The Girls of '58


June 23, 1993|By ANN EGERTON

This time of year is not just graduation time; it's also when old graduates get together. I recently attended my 35th reunion of the independent girls' school from which I graduated in 1958. There were 31 girls in my graduating class, but over the years a number of women who had been in that class for a while but graduated from somewhere else had asked to have their names put on the alumnae roster, so we always invite about 37, with, of course, significant others. This year, 17 turned up, solo or with escorts -- boyfriends, old husbands or new ones.

The class of '58 was hardly on the cutting edge of feminism, or anything else, for that matter. We grew up, many of us, assuming we'd be like June Cleaver; then the rules changed, and we had to try to be like Murphy Brown.

We, who liked Ike and loved Lucy and tittered at Elvis the Pelvis, did not expect to be the sole or even joint breadwinner of our households; not many of us had thought seriously about careers at all. Most of us thought about getting married and having babies, and supposed, hazily, that the rest would take care of itself.

We have been called the swing or transitional generation of women -- frustrated by life only as a housewife, but unprepared for and uncommitted to readying ourselves for medicine, law, engineering or other traditionally male (and money-making) professions. The class of '58 reacted more than acted, which wouldn't work in today's faster, more competitive world. The custom was to work before the children came and resume work outside the home once the children were in school, thereby missing critical years of career training and advancement.

There are a lot of teachers among my old classmates, as well as public-relations people, interior designers, administrators and nurses -- traditional female jobs for the most part. Many of us have had important and demanding volunteer positions. I don't think it's a coincidence that the most high-powered of us -- the museum director, the purchasing agent for a Fortune 500 corporation, the one in television marketing, the industrial chemist -- are single or at least childless. We never dared to try to have it all.

While we didn't forge any new professional paths, we've managed to match some of the nation's mundane statistics. There has been one death; at least three have had and survived cancer, one had a benign brain tumor, two have chronic neurological diseases. Two have artificial hips. Most of us have scurried to a psychiatrist from time to time. We have produced approximately 63 children; two of us have buried a child. Of the 32 who married, one has been widowed and 13 have been divorced at least once. Several of us have grandchildren. In true American fashion, more than half of us have moved out of town.

None of these traumas was apparent at our reunion. We hugged, caught up with each other's present and reminisced about our past. Most of all, we laughed. Barbara Kingsolver, in her novel, ''Animal Dreams,'' describes ''the strange disjuncture that comes from reconnecting with your past: There's such a gulf between yourself and the you who you were then, but people speak to that other person and it answers; it's like having a stranger as a house guest in your skin.''

After 35 years there's quite a gulf, but there's something comforting about being with people who knew you when you were 17; it's almost a given that you're better now than then. We remember who was smart, who was funny, who was a good athlete, a leader. After family, we were each other's first audience, first critics. In the carelessly cruel ways of the young, we helped knock some of the edges off each other.

We're less frantic now than when we were raising children; and we've made peace with letting go of some old, perhaps unspoken ambitions. Necessity has revealed some strengths in some that weren't evident years ago. The passage of time has made us easier on ourselves and on each other. Even though we're stouter and slower, it's a satisfactory time of life, a good time to have a reunion. Soon enough, we'll get to the hard part.

Ann Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

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