There had been other invitations for the ten, twenty and silver anniversary of my school-leaving year but I hadn’t felt the tug the way I did when my mother forwarded the reunion invite in February.
I passed five very happy years at the convent. Big telling years as I grappled with hormones, limitations and possibilities. I felt safe and supported in the cosseted grounds of an all girl school. My mother knew her religious orders and she especially liked and respected The Ursulines. The school was on the far side of town so my sisters and I made the daily trek past hostile terrain – pavements and bicycle lanes populated with the blue uniforms of the other main girls school before gradually giving way to the familiar chocolate brown outfits that matched our own.
Though the school took boarders I was not in their number. An avid reader of Malory Tower books how I wished to be. I achieved the next best thing becoming so involved with clubs and committees that I often got to walk the corridors when all but the boarders remained. Over the tannoy I’d hear the girls called by name for their bath. You missed your slot, you didn’t get a wash until your day came around again, a week on. I imagined tuck boxes and midnight feasts. I ignored daily masses and bouts of homesickness.
I wanted to visit the school while it still bore some resemblance to the one I attended. Ours was the last year with an intake of boarders. The sisters don’t live on the school site anymore. The chapel has been deconsecrated and is now an office. Much of the grounds were sold during the tiger years and the purchase has been left to ruins. A couple of years ago I’d dropped a line to one of the nuns, it would be nice to see her. She’d always have asked after me when she bumped into my parents at funerals. They seem to be meeting a lot these days.
I figured the last time I’d been to the school was the day I got my leaving certificate results. I’d have floated down the tree-lined driveway that skirted the vast lush lawn and walked out through the turquoise blue wrought iron gates, thrilled and relieved that I’d secured the points I needed for university and wouldn’t need to re-sit my final year. As I took my leave, I never dreamt that it would take me 3 decades to return.
Coming back all these years later I was less curious about the girls. I don’t think the reunion would have been as much of a draw for me if it was a bunch of old school pals meeting in a local pub. Too mawkish without the rest; the convent, the nuns, the grounds, the nuns graveyard, the fountain, the music rooms, the old dorms, the church, ‘heaven”( an area dense with statues) .
I knew there’d be experiential learning in attending. I needed to put myself through the collision – of the life I had, of the girl I was and the memories of both.
Weeks after I booked my flight and arranged childcare, got my hair cut (tall order – can you take ten years off me) and chose an outfit I was starting to doubt whether I’d go or not. I’d still spend the weekend with my parents but I wasn’t so sure about the rest. Though my mother was so excited about the prospect of my school homecoming I didn’t see how I could bunk off.
I started to think more about how I’d be perceived. Would I measure up? I hadn’t lived up to my own hopes for myself – would I disappoint others too. Or maybe it was the humbling shot I needed. A chance to lay to rest my regrets.
The morning of the reunion I bumped in to an old neighbour and family friend at a local market. Over coffee with myself and my sisters she imparted her wisdom. The wife of a retired deputy head she had been to oodles of reunions in her day.“What are you wearing?”, she asked eagerly. “It’s all about the outfit, the hair, the rock on your finger.” I spoke of my concerns. Along with my sisters she pooh poohed the idea that I wouldn’t measure up. Later browsing amongst the stalls in the craft market I came upon a portrait print of Oscar Wilde with these perfect words: Be yourself, everyone else is already taken”. My sister bought it for me.
And so to the collision…
My sisters, alumni who had each attended one of these events, drove me in to the school grounds. Even that felt odd – to be getting there under our own steam instead of being dropped by our mother. The years were already starting to unfurl.
My father says he gets a shock when he looks in the mirror. His reflection and what he sees in his mind’s eye don’t match. There’s a shortfall of about 40 years. I had one of those moments when I walked in to the old assembly hall and found myself amongst middle-aged women. I walked straight out again. A quick glance around the hall and no familiar faces. But in my mind’s eye I was looking for teens with bad perms and pony tails. I called out to my sisters to at least join me for a cup of tea until someone from my year group turned up. Just as we made our way to the tea caddy I get hailed. My sisters scatter and leave me to it. Weird sensations followed. I can only describe it as looking through lenses that had been smeared in grease. Familiar but out of focus. Like my mind was trying to grapple with a name, an identity that was just beyond my reach. I’d get a warm feeling about a person and though I couldn’t remember who they were I’d remember that this was someone lovely or lively or generous or funny. Or naughty. It was a fun exercise and some names came. Sinead, Grainne, Mary, Roisin, Nicola, Claire. Girls once, women now.
I don’t think I proved such an enigma. My weight and hair colour hadn’t altered much. Some women looked ten years younger, others had easily taken on the mantle of middle age. One of the women, who’d travelled back from America for this, started on her introduction once it was clear I couldn’t place her. I was able to finish with her surname and even though “Sandy Kelly” easily tripped off my tongue I could not picture her as a girl.Until a couple of hours later during the mass when I glanced her way and it’s all I saw.
Forty of my year group showed up. That’s 1 in 3 , a pretty good turn out. Everyone seemed well but how could I really know. After our afternoon tea we were free for an hour to roam the grounds and have a nose around the classrooms. As my sisters had predicted, I found the long corridor wasn’t so long after all.
Some of the floor tiles were the same. I recognised a few statues, paintings and views from windows. The pond was covered in moss and many years dry. Myself and another intrepid time traveller waded through nettles and tall grass to find the old nuns graveyard and then located the crosses bearing names of old teachers. Simple white markers displaying the year they were professed, the day they died and their age.
It seemed such a shame not to head to the chapel for mass. The stained class windows were visible still. Instead we gathered again in the assembly hall. There were ‘old girls’ from other years – I understand there was someone present from the class of 44’. The reigning headmistress addressed us after the service. She welcomed us back to our alma mater and said she hoped that we’d all found some form of peace in ourselves. I bristled just a little because I know I am not there yet. She spoke of the prevailing need for strong women in leadership. All nobel talk. Then it was onwards to a local hotel for a dinner and where the catching up continued.
What had we made of ourselves. Well there were a number of teachers and quite a few who had married farmers. I spoke with scientists, businesswomen (one employs 200 staff across 14 offices nationwide), a drama tutor, mural artist, accountant, nurse, probation officer, lawyer and honey bee farmer.
I had a great night and when I took my leave at 1.30 in the morning it seemed natural to say – and mean it – see you in ten years. There’s another reunion happening later this month through my biggest employer to date. The Airline years. They spanned my twenties and stir a whole other lot of memories of people I haven’t met in well over a decade. I’ve decided to give it a miss. I’m all reunioned out.