Catholic Girls Start Much Too Late.
That has been my sentiment as one of those late developers who inspired Billy Joel to sing about us. Last October, I attended my 50th high school reunion and judging from my gracefully aged classmates, we all think Joel should add that caveat to his lyrics. We are the class of ’69, the Woodstock generation, the make love, not war believers. Better late, Billy, than never, or too early.
We were only the third freshman class in 1965 to enter the shining halls of then brand-new Mother Seton Regional High. Most of us bussed in from surrounding towns, Rahway in my case.
Saturday, October 6, 2019, we filled to capacity a private dining room in the Bistro, 1051 Raritan Road, Clark, a stone’s throw from Mother Seton. Being packed together so tightly after all these years was reminiscent for me of a certain “oneness” that we still share. Certainly, the class of about 220 girls has scattered in manifold directions — marriage, kids, divorce, remarriage, never married, child-free, strayed from Catholicism, still practicing, and on and on. Some have died too young.
No men, no problem—did I mention we were an all-girls Catholic high? We did get to bring boys to our proms. Senior prom, 1969: Lenny Welch, born in Asbury Park, NJ, sang in person for us. We idolized that rock star. He sang Since I Fell For You. We swooned. If you’re too young to know Lenny, I’m sorry. Big, big hair was in. Grecian curls were all the rage. It took half a day to get them in, a whole day to get them out, with all that teasing. Buckets of creme rinse, precursor to conditioner. I don’t recall all the guys’ names in above photo. My guy was Jimmy Walker and, when adults were not around, we rode his motorcycle without helmets — not to the prom though. My father, who had to meet the guy, would’ve locked me in my bedroom. No wonder I started so late, Billy.
The evening before the reunion some of us attended a fundraising gala for Mother Seton. We were astonished at the numbers: Compare our tuition in 1965–69, $200/year (paid for me by my parish, St. Mary’s in Rahway). Our classes, each grade I mean, numbered about 220 girls. Tuition today is $15,000 per year (I think that was the number, correct me if wrong, Seton girls) with only about 200 girls in the entire four-year school! The only good news today, I noted is there is much more diversity in the student body.
At the gala I sat near Elizabeth Goodman, who also went to the same St. Mary’s grammar school with me. She shared a memory of how she had hoped to be picked in sixth grade to crown the Blessed Virgin Mary in May, a big deal back then, with procession, flowers, incense. She had done all the daily mass attending through Lent, as had I, to get picked. I got picked. Then wished I hadn’t. I shared with her how traumatized I had been when I was selected. Truly a case of be careful what you wish for, you might get it. It was fun to share both sides of our feelings — her disappointment, my trauma — about that year so long ago. In fact, I had written a fictionalized story about it, Virgin Vision — it was a finalist in a Katharine Anne Porter contest.
There was Dottie Gerlach better than any standup comedian. She described giving birth to twins no one knew she was carrying. After the first one came out, she told the doctors I’m done, had my baby, not going back for another. Going home. You had to be there for Dottie’s delivery (no pun intended) to hear how funny she could make a surely painful situation sound. The doctor and nurses rolled up a towel and used it to push the second baby down from where it was lodged up near her sternum.
I’ve heard that some other women who “survived” various Catholic schools back in those dark ages have only bad feelings and memories about it. I have not forgotten some of the ridiculous to sublime actions of nuns and priests back then but one gets perspective with time and age and forgives the backward ways. Like being monitored for rolling our skirts above knees.
The memory now unites us in its silliness. We were not allowed to wear bathing suits on our class trip to Rye Beach, New York. One time, my mother was called to come pick me up and take me home to change a dress I wore for first-Monday street-clothes day. It was a cute chemise, one inch above my knobby knees (and I wore panty hose in those days). Even my straight-laced, conservative mother rolled her eyes. With nine other kids besides me to worry about. . . really. We can laugh now.
Some things we cannot laugh about even years later. A friend of mine who knew she was gay and in love with another girl told me how a nun found them kissing. The nun sent the other girl far away. That still stings and I don’t blame her for avoiding her reunions. Good nun, bad nun, good priest, bad priest—there will always be a spectrum, as in any population. And all religions seem to have a streak of cruelty.
At the reunion we marveled at there being exactly 50 women for 50 years. That’s 2,500 years of memories. Not enough time to share them all, but we tried.
Time, contemplating the artifice of time, is what these reunions give rise to. Is Time really God? What is fifty years in the grand scheme? There is a “standstill-ness” to these reunions, as if the reality of 50 years is all virtual memory. I can’t quite put my finger on it any more than I can define Time, once we unravel it from calendars.
Once upon a Time, I believed in a Supreme Being, feared him—it was a him. I believed in discreet packets, a heaven, a hell, two types of sin, venial and mortal, easy absolution. I was given clear formulae. Time was linear and measurable. Somewhere along the line, Time became not easily measured, not linear, not circular, but webular, or as the auto-correct wants me to write, nebular. A bigger mystery than all the ones I was fed via bible history and had to memorize. I like this mystery and will likely take it with me to my grave. Till the 55th or the 60th reunion, the Force be with you.