty much kept to herself. I was a small boned, skinny girl with brown straight hair who read a lot. Both of us always wore dresses sewn by our mothers. She lived at the other end of the diagonal of Mill Village’s single square mile from my house. We never seemed to encounter each other in town.
My most vivid memory of Alice happened in Mrs. Clark’s 5th grade class where I was the teacher’s pet, so I was assigned a seat nearly touching Mrs’s Clark’s desk. Alice was assigned a seat in the last row near the coats. One Friday when a weekly spelling test was returned, Mrs. Clark was so angry Alice had misspelled every word that she yanked Alice out of her seat on to the floor, grabbed her legs as if she were a wheelbarrow, pushed Alice, weeping silently, around the entire perimeter of our class room. I was appalled. I was shocked Mrs. Clark could be so mean. Somehow it made it even worse that Alice was wearing a dress. I didn’t know what to do, but I never felt the same about Mrs. Clark again, and I was a little ashamed to be her pet. What I didn’t do was say anything to Alice, something that has drifted in and out of my mind ever since. Sixty-seven years later, I still didn’t know what to say to Alice, but now I knew that if I was ever going to do the right thing for Alice, today would have to be that day.
I gradually made my way through my name-tagged classmates to Alice, who had brought with her a scrap book holding all of our Mill Village grade school class photos from first grade though sixth grade. As soon as I sat down with Alice, she urgently asked me to identify the names of the students in our first grade photo taken on the side steps of our school. I was surprised at myself that I could name almost everyone, except for a couple of boys in the back row, including Johnny Spencer who always had a runny nose that he wiped on his sleeve. Alice was standing beside Johnny.
Alice and I bent puzzling over each of the class photos until we came to Mrs. Clark’s class. At that moment I looked up at Alice and said, “Mrs. Clark was mean to you.”
Alice said, “I could never get math very well in her class.”
Had Alice forgotten that horrible wheelbarrow spelling incident?
Immediately, Alice began telling me about how mean her father had been to her, how he had whipped her with his belt. And, I told Alice how my father had done the same thing to me. And, Alice told me how mean her father had been to her mother, how her mother had attempted to protect her from him and paid the price of also being whipped and beaten by him. And, how sometimes boys threw stones down on her from the railroad bridge, but the stones never hit her and how they would call her father Daddy Long Legs, which Alice commented was because her father was so tall. All the while I was remembering the two Kermeyer girls who lived across the street from me showing me the black and blue marks on their buttocks where their father had beaten them with the stiff-bristled milk brushes used to clean his farm’s milk house. And, Alice was then telling me how her father had kept her from doing her schoolwork and kept her up late on a school night to start painting a bedroom yellow at 9 p.m.
Alice didn’t tell me about her cancer diagnosis. I never did get to tell Alice of my silent shame back in Mrs. Clark’s class, but we did get to talk about how our mothers had saved each of us from our fathers and how thankful we both were that we were blessed with good mothers.
It may be that next year Alice won’t be at the 58th class reunion and/or neither will I, but this year we were held safe in our memories of our hand sewn dresses, and I was shriven.