The number 50 has symbolic and practical significance in Jewish thought. It spans the days between the exodus from Egypt and Shavuot when the Torah was revealed to us at Mount Sinai. The number, in the form of 50 shekels, even addresses the financial obligations of the ketubah, marriage contract.
For me, the number 50 was recently tied to a powerful event in my life. While not Biblical in scope, it was rich in meaning and impact. The 50 in question was my half-century high school reunion.
I was reluctant to attend. It was a multi-year reunion, five classes coming together at one time, in one place, because during the pandemic such events had been postponed. The thought of four hundred-plus people crowded together, throwing caution and masks to the wind, hugging and kissing didn’t fill me with confidence.
Surely somebody would have COVID. Surely somebody — more likely lots of somebodies — would get sick.
Then, days before the reunion, I received an “In Memoriam” list of deceased classmates. It was distressingly long. Staring at it, I recalled many sweet faces and happy memories. It was a stark reminder of the obvious: time was passing. If I didn’t attend this reunion, I likely would never see many of these people again.
So, reluctantly, I pushed aside my COVID concerns and signed up to attend.
A 50th reunion is a remarkable event, seismic really. For some, high school is a high point in their life. For others, a low point. For me, it was a pleasant mid-point in my education and growing up. I graduated one year early, applied to three colleges, and got into all three. I also graduated early from college, went on to graduate school, and twice studied abroad in the former Soviet Union. It all sped past in an exciting blur.
Thinking back to high school, I had kind, smart, lively friends. No deep dramas. No dating traumas. After graduating, my parents moved back East, so trips to Las Vegas were infrequent and most of my friendships there faded.
So, seeing re-uniting with people from my teen years after so many decades was strange, delightful, and deeply nostalgic. How had I forgotten the intensity of those times?
I had attended the 25th class reunion, but a quarter-century coming together is an entirely different sort of event. That reunion was a mostly carefree blast from the past. But still …
Anybody who shows up for a 25th is content with themselves and successful, but also, if you’re honest, there’s still a bit of jockeying a bit for position, still some striving to prove who’s the coolest kid in the class.
It’s a mix of “Tee-hee. Remember when we …?” “How about the time we …?” and “Yeah, I’m on Wall Street now. Living the good life.”
Gathering at the half-century mark is different. More bittersweet.
It wasn’t just the sadness of thinking of those classmates who had died but also feeling a palpable, deep (and somewhat embarrassing) sense of “There but for the grace of God goes I.”
Also, we missed classmates who could not attend because of ill health. Yes, illness plus aches and pains stalked our 50th reunion. Several classmates used electric scooters or canes. One was stiff with the beginning stages of Parkinson’s.
Even the “spritely” among us were more inclined to hit the buffet line than the dance floor. Oh, well, time on the buffet line gave us more time to talk.
But while make-up and hair dye couldn’t hide the fact we’ve aged, they also couldn’t stop the fun. We talked and laughed till we were hoarse!
It was amazing how many years of catch-up we crammed into one evening. And it was equally amazing how much honesty flowed. I’m not saying it was a reality show “tell-all,” but we shared a lot. It was cleansing to the soul.
We didn’t cover all the joys and regrets of 50 years of work, marriage, and childbearing, but when a woman faintly, wearily, all the while clutching her husband’s hand, says, “We’ve had our highs and lows,” you know she’s sharing deep pain. You don’t question. You just nod, hug, and say, “I’m so glad to see you.” She understands. You’ve been there too. Now we’re here. Together. Surviving.
The truth is: for most of us, after all this time, there’s nothing to prove. No need to brag. No need to show off. Nearing 70, we are the “come as you are, take us as we are” crowd. We were just happy to be together, share memories, and renew friendships.
In the end, it felt poignant. For all the hugs, exchanging of email addresses, and plans to stay in touch, the question is: How many will gather again at the next reunion?
But just as in Jewish mystic thought, the number 50 sparked a moment of transcendence for me. The joy my fifth-decade reunion brought will stay in my heart forever.