Photo above: Lake Kittamaqundi, Columbia, Maryland
Last weekend I attended my 35th high school reunion. I drove from Massachusetts, where I live, to Columbia, Maryland, where I grew up. In my travel bag sat various “tools of female youth” – advanced skin care cream, Crest white strips for a whiter smile, “age-defying make-up,” and a girdle-like Spanx contraption that would hold in my waist while hopefully not crushing any major organs beyond repair. I was ready, baby! I listened to Sirius “70’s on 7” channel on the long drive home, grooving down the highway to such seventies standards as Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel,” and “Brick House” by The Commodores.
My husband called me on my cell phone only to have to listen to my new and fervent belief that “Al Stewart’s ‘Year of the Cat’ always was really a vastly under-appreciated song.” I pulled into the driveway of the home I grew up in at dusk, the sun just setting, exhausted but jubilant. The porch light was on, and through the windows I could see my mother and father rising from chairs to greet me on the front porch. I was home.
Columbia, Maryland is a special place, and has been since its inception. It is America’s first planned city, designed by James Rouse, a visionary who had the belief that a visually pleasing and carefully thought-out city could be a model for the future. James Rouse saw the new city he was creating as an integration of important human values, rather than merely a study in economics. Columbia was intended to not only eliminate the snags of normal sub-division design, but to also eliminate segregation of any type; class, religious and/or racial segregation.
Impressive green spaces were left intact, and modern ideas on education were implemented, including the idea of open-space education, which hinged on schools without interior walls and each student’s completion of a stream of educational hand-outs stapled together called a LAP, or “Learning Activity Packet.” In a wall-less high school shaped like a turtle, we, the first students of Columbia, Maryland, happily learned from teachers that were also encouraged to be our friends, and developed tight bonds that the 1970’s offered to kids: a youth without hovering parents involved in every aspect of a child’s development.
Back then parents were still happily the “wa-wa-wa” type featured in old Charlie Brown holiday specials, a presence seen and not really heard through our haze of Peter Frampton, Earth, Wind and Fire, James Taylor and Lynyrd Skynyrd. We snuck out of class to have lunch at the Village Green, we played sports with our emblem, the wildcat, emblazoned on our chests, and we helped each other grow up, with each laugh, smile, hug, and tear. We were special, but not because we were growing up in the Petrie dish of America’s first planned city. We were special because, well … we were us, the students of WLHS.
I spent the reunion weekend with my friend Nicole, who was my best friend. Every memory I have of my childhood starting at age seven straight through high school contains Nicole, and we were two of Columbia’s pilgrim children, racing bicycles together through the streets of our Running Brook neighborhood, streets that had progressive, confusing, and poetic names like “Oven Bird Green” and “Starsplit Lane.” Now together again, we seamlessly entered into our old patterns; laughing at old stories only we were likely to understand, slinging our arms carelessly around each other, sharing both our hopes and our jitters about seeing old friends after so long.
It felt like an evening long ago in Nicole’s bedroom, together getting ready for a Friday night out with friends. As a kid Nicole was my adopted sister, confidant, and daily touchstone, and now as an adult I felt pride at the professional life she has built in the fast-paced world outside the Washington, D.C. area. I felt proud of us as people, too, I guess; somehow when we were “hanging on the railing” that ran around our media center in school, and going to parties and having sleep-overs and driving around aimlessly on summer nights looking for something to do, we developed the emotional muscles that allowed us to keep friendships strong, build lasting relationships, and treasure old friends as gifts infinitely more precious than wealth or status. Somehow, in spite of itself and its modern ideas, many of which have since been discarded, Columbia had raised us well.
It turns out I didn’t need the advanced lotion, the Spanx, the whitestrips or the nerves. I had forgotten that when you see old friends, you really see them. I saw my friends as they were in our sparkling youth; time had not changed them in my eyes or in my heart. The laughter rang out just as strong, filling the air of the rented reunion space, and the longing was still there — the special type of forward-thinking hopefulness that Columbia inspired in its youth that led to long and meaningful careers, wonderful families, and thriving lifelong friendships.
The evening after the reunion Nicole and I met two high school friends for dinner: Lisa and Jennifer. Time has been good to them both, and they shared stories of children and homes, recent loss and everlasting loyalty to the Baltimore Orioles. At the end of the meal we decided to take a selfie to mark the hours together, and I was sent a copy the next day. In our faces, smiling happily into the iPhone camera, I saw both our foundation and the future: love, laughs, trust, and a promise to always be there. If you have that, then look out – you can handle anything.
Thank you Columbia, and Wilde Lake High School, for our shared childhood — the gift that keeps on giving. I wanted to end this with a deep quote on the joys of friendship, but one I found on the internet seems to suit us, the graduates of WLHS, better:
Best friends, when you fall always know that I will be there to raise you up.
But only when I finish laughing. ~ Anonymous ~
All photos by Deirdre Reilly
Deirdre Reilly has written one humor book, and authored a syndicated family life column for Gatehouse Media for 13 years. She has won a Massachusetts Press Award for humor, her op-eds have been published in the Boston Herald and The Hartford Courant, and she has had short fiction published in literary journals. Deirdre was raised in Columbia, Md., and now lives outside Boston, Ma. She enjoys outdoor pursuits, and is obsessed with the care and happiness of a retired carriage horse named Nello that she bought for a few hundred dollars on a menopausal whim.