I admit I’m not a big fan of Facebook. I don’t see the point of broadcasting the more mundane details of one’s life — I just bought a Tahari dress on eBay! I just totalled a squirrel with my SUV! But I keep a Facebook account just the same, in case, for example, Robby Ellerstein might have the sudden desire to find me again. The day I walked into Mr. Luke’s sixth grade class at Community Park School, when my family moved to Princeton in November, 1972, Robby was the one kid who smiled at me among the 28 pairs of judge-y, pubescent eyes that turned on me.
But Facebook proved its worth in more ways than one as Cynthia Lucullo Astrom planned the 30th reunion of my class at Princeton High School, the Class of 1979, which took place on Saturday, November 21, at the DoubleTree Hotel on Route 1. I got the first Facebook notice in early fall and continued to get updates from Cynthia (now a reading specialist in Cinnaminson) every two or three weeks. “We’re over 100 people! Here’s a list of MIAs, help us find them. Get everyone on Facebook!” Soon we were up to 150 people — half the class of 300. Some of the MIAs were found. Some, we all knew, wouldn’t come. Eric Pike was one. As the creative director for Martha Stewart and the most artistic member of our class, who recently had his all-gray Manhattan apartment featured in a spread in the magazine, Eric certainly had more important things to do. But evidently very few other members of the Class of ’79 did.
With our 401Ks shot to hell, our homes’ value plummeting, our jobs in jeopardy or already lost, our children stoked up on Adderall and World of Warcraft, and the simple fact that we now live in a country where there is a very real possibility that someone like Sarah Palin could be elected President, we wanted to go back to the days when our biggest decision was which hair ribbon would match our Fair Isle sweater, our biggest fear was that Mr. Ivan would really make the girls do push-ups in gym class, and our biggest hope was that in choir, Mr. Trego would pick the boy or girl we had a crush on to give us a birthday kiss.
I took my husband, David, with me to the reunion. I had given him the option to go or not go. Never one to skip a party, however, he readily agreed. When we walked into the hotel we saw two groups of people: the first, near the check-in counter, was a gaggle of 16-year-old girls all wearing short shorts with the word “Pink” across the butt and the other, clustered around a table outside the ballroom, resembled the closing credits of the movie “Love, Actually,” which shows footage of real people meeting loved ones at the gate in an airport, wrapping each other in embrace after embrace. I figured I belonged to the second group. The first group was a cheerleading convention.
Everyone got a nametag with their yearbook photo on it, which would prove essential to ID the people who really had changed. I, for example, had long blond hair in high school and now have short light brown hair. Most people had to grab my chest, I mean, my nametag, before greeting me.
At the stroke of 6 p.m. Cynthia announced, “They’re going to let us in. The cash bar is on the right.” When those ballroom doors parted, it was as if the gates at the Kentucky Derby had been opened — every single one of us made a beeline for the bar.
Self-medicated with chardonnay and vodka tonics (some of us skipped the tonic), we worked the room like brides. The din was incredible. Nancy Frank — who now co-owns with her husband a medical laser company, Laser Solutions, in Basking Ridge — made me pinky-promise that we would get together soon for a sushi-fest. Brad Ogilvie told me about his work in Washington, DC, developing programs to help young people address social justice issues — like the environment, poverty, hunger — and see how we are complicit unless we are really willing to make some fundamental changes in what we believe, how we consume, etc. “My goal,” he said, “is to have them leaving with a crazy sense that they can change the world, not just advocate for others to change.” With 30 years between us and the grueling clique-fest that dominates every high school, everyone talked to everyone.
It was not like the grown-up world at all, where if someone’s nice to you they likely want something, where co-workers talk about each other with razor-sharp tongues in the loo, where you wonder as you take your mascara off every night if what you have/ do/drive/wear is good enough. In that Doubletree ballroom there were no demanding bosses. No demanding children. No demanding mothers-in-law. No one, in fact, demanding anything at all.
