WHATEVER HAPPENED TO…?


13 December 2020

 It was still dark a couple of mornings ago, as I gradually convinced my legs to get me off the bed. I limped to the kitchen, made a quick cup of Keurig coffee (sort of flavored hot water, but not bad if you used one of the stronger blends), and headed for my office. Even though it was early, and there wasn’t much likelihood of any new email, it had become a morning ritual to “check in” about this time.

   I glanced at my email – as expected, nothing new. Then I checked the recent traffic on my website – as expected, miscellaneous hits on various pages, but nothing of real interest. I’m pretty sure I’m wasting my time keeping up a website – after 20 years, it mostly  attracts web crawlers, a few friends, and a few “surfers” arriving by mistake or mischance. I suspect that, with my carefully crafted essays on politics, religion, and social issues, I’m  just preaching to the choir – and it’s a pretty small choir!  Still, I suppose I’ll keep it going, because writing is what I mostly do, nowadays.

   I’d been standing at my computer (better for you than sitting, I’ve heard), and as I sat down, a phrase from the “Kismet” musical came to me: “I sat down, feeling desolate.” Desolate? Yes, I guess that is a good word for what I was feeling. Pandemic. Climate Change. Political and societal turmoil. Getting Old (and feeling it more). How could one not be a little down-hearted and desolate?

   But life goes on until it doesn’t, and I don’t want to spend the rest of mine in some kind of funk, so at times like that I look for something else to concentrate on. That morning, it was the obituaries. That sounds pretty uplifting, right?

*  *  *

   I had a friend who said that the first thing he did every morning was check the obituaries. If he wasn’t in them, he got ready for the new day. That wasn’t my intent (although maybe a good idea?). Over the years – and especially as I passed the 60, 70 and now 80 mark – nostalgia has led me to seek out people from my past, to see if they are still alive and – if so – how they are doing. My pursuit that morning was someone I knew in high school, and who I had “talked to” (by email) only once in 60 years. She was a few years younger than me, so in her high-70s, and thus a candidate for the Gone Away pages.

   She wasn’t there, but her husband of over 50 years was, having died in 2019. His obit told me that she was alive, and back in California after many years away. Theirs was a military family (as hers had been), but his career had led them away from combat and into diplomatic circles around the world, and they had lived for periods of time in Europe and elsewhere. They had three children, all apparently doing well as adults. His family was obviously well-to-do, and coming back to California had in part been to take over the administration of the family vineyards and winery. 

   A further search through recent newspapers revealed that she still taught music lessons (piano and accordion), had horses, was a master Scrabble player (tournament grade), and regularly hosted chamber music groups in her home. An interview done with her when she was in her early ‘20s told me she liked to play chess (check); liked classical music (check); had once considered being a medical missionary because she was “rather religious” (hah!); had completed pre-med training, but decided against doctoring because she had proven to herself that she could be a doctor if she wanted to, but she “was no longer religious;” (double hah!); completed her degree in musicology at the top of her class; but wanted to do something in the Real World, so took a job as a “senior analyst” in the “forecast and development division, ” doing an “analysis of historical trends” and “an empirical study” of future marketing trends” – in the days before computers, pretty complicated and high tec work. Quite an achiever; quite a life. Wow.

*  *  *

  Now, if you know me, you might wonder what I would have in common with this woman now – or even what we could have shared in high school. To the first wonder: not much. To the second: it’s a mystery to me, but let me tell my story.

   I was a Senior in high school (maybe a Junior at the beginning), but I was only 15, having skipped over a couple grades in grammar school. She was probably 13 (but maybe 12, when I first knew her). I have no idea how we met, as Senior boys of any age were not likely to be mixing with Freshman or Sophomore girls, and I was very shy and unsure of myself with just about everybody. We didn’t have any classes together, ever. We were both in the school music club, but she was in the orchestra and I was a sometime singer – not too much in common, there. Regardless, we did meet, and soon we were walking home together almost every day. Sometimes, my hiking friend Charlie walked with us, as far as the turnoff to his house. It was a several mile walk from high school to my home, and she lived another mile or so beyond me. I walked all the way with her; we sometimes played a quick game of chess (quick, because I was self-taught and “pretty good,” but she was a pro even then); then I walked home. The next day was likely the same. We never saw each other on weekends, and never did anything together except our walk. I think it went on most of the school year.

   I have no idea what we found to talk about. I wasn’t a great talker at any time. I don’t think that I had any thoughts or plans beyond being glad to be her friend. She must have been looking a little ahead because, sometime late in our “relationship,” she told me (without any preliminaries) that she couldn’t think of me as someone she could be with long-term because “I didn’t believe like she did.” I’m sure we didn’t discuss it, and I’m not sure I even knew what she was talking about.

   I never talked to anybody about her. My best friend Charlie just seemed to accept that she was there for the duration. Her friends must have thought something, and must have asked questions; I have no idea what she might have said. Obviously, some people were talking about us, as I learned at yearbook signing time. One of my girl friends (not girlfriend; I didn’t have any of those) wrote that she was refraining from writing something romantic that “might make Kay jealous.” Another friend wrote that “it was okay to owe Kay,” a reinterpretation of a Kay Jewelers slogan, saying they’d be happy to finance wedding rings! Funny, but couldn’t be farther from the mark.

   We were still “together” when I graduated at almost-17 years old, but I don’t remember ever saying goodbye. She didn’t sign my yearbook, and we never wrote or talked after I went off to college. Two years later, I was back at my high school for the graduation of my current girlfriend (a real girlfriend!), and there she was. She chatted for a minute as if we’d just seen each other earlier that day, then hurried off to somewhere after giving me an impulsive (for her) and unexpected (for me) kiss on the cheek. I never saw her, again.

    The story has one more part. About ten years ago, I was nostalgia-izing, found her living on the East Coast, and sent her a short email. I wondered if she’d even recognize my name after 60 years. Certainly, she remembered “The Tin Man!” (I played the part in a high school presentation of “The Wizard of Ox.) She also said that she’d read some of my essays on my website, and that it seemed to her that “we though a lot alike.” For some reason, that made me ridiculously happy.

    So, that’s it; the end of the story. No follow-up emails, no revelations, no reconnections. She lived her life and I lived mine, both apparently successfully and happily Not much of a tale, but this time of newspaper records and personal memories gave me several hours of happy escape from the turmoil around us. Nothing changed in my “absence,” and I have real doubts that we’ll be smart enough or quick enough to save ourselves in the long run. But if “I sat down feeling desolate,” I got up remembering some of the goodness and wonder that made my life a pretty happy one, overall. I’ll try to remember that, next time.

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 © Sanford Wilbur 2020