We were twenty-one years old when we left our Valley home in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Emerging from the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we scattered like thistledown blown by autumn winds. Armed with our degrees, we traveled across America to places we’d never been. We crossed oceans and visited countries we’d studied in history and geography classes. We got jobs, we married, we had babies. Some of us lost babies and many of us lost husbands. Most of us lost our parents.
St. Joseph’s College Class of 1964 began with 120 students, the largest ever. By the time we’d finished that phase of our education, we were down to 108. When we came together for a “mini-reunion” last month, just twenty of us attended, though twenty was a fluid number. At times we swelled to twenty-five. Some came for just a day. Some for dinner only. Some had promised to come, but had to cancel.
We gathered at the Country Inn and Suites at Gettysburg, ten miles north of what had once been the campus. It is now the National Fire Academy.
The Breakfast Room just opposite the front desk became our meeting place that first night. We checked into our rooms and joined those already there. We hugged and added tables and chairs, and the years since we had last seen each other melted away. We were college students again. We were free. We could call home if we wanted, but we might choose not to. We could drink as much wine as we wanted. No one was keeping track. We were each in charge of our own destiny. It felt wonderful.
We waited for stragglers, most notably, Anne Fron Panko, who could not resist the lure of a casino. She stopped to play the slots. She lost money and won it back. Four hours later she was up $40. She quit and headed for Gettysburg.
Margaret Weld wore a headband, Marion a barrette. Or was it the other way around? Forty-six years later, we still can’t tell them apart.
For dinner we ordered pizza, half price, thanks to the girl at the front desk. If we ordered from Papa John’s, she could get a discount, which she was happy to pass on to us. We asked them to cut it in squares.
“Oh, you want it Chicago style? Sure thing.” (Actually, Chicago-style is a deep dish pizza cut in wedges. But he knew what we wanted and he was happy to oblige). All agreed that “party squares” are easier to eat. Some of us think they taste better. Regardless, the pizza was delicious.
Claire Maurer gave us the official version of why the Sisters of Charity closed the school. In the light of declining vocations, their mission – to educate generations of new “Daughters” in the nursing and teaching professions, was no longer feasible. Society did not value the religious life in the way it once had. Despite the size of our class, enrollment at the college was steadily declining. The Sisters were faced with the prospect of having to go co-ed in order to remain a viable, competitive institution. That meant boys on campus. The “Daughters” could not abide that.
The night wore on and the Breakfast Room became Party Central. Pizza and wine – at one point someone counted 13 bottles on our makeshift bar – but I’m a little fuzzy here. Was it that night, or the next, when the motorcycle guys asked to join us? I can’t remember. Clearly, the Breakfast Room was the place to be. We partied until late into the night. One by one, we dropped out and drifted back to our rooms.
The next day began with a visit, arranged by our wonderful leaders Kathie Kennedy Incaprera and Mary Rocks, to the National Fire Academy. The guards at the entrance gave us badges which identified us as St. Joseph’s College Alumnae. We drove down the “A” to find a campus that is little changed. Conspicuous religious symbols have been removed, but others remain. The library was closed, but the chapel was open. It was much the same: pews, stained glass windows, the “catwalk” behind and beside the altar where the sisters attended Mass and prayed. We lingered there in the chapel, noting the changes, remembering.
It seemed fitting to see footage of 9/11 memorial services on the flat screen TVs mounted to the left and right of the main altar, and to know the services held there are in a very real sense as religious as any we attended.
Mary Rocks contacted a cousin of Meg Fuller, and we listened on speaker phone as Catherine talked about our beloved Meg. Mary Gillespie, Meg’s roommate, told us about lying in bed at night, listening to Meg’s stories. We talked of Sister Margaret Ann Berry, Meg’s aunt, who left the convent so she could study in Japan. Returning to Greensboro, she cared for her brother Thomas until he died. She lives there still.
It was a disappointment that we couldn’t go down to the cabin by Tom’s creek, but everyone we met was friendly, especially the young man who took pictures of us on the quad between Rosary and Seton Hall. With cameras hanging from both arms, he snapped picture after picture of the group.
In the afternoon we split up, some visiting the Civil War Panorama, some the Eisenhower home and farm museum.
We attended Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church that evening. It was a surprise when the priest acknowledged us and invited us back. Who was the woman in the front row cradling the crucifix as if it were a baby, rocking it, kissing it? When it was time for Communion she was out of her pew and on her knees, first in line to receive the host. There was not an eyebrow raised among the congregation. Small communities are like that. They are tolerant of those who are different.
We had dinner that night at the Carriage House in Emmitsburg. When we realized the room was not been set up the way we’d requested, we asked them to re-arrange the tables into a U shape. We needed to be at one table, not three. When would we ever get the chance to share a meal like this again?
Paying for the wine was a challenge. Who had wine? Who paid already? How many people did you pay for? Who owes money to whom? In the end, it all worked out. There are math geniuses among us.
Back in the Breakfast Room at our hotel, someone produced our Senior yearbook. We went through it page by page, wondering about some, filling each other in with what bits of information we had. Of those who came to the Valley in 1960, some are gone forever. Some are lost to us in other ways. Some are fighting illnesses. Yet many have found new loves, new interests, exciting new challenges.
If the motorcycle guys had joined us, we might have sent them scurrying. It was a night for remembering.
Can I quote Malinda Lester Cleary? In a recent email she wrote, “This getting older stuff is not fun and sometimes it really hurts, but on the other hand it is glorious to be here now.”
Glorious. I like that.