By Sally Friedman | I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when I began reading The Pennsylvania Gazette.
It was definitely not during those first few years out of Penn, when I was an idealistic English teacher considerably distracted by the demands of eighth graders to whom I preached the gospel that grammar was relevant and poetry was good for the soul. A losing battle.
If I read the magazine at all, I admit to my shame that it was with an emphasis on the notices of who had married whom, a subject of consuming interest to my generation. We revered Revlon and stability—translation: marriage and babies.
Nor was I doing all that much reading when I was feeding, burping, and diapering three little hostages to fortune—all girls—who came in nearly perfect two-year intervals. I may even have lost touch with the Gazette as my husband and I moved from one home to another, seeking more bedrooms and bigger family rooms as we accumulated not just grown-up sofas and dining-room chairs, but also what is now called a “lifestyle.”
I’m sure I forgot to send a forwarding address several times in those chaotic years. But somehow the Gazette always found me.
Somewhere toward my late 30s, when there were no more diapers and no more moves, I began paying more attention to it. When the magazine arrived, I would scurry off to read it, no longer needing to hide it from sticky, chocolatey little fingers that seemed to get into everything. Reading the Gazette alone in the house while the kids were in school became something of a coveted ritual. Once or twice, it even led me to reconnect with a classmate whose name cropped up—not always an easy process in the prehistoric days of no Internet, but always worth the effort.
In those years, I turned to the features first, devouring ideas and essays that served as links to the intellectual life I had once known in College Hall and Bennett Hall. It seemed like another universe as I carpooled our daughters to swimming lessons and ballet and art classes just 18 miles from Penn’s campus.
Occasionally, my husband and I would drive over the bridge from New Jersey to see a play at Annenberg, back when the distinguished Philadelphia Drama Guild performed there. It was always lovely to be back on campus, but also somewhat surreal. I felt grotesquely out of place in my proper skirts and pumps, driving to West Philadelphia in our station wagon with faux wood siding.
It was during the later middle years of my life that I began reading the Gazette in a different way. I’d save the features for last, and pore over the class notes that I’d only skimmed lightly before my 20th reunion. But midlife was all about accomplishment—or its lack. So I read voraciously, and not just about what members of the Class of 1960 were up to. I also read of the doings of classes that were our bookends, fascinated by the differences between the Classes of 1958 and 1968. So many social movements had cascaded through our country and our lives in those 10 years.
It was a curious and interesting time to study the class notes. Suddenly, my contemporaries were emerging as solid citizens, and—could it be?—prominent leaders of industry, the professions, and the arts.
The crew-cut kid I’d had a crush on from Dr. Arthur Scouten’s British literature class was a banker. A banker? All I could remember was his scruffy beard and his penchant for falling asleep in class, sometimes with a lit cigarette in his hand. Yes, we actually smoked in class back then. And so did the professors. But it seemed that somebody always took care of that cigarette before there was a catastrophe on the second floor of College Hall.
Some of the girls I’d known—identified as women only after the feminist movement of the late 60s that we earlier coeds had missed —were also making their presence felt in the world.
There were a few Peace Corps workers. How that delighted me! There were lawyers reporting to the Gazette of their various milestones and honors. There were social workers, and psychologists, and the occasional non-traditional graduate of the College for Women who had plunged into the murky waters of some arcane science.
I remembered a pretty girl with a halo of blond curls who had seemed so shy in Dr. Matthew Black’s Shakespeare class, and was shocked to read of her brave world travels as an anthropologist. I could put a face, if a 19-year-old one, on another who had made her mark not as the educator she was trained to be in School of Education classes at Eisenlohr Hall, but as a director in the mad, mad world of theater.
In the close-in suburbs of southern New Jersey, meanwhile, I was testing my still-fragile wings as a freelance writer, but had nothing of note to report. Still, I would hungrily read about Penn’s classes of the late 1950s and 1960s, and marvel. So much success. So much bravery.
By our class’ 35th reunion, something was subtly shifting in my Gazette reading habits. Now I was fully immersed in my writing career, reading more critically, and even occasionally contributing to the Gazette. One story in particular, about experiencing Penn through the eyes of our undergraduate daughter Amy, Class of 1986, still resonates [“What Would Mother Say? This.” December 1984]. I’d literally moved into Amy’s junior-year single in the Lower Quad for several days, followed her schedule, slept less than four hours a night, and collapsed into a heap when I got home.
The assignment had allowed me to reunite with the late Dr. Digby Baltzell, who was teaching Amy sociology decades after I’d sat in his class. It was moving and marvelous to have that remarkable lens on my daughter’s Penn experience—and mine. Vastly different, you can be sure.
As I fast-forward through the years, I again can’t pinpoint the precise moment when another seismic shift took place in my Gazette reading habits.
Now, the mailman was delivering the magazine to our current home, a condominium with a sensible floor plan and a first-floor master bedroom. It had replaced the wonderful, quirky old house where three daughters had been married under the beech tree—our “real house,” and the one we still sorely miss.
Now there is more urgency in my reading of a different section.
While I still devour the letters to the editor, the features, the columns, the book reviews and class notes, I confess that I turn first to the section on losses. Yes, obituaries.
I find the Class of 1960.
In good months, I read the names of strangers, many of whom have led magnificent lives. In more difficult ones, I may gasp to see the name of someone I knew, remembered decades later as a still-fresh-faced Penn undergraduate.
It’s surreal, it’s disquieting, and it’s also a reckoning with this stage of life. I go to more funerals now than weddings. I hear more conversations about the randomness of fate, the caprices of failing bodies, and so often, about good people who were once young and carefree at a place called Penn, and who are gone.
It doesn’t mean that I close the magazine feeling depressed or bereft. I’m exhilarated at the prospect of my 50th reunion next year. But turning first to the obituaries section does mean that I’m at the stage of life when memories collide with hard realities, and when time itself is somehow “out of joint, O cursed spite,” as Shakespeare lamented in Hamlet.
And there’s no way to set that right.
Sally Friedman Ed’60 lives in Moorestown, NJ.