General Non-Fiction posted July 16, 2019

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One man's gift for memories

Preserving Connections

by Rachelle Allen

There are few perfect moments of life, which is exactly what makes them memorable and enchanting. A particular favorite of mine occurred at my husband’s thirty-fifth high school reunion.

He’s from an especially small town in Upstate New York. "How small?" you ask, hoping for a fabulous punch line. And the answer does sound absurd enough to be a joke, but I promise it’s the truth: The town is so small that it measures exactly one square mile in total area.

"But isn’t that stifling?" you gasp. No, I discovered the night of the Reunion --comforting.

Established in the late 1890's, it was a "planned community" for the men who built railroad lines for the Merchants Despatch Corporation. After completing their assignment this time, though, the workers and their families decided to stay put rather than continue on "down the line" to their company’s next proposed building site.

In 1906, these founding families voted to change the name of their town from "Despatch" to "East Rochester" as a way to identify more with the city of Rochester and less with their former employer.

As you can imagine with a place so compact, it was, from the beginning, quite a tightly woven community. Many of the residents, in fact, were related to each other. And what charms and fascinates me the most about this town where I’ve now taken up residence myself is that to this day, over a century later, it’s still quite a tightly woven community. Many of the residents are related to each other, and a good percentage are even descendants of the town’s founders.

There is no need for buses. The school stands right in the center of everything, so no student lives more than a half-mile away, in any direction, from the hallowed halls of learning.

And this brings us back to my husband’s thirty-fifth high school Reunion --and the catalyst for one of the best perfect moments of my life.

The get-together was held in the gorgeous lodge in one of the town’s two impeccably groomed parks. Slated as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies was the Mr. Pizzazz and Charisma class clown guy who, in an effort to resemble his old yearbook pictures, had undergone gastric bypass surgery earlier in the year. Yet, as unimaginable as this seems, he wrote the date of the Reunion down wrong on his calendar! According to him, August 10th was his date with destiny, whereas the rest of us knew the festivities were scheduled for August 3rd.

When he didn’t show, however, no one called him to ask where he was because in such a close-knit community it was common knowledge that his father’s health was dire. His absence gave rise to our assuming the worst, and, out of kindness and respect for him, we made it a point not to intrude on the family’s perceived grief. Who could have imagined that our gregarious emcee was actually parked in front of his bathroom mirror the whole night, practicing for his mid-life comic debut?

Still, it left the Reunion attendees without entertainment...or so it seemed. The event coordinator, a clever, quick-thinking man of action, was not easily deterred. He sought out a beloved teacher who’d been invited to the party and asked if he’d be willing to regale us with some stories.

And that’s when the magic began.

Not only had this teacher taught History himself, he’d also been married for fifty-plus years to the Town Historian. He stood up with the understated-yet-commanding presence of a veteran educator --calm, silver-haired, at ease in front of a crowd-- and gave a slow, omniscient glance all around the room, his clear blue eyes taking in every single person. One at a time, he pointed to each graduate, addressing him or her by name --first and last, maiden and married-- and shared several vignettes. They were things like, "I believe you lived on the north end of Despatch Drive, next to Joe Smith’s family. Your mom’s name was Jones before she married your dad, wasn’t it? And you’ve got three brothers, and your sister got married here in town --what? twenty?-- years ago to the Johnson boy and now they live on Railroad Street. Do you still play baseball (dance/race cars?)"

As I mentioned, he did this with all the graduates in that room. And by about his fourth or fifth recitation, a silent electricity surged through us all, and lit us up like a string of twinkle lights on a breathtaking Christmas tree. We were ensconced in the beauty and sanctity of the gift this teacher was bestowing, the gift that said, "You were special here. I paid attention to your life. You mattered to me, and you were an important part of this town."

I was so glad I’d thought to grab extra napkins when I went through the buffet line because before our Merlin of Memories completed his spell on the last alumnus in the room, I had used every last one to either blot away my own tears or else share with people on either side of me or across the table for the same purpose.

That night, this teacher and lifelong resident of the town gave an unequaled gift to the Class of ‘71 and their spouses. I replay the moments of it in my mind every time I need a lift of my spirits or an infusion of warmth into my heart. To this day, its memory --and the accompanying allegory-- still cover me in goose bumps because I understand that everyone who witnessed this treasure will be able to share it with our town’s future classes.

It was a chance for me to see, firsthand, how collecting simple memories of my neighbors (even funny ones like a Reunion emcee who’s a week late to the party) will, like the railroad that formed this town’s foundation, connect our lives in this one square mile not just "down the line," but forever.

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