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At grade school reunion, 40 years seem like yesterday

They say you can’t go home again. But you can.

Three words: Grade school reunion.

I know, who has a grade school reunion? I did, a week ago. Christ the King School in Snyder, class of 1975. It was arranged over a few months, mostly on Facebook. The ringleader was Peter Walsh – now a financial planner, but more easily recognizable in our old school picture because of his loud plaid pants. “I still own those pants,” he joked.

As the date neared, I felt excitement but also dread.

I gave my husband, Howard, the night off. How would I recognize anyone? When you leave grade school you are still children. I preferred to go this alone.

Then I started thinking, for the first time in forever, of the distant past. For starters I thought of my old friend Jean Schneggenburger. Memories washed over me of summers at their family’s cottage on Lime Lake, of Jean and her seven siblings. She and I would spend hours riding our bikes and talking about boys.

What would the boys be like now? The class brain had been carrot-topped Jerry Igoe. To no one’s surprise, he became a physician. We had all loved John Colangelo, a kind, confident Lebanese kid who went by the nickname Moose. In second grade, he had given me an extravagant valentine my parents laughed about for years.

Moose was flying in from Boston. Another classmate was flying in from Houston. President Obama’s labor secretary, Tom Perez, was flying in from Washington, D.C. Moose was going to pick him up at the airport.

The plan was to meet at Christ the King’s 4:30 p.m. Mass, where the front pews had been reserved. Then would follow a VIP tour of the school including, it was stressed, Mr. Rebescher’s apartment. Mr. Rebescher was one of our two janitors. The other was Mr. Reeb. Whenever one of them entered the classroom, puffing an acrid cigar, we would rise and say, “Good morning, Mr. Reeb,” or “Good morning, Mr. Rebescher.”

What a different era that was.

In tribute to it, I decided to wear a polyester, ruffled maxidress I had just bought in Allentown. And I found the perfect accessory: my faded class ribbons. Still, as I walked into church, my heart was pounding.

Luckily someone called my name.

“Phyllis?” I said.

Phyllis Freudenberger still had something of the look she had had as a girl, like a movie star playing a nerd. We walked up the aisle and, genuflecting, sat down together in a front pew. My buddy Jean switched seats to sit next to me. And I recognized the annoyingly brainy Gianna Marone. She had been so trendy, the first to eat granola. I rolled my eyes, remembering.

The Mass was an icebreaker. The music was a weird kind of Southern gospel – but then we had been no great shakes years ago either, singing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The priest paused the Mass to salute our class and everyone murmured and cheered. I told you, no one has grade school reunions.

And here is one reason why: Nine years at one school leaves you with no room for nostalgia.

“I couldn’t wait to get out,” confided Jerry Igoe, the doctor. “I was so ready.”

After 40 years, though, you do kind of want to see your old school. It was very kind of the current principal, Samuel Zalacca, to cater to us as he did, and welcome us for a tour. He said grade school reunions were a rarity. “There’s been only one since I’ve been here,” he said. “And they didn’t ask for a tour.”

The halls seemed narrow – the classrooms, with their recessed statues, incredibly quaint. Times had changed: We had seen the Sister Ann Perpetuas and Sister Vincents gave way to Sister Sallys and Sister Eileens, and finally, no nuns at all.

But some things never change, among them my friend Jean. Though grown up and married, she was still riding her bike. That very day, she had ridden the Ride for Roswell in the rain. In one classroom, she pulled me aside.

“Remember, this was where we were called out?” she laughed. “It was a really serious class, something about sex or religion. And we just kept hitting each other and laughing. And the teacher grabbed us and pulled us outside.”

By the time we got to our next stop, Loughran’s, everyone was laughing. Perez, the labor secretary, hugged me.

“I have The Buffalo News as the default setting on my computer,” he told me. “So I don’t have to ask you what you do for a living.” Political differences were buried as he sat down at the bar with our coach, Mike McGuire.

The turnout was tremendous. There were about 25 attendees, about half our class. It was a fascinating group. Sue Miller was a nurse and one of her recent patients, she reported proudly, had been Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor. Skinny, quiet Brett Stockdale was now an imposing military man, with a career in the Air Force.

Annemarie Wess, now married to city Council Member David Franczyk, had brought along a detailed school scrapbook that was the wonder of the gathering. As for brainy Gianna, it turned out I adored her.

“Gianna,” I ventured, “I remember how you ate granola –”

“Oh, please!” she exploded. “My mother gave me all that health food! At lunch time no one would trade with me!”

Moose was still Moose, only now with a deep voice to match his stature. Kind, patient and funny, he emerged as kind of our king. He now had three children and told funny stories about his 11-year-old daughter.

The last conversation I had was with a girl I had known as Patty Finn.

“Remember May crowning?” she said. She began to sing: “Oh, Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today! Queen of the angels, queen of the May!” Both of us got misty. “Does anyone do that any more?” she said. “At Holy Communion, I had tears in my eyes, remembering that.”

We were going to continue that conversation at Brunner’s. Everyone was heading there, and I planned to join them. “Peer pressure!” Doctor Igoe teased.

In my car, though, I saw it was 1 a.m. It was pouring and I worried about having more wine. I decided I had to head home. Passing Brunner’s though, I slowed down. The windows were bright in the rain. I saw Moose, head high, open the door and walk in. Tommy Perez followed. The image still lingers with me, like a movie scene.

But everything, like your school years, comes to an end. At home, Howard was amused, but not surprised, to see me walk in so late.

“People who don’t go to their reunions are crazy,” he said.

I agree. And now there is no more time for nostalgia. I have to go call my friend Jean.

We’re going to go bike riding.