I graduated from college in the infancy of the internet. Mark Zuckerberg was 11 and bulletin board message groups were sort of cutting edge. When the time came to part from friends at Bryn Mawr with whom I’d shared weeping, tea, backrubs, laughter, and scorn we exchanged addresses and we wrote letters. I went home to Michigan (perhaps not the best choice, but that’s water under the bridge, and all the way out to sea by now). I worked an odd job or two, was a social worker for a bit, then went to law school. A couple of friends got married and had a baby or so relatively soon. One joined a cult for a while. Some stayed in Philly and worked, some went to graduate school.
I loved getting letters from New York, Boston, San Francisco, or even the UK occasionally. But I’m not a great correspondent. By four or five years out, the letters were rare, and I stayed most closely in touch with only two people. We actually had phone conversations. Which meant hanging out in the hall or at the kitchen table of wherever I was living, monopolizing the land line and figuring out at the end of the month how much of the long distance bill was my responsibility.
1993 – 1999 – 2003
With the exception of one wedding, my circle of friends had almost no collective gatherings. The first ten years out of college offered two reunions for me to sink back into the familiar embrace of a small tribe I knew I loved, and who I knew loved me. Scattered across countries and continents, we hoarded our hours together, going off campus to local friends’ houses for tea. As for the rest of my class mates, at reunion we sang our Greek hymns and the labor anthem “Bread and Roses”, then went our separate ways.
As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.
As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses
Those ten years were hard. College was difficult, but came with rewards: strong bonds of affection with close friends and the looser formal identification with the sisterhood of Bryn Mawr. The ceremonial kinship of Mawrtyr alumnae was a professional networking tool and a signal of recognition when I met another alum abroad in the world, even one who had graduated decades before me.
Bryn Mawr reinforced sheer pigheadedness as a life skill. Law school, the beginnings of law practice, and multiple ill-considered, over-invested romantic failures did not bring with them the rewards of persistence. When I went to my tenth reunion, I was in the midst of what seemed a never-ending cycle of discouragement of one sort or another. I remember a sense of chaos about that reunion: people with young children appeared and disappeared, miserable, exhausted little people in tow. I had a pleasant walk with two people who I remembered fondly and didn’t see except for the odd note in the alumnae bulletin, but overall I attended in a fog. Sometimes a stiff upper lip just gives you a sore face.
That same autumn I met my husband. Within two years I married, lost my father, sold my house, moved across the country, changed jobs, bought and renovated a new house, and got pregnant. I didn’t go to my fifteenth college reunion because I had just returned to work from parental leave with my second child. However, I felt I had things to report for the alumnae bulletin at least. I tended to review the class notes carefully, and the self selecting sample of those reporting to the Alumnae bulletin was having babies, teaching, publishing, and otherwise achieving personal and professional success. I duly reported when I married, and when I made partner at my law firm (that latter happening between the births of my second and third children).
Approximately 16 years out of college, I joined Facebook. My world of Mawrtyrs gradually expanded. Threads began to form, connecting me to people whose names or faces emerged one, two at a time from the memory bank. The first tentative bonds: a figurative polite wave across the internet, might remain that way, or might become much more, as we exchanged little pieces of daily gossip about our children, commented on the progress of jobs, gardens, cooking experiments. I moved cautiously as I had twenty years before, commenting sparsely at first, not sending out friend requests that might seem presumptuous or needy. I’m always sure I desire connection to others more than they desire it with me. Events have proved me right often enough.
I like to remember people, so I had a small slice of memory for many of my classmates who I hadn’t known well: a perennial actor while I was a techie, someone who always ate in That Other Dining Room, someone whose florid romance occasioned comment. Gradually these wraiths grew flesh and color, emerging as adults in the same life stage as me, raising children, changing or developing their careers, picking apart the injustices of the economic downturn, or ranting about particularly poignant or grotesque bits of pop culture. It became easy, if I was traveling to a city for work, to grab dinner with someone I hadn’t seen in over a decade.
By the time of our 20th reunion, I had not only reestablished much closer, almost daily contact with many old friends, I was sharing a constant thread of gossip, musing, and cheering with people I might never have had a conversation with before. When we met at reunion, we had a foundation for speaking more, rather than awkwardly reestablishing a connection with a barely-remembered former 21 year old. I still had my tight pack of friends, but I tentatively branched out, and found I could be comfortable with more people. I left with the feeling of having my battery charged, plugged in for a few days to a current that I could find no where else, recognized and accepted for a short while for who I was. I needed that feeling badly, as my career was in the middle of breaking apart. I left my law partnership six months later.
I hid out and licked my wounds for a while, weeded my garden with my three year old, roasted tomatoes over an open fire in my yard, and the like. The peculiar distorting kaleidoscope of Facebook suggested others were in similar circumstances, struggling with being women trained for intellectual rigor, professional leadership, and uncompromising opinions in a world where being intelligent, vocal, and aggressive is not always rewarded, particularly if one is a woman. I found comfort in the net of mawrtyrs, strung out loosely across the internet. One day, as a group of us were having a frank on-line conversation about menstrual garments, someone said, “I can’t believe we’re all talking about this. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a conversation, except maybe at Bryn Mawr.” Someone else brought up menstrual traditions in other societies, which gave women a physical and social place to hang out with other bleeding women and I said something to the effect of, that’s what Facebook is—we can’t be together, so we have a red tent in our pockets.
In the lead up to our 25th reunion, we all seemed eager to see each other. Not just so we could each of us have an excuse to be with our particular groups of friends from our undergraduate days, but so we could be together all with one another. Somehow we had a collective that had not existed a quarter century before, in our separate, sharp, spiny pods of young adulthood. The oldest bonds did re-form, but in my case I felt free to spend my time with people I had known less well, because I had two opportunities for mini-reunions with my closest friends in the intervening years.
I spent my 25th reunion embracing (figuratively and literally) women who I had no memory of embracing before. There is bright particular joy to seeing someone and knowing they see you back. I’m not sure I have ever been that glad to see so many people at the same time, who were also that pleased to see me. I felt I was filling up with light, starting at my feet, surging all the way to the top of my head and overflowing.
Within the swirling flock of our class were a few student staff, Mawrtyrs who graduated weeks before, or current students, assigned to help us find or fetch things. Looking at them, each born years after we walked across the stage and took our diplomas in hand, they seemed startlingly new, like ducklings. I remember the feeling of being done at Bryn Mawr: bruised but honed to a hard point. These students looked like the soft, crumpled leaves of an unfurling bean vine. But I know that they are sharp too, ready to slice and scorch their way in the world. I hope they do so, and when they are worn thin and stretched by careers, families, caring for and losing elderly parents, surviving cancer or alcoholism, they will come back and shelter with their own flocks, before going back out again.
For years now, I’ve had a quote pinned to one of my bulletin boards, referring to Bryn Mawr classmates as sisters of the heart. (Class of ’56 probably wasn’t thinking of trans men, but my class has at least two brothers as well). What I have found is that the “small band” gets bigger. As we pass on from the demands that college placed on us, of holding ourselves together and becoming who we were to become, we find each other and discover we can cheer and chide one another in ways born of our shared experience. Modern society scatters people in all directions, and (fortunately for many of us) we are no longer bound to the places of our physical or intellectual birth and maturing. Our lives are not sweated, “from birth ‘til life closes” in an actual tent with our sisters, aunts, and cousins. But I am so grateful I can share “small art and love and beauty” with those with whom I shared toil