I was feeling a little blue, having been fired for the first time in my life at age 59. My husband teased me. “Congratulations. Welcome to adulthood.” One of my interior design clients let me go, saying our tastes weren’t a good fit. To be more precise, our personalities weren’t a good fit. I had lost sleep over the project for months as I willfully attempted to shapeshift into a form the client wanted me to be. As good as it was for my health to move on, my ego was bruised.
So, I took some time to slow down, consulting friends and mentors about what there was to learn from the experience, then slumped into a mild melancholy that was occasionally lifted by serendipitous words of encouragement. I couldn’t have imagined that the most potent antidote to my gloom would be a stack of old photos that arrived in the mail.
I saw the name and return address and couldn’t believe that I was hearing from my old friend “Blake,” who lived in the dorm room next to mine at Iowa State in 1971. I hadn’t been in touch with Blake for the better part of 20 years, and hadn’t seen her for 30 when she last visited me in Charleston, South Carolina. She moved to San Diego to teach kindergarten and I moved on with my life—married, relocated to Minneapolis, raised a family, started a business.
I opened the envelope and pulled out the photos that had been taken on one of Blake’s trips to Charleston. Seeing them took the air out of the room. There I was, tan, young (may I repeat…young!), wearing a black cotton summer sundress and sandals, a chic black leather bag with fringed flap thrown over my shoulder (now wishing I still had this bag!) sitting on a bench on Church Street below my 19th-century apartment. But most poignantly, I saw myself in the photos. Even some 30 years later, I saw Alecia, seen in a photo despite the passage of time, and it strengthened me.
I gingerly showed the photos to my husband, who hadn’t known all of my friends from this earlier time. I described who Blake was to me, how I’d made her wedding dress, how funny she was, how she drove with me to Charleston when I moved there, first living on the beach on Sullivan’s Island, and how life felt in that magical place at that magical time, when Charleston was still a sleepy, beautifully shabby town. He listened attentively, holding one particular photo in his hand, my hair bobbed with bangs. I am standing at the entrance to St. Philips Church near a blooming azalea bush. “I think I loved you then, too,” he whispered.
Already feeling buoyed by the visual blast to the past, I got an e-mail from Blake within a day explaining why she had mailed the photos. In the fall of 1971, a group of young women, all from different parts of Iowa, came together in Oak Hall as first-year students at Iowa State University. Though some of us moved on after the first year, others continued to live together through college years and have remained close. When Blake realized we were all turning 60, she thought it reason for a reunion. What better way to pull at our heartstrings than to send out photos of the past?
It worked. After a lengthy phone conversation with Blake, giggling like the college girls we once were, a date was set for the reunion. We would meet in front of Oak Hall before heading to the home of one of our friends. One of the group began working on a playlist of songs from 1971—Michael Jackson, Carole King, James Taylor. I dug through old photos for clues about what we were wearing at the time. Now that the ‘70s are the new “vintage,” it should be easy to find a pair of bell-bottoms and cork-soled wedgies for the event, I mused.
However, convening five people with busy lives turned out to be more of a challenge than first thought. For Blake and me, the reunion morphed into the two of us arranging to meet one morning at a halfway point for both of us. She arrived wearing a sunflower yellow dress with matching sandals and an orange faux lizard bag. When I saw her, this outfit seemed so happily the kindergarten teacher she has been for the past 30 years. We sat eye-to-eye for four hours, just swapping stories of love, family and work nonstop.
My enchantment with life and my work returned, as would be expected. But the most potent medicine was the memory of times past, spoon-fed to me one photo at a time. It allowed me to tell my story. In this age of Facebook and Instagram, where everyone has an image to share but where we remain for barely a moment, actually holding a physical photo in-hand and lingering with it, remembering the scents and scenes of a place, how it felt to be there, with that person, at that time, and then to talk about it and tell a story, seems a mythic act.
Social commentator Bruce Feiler wrote a piece for The New York Times called “The Stories That Bind Us” citing the work of Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, who discovered that the more we know about our histories, the more resilient we become. When we can see ourselves in the past, when we tell our own story or hear the stories of a parent or grandparent, we are linked to something greater than the silly little problem that exists in the moment. I could see it there in the photos and hear it in the stories Blake and I shared. I was bigger than being fired.
When I think of the tides of change that we both have known, there is still a slender, silken thread that I can trace back to who we were in those photos from long ago and how much more of that we are now.