The Last Page

The Way We Were, The Way We Are

By Joan Zimmerman Shore '56

I don’t like very much to look back. Reminiscing, at best, brings on a slow simmering of sentiment and nostalgia; at worst, it stirs up a cauldron of sadness and regret.

So when I attend a college reunion, as I did last year, I’m prepared for the worst. Those lithe, lively girls in Bermudas and white bucks are now likely to be prim and paunchy matrons, gray-haired grandmothers, or bespectacled retirees. Many are widowed or divorced; a few, tragically, are ill — or deceased.

But truth be told, those women who come to reunion are game. If they don’t show up alone or with a husband, they may arrive with a significant other. Did we ever dream, back in those days of curfews and courtship, that we would one day be co-habiting out of wedlock? Did we ever imagine that our daughters might be single moms, or that our sons might be gay rights activists?

The world turns, and so does our perspective. At graduation, we were looking outward — most often toward marriage and a family. It was practically de rigueur to be engaged by senior year, proudly flashing that little diamond on your left hand. Even while we were writing our senior theses, we were registering on bridal lists and choosing our silver patterns. Some of us knew we’d be moving on to another campus, if our fiancés were in graduate school, and we’d be getting our own honorary Ph.T.: Putting Hubby Through. It was a noble enterprise; it was our wifely role.

Some brave souls in our class did not immediately marry but embarked on further studies and a career. Were they the matrimonial rejects? Or were they brainier? Or were they rugged individuals ahead of their time? We tended to view them with curiosity and pity, and later with envy. While we were changing diapers, they were working in a laboratory. While we were carpooling, they were flying around the country. So we took some night courses and got active in community affairs; but the idea of juggling a career and a family seemed unfeasible. Even subversive. Then we got caught up in the women’s movement, and suddenly being a homemaker wasn’t enough: we had to use our education, which was sitting on the kitchen shelf like some unrisen yeast.

I call us the “crunch generation” because everything shattered and shifted as we were approaching midlife. We were raised in one particular paradigm, and then shoved into another. And suddenly our perspective turned inward: Who am I? What should I be doing? Betty Friedan was replacing Betty Crocker; Gloria Steinem was usurping Emily Post.

To their credit, many of my classmates found the answers. Some returned to their earlier passions: music or medicine or teaching. Others went into new fields: conservation or government or law. So whenever we meet at reunion, we have to catch up — not only on the children and grandchildren, but on our professional projects and personal pursuits.

It’s not always easy to see an old acquaintance in a new light, repositioned in a new frame. And being back together on campus, one automatically reverts to the old labeling: the class wit, the class nerd, the class vamp, the class iconoclast. It’s familiar and comforting, but it also drives me mad. “I’m different!” I want to scream. “And you’re different! We’ve changed!” But is anybody listening? Does anybody care?

So for one brief weekend, every five or ten years, I submit to the inevitable time warp. I am Joanie Zimmerman, the quiet girl from Manhattan, majoring in art history, dating boys from West Point and Princeton and Cornell. Smart enough, but not Phi Beta Kappa. Ending up one day… What?! A journalist in Europe? “Yes,” I answer with a smile. “And what are you doing these days?”

Shore has spent most of her post-Vassar life in Europe, working for CBS News and Voice of America and numerous newspapers and magazines. Currently she writes a monthly column for Boomer Times & Senior Life.