On the day I turned 20, I received a birthday card from my younger brother. “Wow,” he wrote in his cramped, jagged cursive, “I can’t believe you’re 20!” I couldn’t believe it either. Twenty felt like a big deal—the mathematical end of childhood and adolescence, the beginning of adulthood. I was finally old enough that someone was impressed by my age but still young enough that I wasn’t insulted by their astonishment.
Of course, nothing really changed on the day I turned 20. Inside, I still felt 19 or 14, or sometimes, even 10. Whatever the calendar said, I was no closer to being an adult at all. But 20 was perhaps the first time I realized I would never be something again—a teenager, a child—and that time really did only go in one direction.
I was prepared for my 20th college reunion to feel similarly mundane. In my cynical moments, I thought of it as little more than a way for the college to increase alumni donations and engender institutional loyalty. Plus, of all the days of our college career to celebrate, graduation was perhaps the least meaningful of all. Ours was held at the football stadium—a place I rarely visited during my four years—in order to accommodate the security requirements of the commencement speaker, President Clinton. We had to arrive extra early to go through metal detectors, and despite the torrential rain, none of us were able to carry umbrellas because of the security risk. We were pulled in different directions by parents, grandparents and siblings. No, graduation didn’t feel like college at all—maybe more like real life—so celebrating its anniversary felt arbitrary, a false commemoration of a largely empty moment.
And yet prevailing wisdom says only losers like reunions—people who haven’t progressed beyond adolescence, or those who want to show off how great their lives have turned out. So is it uncool to say I had a great time at mine?
There’s something about seeing the people who knew you when you were young that’s unlike anything else. Even if we didn’t really know each other, or maybe didn’t like each other, we shared an unmistakable intimacy. Beneath the talk of careers and kids and love and regret ran a river of understanding: I remember you when you were young, when you were just starting to imagine what the world might look like with you in it. And being around people who remembered that made us remember it too.
Back on campus for the first time in years, time telescoped in and out—life there seeming both a minute and a century ago. I rounded a corner and saw a friend coming out of a dormitory, and for a moment, it felt like we all still lived there. We discussed early menopause at the same tables where we had once discussed one-night stands and pregnancy scares. I reminisced with a friend about the night she learned that her boyfriend had cheated on her with her best friend, the same night I’d dyed my hair red with Kool-Aid. I’d forgotten the intensity with which we’d lived and loved here, how we constantly played grown-up with our boyfriends and career plans, our earnest belief in what made a good life. We would do it differently—better—than anyone else who came before us. Now, 20 years on, we wanted the opposite, to leave our grown-up lives behind and return to the carelessness of our youth. Yes, we’d made compromises, plenty of them, and we were OK with that.
Standing under the tent on Friday night, stamping my feet on the floor to keep warm, I told some friends how I’d spent much of the week leading up to reunion hunched on the floor of my daughter’s room sewing name labels onto her underwear for sleepaway camp. “I can’t imagine you doing that,” one friend said, and the people around him nodded. I was surprised. This was me now—had I once been so different? What else did he remember about me that I had forgotten?
The weekend went on like this, groups of people standing around remembering pieces of the same story as, together, we tried to make the whole. Was that the night you lost your shoes? Or was it junior year? Were you there the night I kissed that boy? And what was his name again? Everything blended together, memories fractured, timelines sketchy. The past was a diamond we studied from different angles.
We roamed the campus differently now. Text messages flew through the air, straining the network. If we’d had cell phones back then, all I would have sent was an endless string of where r u where r u where r u. No more peripatetic wanderings and chance encounters, everything organized, scheduled, preordained. But what remained the same was our need to meet up, to connect.
During lunch on Saturday, we sat at a picnic table as one woman told us about the death of her father, a painfully familiar tale of illness, diagnosis and death. We sat and listened, honoring her sadness. “I remember meeting your dad,” someone said. “You do?” she asked, remembering the story as he told it. It was one she had forgotten, and I was moved by the way she soaked it in, bathing in the memory of having a dad. He was not forgotten by this place either; pieces of him still scattered here, too.
I talked with the boy who got his college girlfriend pregnant and married her while still a student. They are still married—20 years now—and I wondered, silently, what it has taken to get here, how they have managed to walk that difficult, lonely path. He smiled as he talked about their youngest daughter, a competitive log roller. In order to succeed, he said, “You need balance, core strength and quick little cat feet.”
The faces of my friends are older, the creases deeper when they laugh. The men are transforming into the fathers I once met on parents’ weekend. If in my real life, I can hold myself apart from the process of aging, imagine that it hasn’t happened to me, seeing the people I knew when we were young reminds me that none of us is immune. As the weekend progressed, the talk changed. We took on tough topics like addiction and regret and despair. I realized that there are no winners and losers, that just because you lost one thing doesn’t mean you won’t lose it all. There are people who have more and those who have less, and there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it.
I came back to my hotel room at night and scribble in my notebook. No, there’s nothing really special about 20, nothing that makes it any different from 10 or 15 or 42. Most moments of transition don’t happen with a thunder clap or lightning strike or a formal gathering on the green. They sneak up on you thick and slow, the way a cat wakes you up in the morning. First, she paws at the door, then climbs up and brushes her wiry whiskers against your sleeping face. You will eventually get up to feed her, but you just need a few more minutes under the covers before you are ready to face the day.
A light rain was falling on Sunday morning, and I was awash in melancholy. Saturday’s crystal blue skies had turned gray, a humid blanket of dampness covering the campus. During breakfast at the hotel, I decided it was time to go. I didn’t want to go back to campus and stand under a sad, wet tent and say goodbye to everyone. I didn’t want to imagine them going back to their real lives, lives as full and rich and complicated as my own. I wanted to keep everyone here, like fossils etched into ancient boulders. I wanted to imagine that they will always be there—that they had always been here—the people who remembered a version of myself I barely did. I want them to stay here so I can always come back and dip a ladle in that well whenever I need a sip.