by David Cecelski
I wrote this after my mother’s last high school reunion. It’s not about a recipe or a good place to eat, but about one of the things we do when we gather at the table.
I recently took my mother to her 62nd high school reunion.BeaufortHigh School burned down over the Christmas break of their senior year, so my mother and her classmates actually finished the year in buildings that were part of the Duke University Marine Laboratory on PiversIsland. Every morning, they’d take the school bus to Gallant’s Channel and then they’d walk across the little bridge to the island.
Her graduating class had 45 young men and women in it. They came from the town of Beaufort and country places like Harlowe, Adams Creek, Merrimon, and all along Highway 101. MoreheadCity had its own high school, so those kids didn’t to go to school with my mother, and so did Newport. And the children Down East—on the other side of the North RiverBridge—still had high schools of their own inSmyrna and Atlantic.
The reunion’s first night was a potluck dinner hosted by “N. W.” Taylor and his wife, Ginny, who live just up from the First Baptist church. The next night, they convened in a private room in the back of Rib Eye’s Steak House on Front Street. The event at N. W.’s was delightful, but that second night was my favorite. Of the 45 Sea Dogs in her class, twenty-seven are still alive. Seventeen made it that evening. One other, Joe Beam, called in and talked to everybody on a speaker phone. He was home recovering from hip replacement surgery.
You couldn’t help but feel a little emotional. I looked at the faces across the dining room table and I tried to imagine all that they had seen and done and survived. They all looked real happy to be there. More than a couple talked about how close they had been to death sometime in the last few years. We did seem to talk a lot about cancer, heart disease, and new hips, but who could blame them? They’re all eighty years old now.
I only knew a handful of my mother’s classmates. My cousin Eloise was there, and so was Joe Merrill, my great-uncle Everett’s younger brother. Another one, Jean Springer, I hadn’t seen since I was an undergraduate at the Duke Marine Lab. She was the librarian there back then and always doted on me because I was her classmate’s son. Others I knew mainly from my mother’s stories. To a one, they treated me like a son. They treated my brother, who came the second night, the same way.
The night at the steak house, Jean Springer led a little ceremony in remembrance of all their classmates who had passed away. She was the reunion secretary, so she had been the one who tried to get in touch with everybody. A couple, she said, she never heard back from. They were people who had moved away from the area a long time ago, but of course the reunion goers all hoped that not hearing from them didn’t mean that they weren’t alive and well somewhere. Hopefully they were just out of touch.
Jean also reported on how the ones whom she reached but couldn’t make it were doing: they were in a nursing home or moved somewhere inland to live with a daughter or just whatever it was.
Then she lit a candle on the table and read the names of all their classmates who had preceded them in death. She made special mention of the three who had died since their last reunion. She read them in the order that they died and I could hear a few sobs around the room. I saw several shake their heads, as if they couldn’t imagine one or the other not being there with them any longer. Most of them had known one another since first grade, 75 years ago.
The mention of two or three brought little smiles. J. T. Hardesty was one. From everything I heard about him, he was the class wit, a trickster to the core. I suspected that those smiles came from a memory of one of J. T.’s pranks.
Mostly they told jokes and funny stories and laughed and laughed. N. W. Taylor was a font of funny stories. He could be on Jay Leno. But everybody told wonderful stories, even my mother, who is always so sweet and soft-spoken and not at all prone to telling funny anecdotes.
Near the end of the evening, Billy Taylor said that he wouldn’t mind if they held another reunion next year, instead of waiting two years like they usually do. Joe Merrill, my great-uncle’s brother, quickly seconded the idea. “We aren’t getting any younger, you know. I ain’t been feeling so good recently,” he said. They took a vote and agreed that they’d have another reunion next summer. “What’s the point,” I heard one of them say, “of waiting?”