Long ago and far away, when I was an unhappy teenager, I belonged to a church youth group. It was a kinder, gentler place than school, probably in part because its members ranged from nearly-13 all the way to 18, and the older members were used to dealing with younger siblings but not concerned with whatever the ninth graders thought was the One Right Way. I think the group knew before I did that I would one day be an English professor. It was nice, because they didn’t mind that I was such an egghead; it was a characteristic like hair color or liking certain kinds of music. We had a grown-up leader, a fun and loving woman around whom everything coalesced. After she re-married and moved away, the church just could not find anyone who could take her place, and we disbanded.
Over the years, the original group has had several reunions. Occasionally, we managed to go camping for a weekend, as we had done on occasion during our salad days (woooot, away from parents for the weekend! Or, no, not woot; what would we have said then? “Neat”? “Excellent”? “Sweet”? I can’t even remember, that’s how old I am). Sometimes we just got together for an afternoon in a park that was local to more of us than not, or went to dinner. In recent years, our leader’s daughter has hosted birthday parties for her mom, who now lives in an in-law apartment with this daughter, and some selection of the group has managed to turn up for a few of those get-togethers.
I attended one last summer. Along with current friends, relatives, and neighbors, a couple of sisters from the youth group were there. Our leader, now in her early 80s, at first mistook me for her college roommate, before sorting out who I really was. She apologized for something that happened when I was 20, something I had forgotten about; I was in a bad place at the time but it had been decades since I’d thought of that misunderstanding. The sisters were pretty much as I remembered them: one cheerful, matter-of-fact, domestic; the other sophisticated, charming, faintly catty. At first I was delighted to see all three women again. But they don’t know me now, and that made it strange.
Back at home, in my adult life, Sir John and I went out with another couple: he’s a mathematician, she’s a social worker and a Damned Extrovert who asked probing questions about my recent trip and how I felt about it, not accepting my polite demurrals and attempts to change the subject (she’s really very nice, just totally E and F to my I and T, and her husband is one of Sir John’s best friends, so I always try not to be rude as I would be to more random people who probed like that). So I finally blurted out what I really thought: “I realized that I do not have to maintain ties to the past or people I used to know. I am allowed to be who I am now, and not keep up with people who remind me of things I don’t want to remember.”
Today I got e-mail floating the idea of another reunion, at a time that I could make if I really wanted to, although teaching provides an excellent excuse for not going. I used it. If the rest of the group gets together, I hope they have a lovely time. I wish them well. They’re nice people. They were once really important to me. But I hate remembering how unhappy and trapped I felt through most of my teenage years, and they remind of me that time, because I’ve hardly seen them since.
It’s a bit odd: I am completely unconflicted about putting distance between myself and my family, to the extent that is possible. I have kept up with various old friends from different parts of my life, including school and college friends from those teenage years. The youth group, having been an important escape from home and school, somehow is more associated with misery than the friends who went to school with me and knew my family. Who knows, maybe the group remembers more about my family than I think; that still doesn’t mean that I want to know what that might be. It would be nice to want to see them, but I don’t.
I like my grown-up self. I like being Sir John’s wife, and being Professor [Real Name], and being Dame Eleanor Hull. My old self is dead.
Been down one time, been down two times.
Never going back again.