Neither my friend nor I had been to a high school reunion in many years –in my case, decades–and we were both nervous. The years we had spent growing up together in upstate New York seemed far away, and we hadn’t kept in touch with many classmates. So we met early, at the bar in that tiny stoplight-less town, and fortified ourselves with gin while paging through our yearbook to remind ourselves of faces and names. At one point I said to him, It’s been decades. We don’t look the same, will anyone else?
Of course not. The banquet room was full of strangers. But as the night wore on, fragments of memory returned. In the curve of a middle-age woman’s smile I flashed back on the girl she used to be, laughing down the hall, her long dark hair parted in the middle. A man came smiling up to me —Alison!–and I remembered dancing at a bar with him and some other friends the week we graduated. Another classmate came up to my friend and told him, almost crying, how much she admired the man he had become.
So what was it like?, the painter asked me when we talked late that night. It was like saying goodbye to my former self, I said, like putting my childhood to bed. All of which reminds me of this poem, which I loved the minute I read it years ago. Sometimes it’s so hard to know you’re beautiful when you’re young.
– Maria Mazziotti Gillan
At my bridal shower, someone gave me
a pink see-through nightgown and pink satin
slippers with slender heels and feathers.
The gown had feathers on it, too.
I’ve always hated my legs and even then,
when I was still thin and in good shape,
I didn’t want to wear that nightgown
or slippers, didn’t want to parade
in front of you like some pinup.
But I wore them anyway, all those negligees
I got as shower presents, sleazy nylon
I didn’t know was tacky. When I wore
sporty nightgowns, I’d leap into bed
not wanting you to notice how
the nightgown revealed what I thought
my biggest flaw. In all the young years
of our marriage, I wore a different nightgown
every night, not that it stayed on for long,
and afterward I’d pull it back on, not wanting
our children to see me naked in our bed.
I felt so sophisticated in those nightgowns,
like the ones Doris Day wore in movies.
Only years later, when my daughter buys me
a nightgown made of soft and smooth blue silk,
do I realize that the first ones I owned
were imitations of this one
I hold now to my cheek, grateful
to have been once so young,
to have loved you in nylon and silk
and in my own incredible skin.
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