93: Fiftieth Reunion

93: Fiftieth Reunion

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls

Fiftieth Reunion

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.

~Charlotte Brontë

On the day I finally stopped waffling and sent in my check for my fiftieth reunion at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt something akin to panic. My memories of college — and of myself — go back to the 1950s, the era when America liked Ike, and when caution and conformity were our twin gods. They called us “The Silent Generation” for a reason.

Like so many women of that era, my dreams were of marriage, kids, and a home straight out of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson romp. So I followed the rituals of the mating game, wearing the uniform: a straight skirt with demure kick pleats, boring sweaters, and a hairstyle called a pageboy fluff, loosely modeled on a blond goddess in a shampoo ad.

I accepted without question that I could not write for Penn’s daily newspaper, nor could I enter the best room in the student union, the one with the grand piano and Oriental rugs, which was for men only. Why did I never ask why? I got my diploma from Penn’s School of Education that sometimes felt like a nunnery — I can’t remember a single male in my classes there, and I planned to be a teacher because all of our mothers told us, back then, that teaching was something you could always “fall back on.”

I married an older man of twenty-seven three days after my graduation from Penn. I had made it to the finish line at twenty-one. And I’ve had a wonderful life, but one that turned out to be quite different from the one I’d been groomed to expect.

So I went to my fiftieth reunion not just to ransack the closet of memory, but also to find out how my Penn “sisters” had fared in these fifty years.

The answers came during a spirited session called “Womenspeak,” planned by a few of us who yearned for the real scoop. It was open to any and all female class members, but men were barred at the door.

The goal: to share our thoughts about the way we were, the way we are, and how it all feels.

The big topic of the day: achieving independence!

We could have gone on for a week.

In the manner of women who know that time is fleeting, and that chances like this are rare, we dug in.

It ultimately boiled down to this: when it came to independence, we were the “astonished generation.” We’d left college just as the 1960s began exploding around us, and so much had changed in a blink. Like dazed wanderers in a parallel universe, we had learned one set of rules, and then they were swept away in the women’s movement and the sexual revolution.

“Pre-consciousness,” one of our classmates observed.

For some of us, the learning had been painful.

There were plenty of divorces in the Class of 1960. There was the shattering of Camelot with the assassination of our gallant young knight, JFK. Our “brief shining moment” had ended. Then Betty Friedan alerted us that the world was larger than a baked potato, and we heard her.

For most of us, there were baby steps, then giant steps. We had no road maps, and few mentors, to guide us. Yet we somehow soldiered on, crashing our way into courtrooms and boardrooms and yes, even newsrooms.

Among us now were psychologists and law professors, artists and chemists, pianists and financial advisers — scrappy women groomed to be teachers, nurses and wives who had reinvented ourselves out of desire — and necessity.

I became a freelance writer. It’s been high-risk, high-tension, low-security, but infinitely better than trying to force-feed the rudiments of grammar to eighth graders who didn’t care much about the predicate nominative.

Like my classmates, I had created this marvel called a “career,” along with marriage and motherhood. Who knew that a woman could do that?

The game plan we had learned so perfectly — marry a solid guy, present him with clean, happy babies, and wait to be taken care of — that landscape had vanished.

With my evolving independence — and a career — I had to renegotiate the marriage contract with my husband who learned to change plenty of diapers, yield a mean vacuum and not just grocery shop, but make the list, too.

We may have been the first generation of women to experience this miracle.

I have my own credit cards. So predictable now. So unexpected for 1950s women.

Occasionally, I travel alone. Another astonishment.

I’ve learned to lean on… myself. Being taken care of was no longer a vital, critical part of the marriage contract. While I adore my husband, I am not joined to him at the hip. There’s a “we” and an “I.”

As dusk settled around the campus on that reunion day, we fifty-year veterans agreed that the rewards had been as mighty as the challenges. Most of us felt a certain peace, serenity, and yes, contentment.

Along with the bittersweet memories and jolting insights, there were, of course, still a few questions without answers. That’s because we are still works in progress.

But we women of the Class of 1960 had written and rewritten our own Declarations of Independence.

And that, we understood, was a reflection of our timeless, endless ascent toward enlightenment.

~Sally Friedman

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