People came from all corners of the country. Richard Sparks came all the way from England (and we all agreed he looked like a rock star). Others came from Arizona, Ohio, Seattle, and Nashville. These people had actually gotten on a plane to be there. It was important to them. Others, much closer to home, had made a special effort to be there. Pam Rago, now a senior development officer at the Institute for Advanced Study and the wife of Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, came, even though she had defected to Emma Willard her senior year.
There were some surprises. Lots of people, for example, had young children, many of them adopted. Others had kids already in college. Mark Yim, the brainiac of the class, now a hedge fund manager, brought his partner, Peter, a handsome guy from New Zealand, and they proudly showed off a photo of their beautiful 18-month-old daughter, brought into this world with the help of a surrogate mother. Trey Warman and his wife, after having three children of their own, adopted a girl, now aged two, from Ethiopia. David Amarel, now a psychologist in private practice with his wife in Manhattan’s financial district, adopted two children, Eli, 6, and Lucy, 5, from Korea. David’s wife was stowed upstairs in the hotel watching them, but later in the evening Lucy came down in her jammies and slippers and thoroughly charmed us all.
We learned we had lost classmates due to car accidents, cancer, heart disease, and drugs. Richard Johnson apparently committed suicide last year; no one knows why. “Only one person committed suicide?” said my husband, who grew up in rural Dickson, Tennessee. “Gee, six or seven people from my high school class committed suicide.” About the time that Betsy Gurk, Amy Cheadle, and I started reminiscing about the spin-the-bottle parties Jane France used to have in her basement, David excused himself and retired to the hotel bar, where he happily kept all the cheerleader moms company.
As I lost myself in the joyful cacophony of that ballroom and watched people dance to the strains of Earth, Wind, and Fire, I waited to see if anyone would mention the pink elephant in the room, or rather, the pink elephant’s spirit in the room. No one did. Until I struck up a conversation with Julie Heeg, now a psychotherapist in Manhattan. “You were close friends with Rachel Bull, weren’t you?” she said. “Yes,” I said, as that tiny door deep in my heart, which had slammed shut 30 years ago, eased open, and my unresolved emotions surrounding Rachel’s freak murder peeked out. They had banged against that door for decades and try as I might I could not soothe their restless agony.
On the last day of school, senior year, a man came into Rachel’s backyard as she lay sunbathing, put a gun to her head, and demanded she take him inside, where he later electrocuted her. My backyard butted up against her backyard. I was home that afternoon. I had considered calling her to go bathing-suit shopping, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. That man could just as easily have wandered into my backyard instead of hers. As my mother says, a lot of life is simply luck. They called Rachel’s name at graduation, and she received a standing ovation. I remember she was terribly smart and witty.
While writing this column, I found a Facebook page called “I Grew Up in Princeton,” which has over 1,000 members. In a section called “Gone But Not Forgotten” I found posted remembrances of Rachel, and was relieved to know I am not alone in being haunted by her death.
Julie’s and my conversation took a different, lighter turn and we agreed to get together for lunch in the city soon. A few moments later someone tapped me on my shoulder. I turned to see a tall man who looked vaguely familiar. I knew those eyes and that quirky smile but couldn’t quite place them. “Jamie, it’s me. Robby Ellerstein.”
As he engulfed me in a bear hug I felt that I had done the right thing in coming. Like my favorite chapter in “The Wind in the Willows,” when Mole trudges through the deep snow, desperate to find the scent that means “home,” there is a keen sense of comfort in reconnecting with people from a kinder, gentler time in your past.
Robby — now the father of two and director of electronics merchandising at QVC in Downington, PA — and I launched immediately into memories of riding our 10-speed Schwinns down Mt. Lucas Road to what was then the upper parking lot of Princeton Nassau Pediatrics, where we would ditch our bikes (no need to lock them), and take the outdoor stairs down to the convenience store in order to spend our allowance on Sunkist orange soda, Nestle’s $100,000 bars, and Now & Laters. Somehow, just talking about those simpler days affirmed our very existence, as if each of us could crack open a fortune cookie that read, “You are still here. Let’s celebrate.”