An absent Gloria sends her Wonder Woman keynote to 2006 Reunion!
Dear Sisters of ‘56:
I should begin by saying, “I can’t believe we’re here!”? After all, I bet we’re all in some stage of disbelief that fifty years have passed, that we’ve changed so much — and yet so little. We’re like those nested Russian dolls, with all our previous selves still alive inside us.
As it is, however, I have to say, “I can’t believe I’m not here!”
I, who do so much traveling and talking, not to mention eating — am now temporarily unable to do any of those things normally because of a bout with trigeminal neuralgia.
Some of you may know this problem because it disproportionately affects women over fifty. But since our only form of universal health care seems to be talking to each other “and since this is so often misdiagnosed that middle class people have root canals and poor people have their teeth out, then discover it’s not about teeth” I should explain that trigeminal neuralgia is caused by damage to the myelin insulating the nerve. You’ll know it if you get a sharp dentist-drill like pain triggered by muscle movements while talking and eating.
However, it’s not fatal. I’ve had it before and it eventually goes away. It just makes you stay quiet and become much better at charades.
If Wonder Woman were here, I’m sure she would cure this with one “Great Hera!”? I have the next best thing, the real Wonder Woman who’s reading this for me now, so I can be partly with you. I’m very grateful to her.
In thinking about what I wanted to say, I came up with many different speeches. So I decided to give them all but short. If you poured water on any one of the following paragraphs, it would become a speech.
For instance, most of you haven’t spent a lot of time in Northampton since we lived here. Believe me, its changes are worth a whole speech in themselves. Instead of an old mill town with Rahar’s as the high point of sophistication, it’s become a smaller, New England version of San Francisco.
There is first class cuisine. There are art galleries and pottery-makers and concerts and poetry jams. There is an anti-war demonstration every week “most recently, a big march to restore the anti-war purpose of Mother’s Day” and there’s a woman mayor. There is even dancing where everybody from cops to students does swing and tango and African and salsa.
I discovered all of this when I started coming here to work at the Sophia Smith Collection, which, incidentally, has the most inclusive history of the women’s movement, and many other things to be very proud of.
One night, another woman and I were standing with our noses pressed to the glass, watching a floorfull of Latin dancers. They came out to get us — because this is a community where everybody dances, with or without a partner. They’re even glad to have those of us who remember swing dancing from the first time around. Where else but Northampton could two 70-year-olds, on their own, dance till 3? I recommend it. Maybe we should all move back here.
Even if you’ve come to every reunion, including the last, you haven’t experienced the new Student Center. Its impact is worth a speech. It has transformed the campus from a collection of separate houses and classes into a community with a shared gathering place. You can get your email there, read and study, meet your friends, and find books and music and T-shirts. You can even get tasty and healthy food, unlike our BLTs and ice cream cones with shots on Green Street. I wonder: Do students still collectively gain the Freshman Ton?
Most of all, current students are worth a speech. As far as I can tell, they’re about twenty years ahead of where we were at the same age — at least, where I was. Talk to them and see what you think. They’re taking control of their lives rather than waiting for life to happen to them. They’re planning for the full length of life, not stopping because a hazy screen comes down around thirty. They value their bodies as instruments as well as ornaments, for what they can do as well as how they look. In other words, they’re way past a world in which women can be, but only men can do.
Of course, they still tend to think that, if they have children “and if? alone that would have been unusual in our day” they’re more responsible for combining career and family than are their husbands or partners are. (“Partners” there’s another new event.) One can only hope they’ll get mad when they experience how bad it is for everybody if men don’t raise children as much as women do, and that we’re the only modern democracy in the world without a national system of childcare and health care. In other words, they’re still confusing the possibility of being Wonder Woman with the false necessity of being Super Woman.
Because they’re also our granddaughters, they’ll make you crazy in other ways. I was in the middle of complaining about my Smith textbooks that just said, “Women were given the vote,” nothing about a century of struggle and bringing the country to a halt when one student said, “Why didn’t you take women’s studies?”
However, the most important of my condensed speeches isn’t about Smith, or its surrounding community, or its current students. It’s about us and where we are in our lives.
After all, we come back to explore each other and ourselves, and figure out the future. We come here where the ghosts of our eighteen and twenty-year-old selves are still wandering around such unchanged places as Seelye and Paradise Pond. We’re more likely to see back to our core.
There is a distinction in where we are now: We may be closer to each other than ever before. However different our lives have been between student days and this reunion — whether we’ve had one husband or none or several or are finally able to say we have a woman partner; whether we do or don’t have children or grandchildren; whether we’ve retired from a career that was inside or outside the home; whether we feel worn out or rewarded by our work in those central years of life, we’re now all together in contemplating this last precious expanse of time.
As Robert Browning learned from Elizabeth Barrett, “This is the last of life, for which the first was made.”
I was standing in my kitchen the other day, contemplating a long to do? list — including everything from the woman-owned national radio network we’ve just started to my own overdue book, with a lot of computer fixing and editing and dry cleaning to pick up in between and these words suddenly rose up, as if from the deepest of those nested Russian dolls: Death is going to interrupt all my plans!
It was so sudden that it made me laugh out loud. There is such a thing as laughter of recognition.
Even if I live to be 100, as I definitely plan to do and hope we all do — there still will be less time than what feels like the brief period between now and what happened thirty years ago.
I don’t have any cheerful platitudes to fix the sadness that follows this recognition. It’s probably important that we not try. Mourning the loss of a loved one is a measure of how much we loved them, and the pain of losing the familiar is a measure of its dearness to us.
But I am beginning, just beginning, to think there are special things we can do that we couldn’t do before:
We can tell the truth as we see it. There’s not enough time for anything else, and besides, what can they do to us now?
We can try all those endeavors that once seemed to be distractions from career or children — whether it’s painting again or volunteering for work in the Sudan. After all, we no longer have to be sensible.
We can honor the natural cycles of life by talking to the very young, the only other people who see life as simply and basically as we do. Our unfortunate children and friends in the central years become blinded by detail.
Most of all, we are able to sense the eternal linkage between and among everything living. In the immortality department, that’s good enough for me.
There is a physiological base for this new feeling of connectedness. After fifty, our brains grow new synapses, much as they do in the teenage years. That may be why these are the two periods of life in which we take a leap forward in conceptual thinking. (If you want to know more about these changes and what women are doing with them, read a wonderful book called Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood by my friend Suzanne Braun Levine.)
So perhaps a good test of what to do in these last glorious years is: What could we never have done before?
Answers will be different for each of us. I confess that I feel about odd being asked to speak tonight, as if I knew something you don’t. That’s partly because a reunion is the biggest Proustian teacake of them all, so I return to my eighteen-year-old self. But it’s also because it’s simply true: Only you can know the layers that come together in a unique way now.
My only purpose tonight is this: To help create a room in which we feel closer to each other, and might be able to say out loud what we hope to be and do in, say, five years, before the next reunion.
Then let’s meet here again to tell each other what happened, as well as to share our hopes for the next five years.
And go dancing.