It was the question I was asked the most, as one-by-one the graduates of the 1976 Class of St. Brendan H.S. came up to say hello to me as we arrived at Matteo’s on Howard Beach for our 40th Reunion.
I’d spent the day traveling back in time with Kathy Chmilarski. We met up the day before, shortly after I arrived at JFK and spent the afternoon laughing our asses off as we waited for traffic to clear on the Belt Parkway before heading to dinner at Lenny’s Clam Bar.
The 40 years that had passed disappeared in an instant, and I knew we were in store for a magical weekend.
The next morning, we took off on a pre-reunion adventure that was to become the icebreaker that would set the tone for the rest of the day and evening.
With cooler filled with enough water and electrolyte drinks to hydrate the Giants and Jets for an entire season, we drove into Brooklyn.
After stops at Brooklyn College, my old house, my fried Deb Marano’s old house, Roll and Roaster, my grandmother’s old house, and the best bagel I’ve had in 40 years, we found ourselves at the corner of Avenue O and East 13th Street … the place responsible for bringing us together for the weekend … The former St. Brendan’s Diocesan High School.
I thought the stop would be brief. A selfie or two and we’d be on our way. After all, it was just a building.
Destiny, however, had other plans.
I rounded the corner onto East 13th Street and found Kathy standing a few feet away. The fence between the school and the sidewalk was the only thing keeping her from the wide open side door to the school.
“It’s open,” she said.
“Let’s go inside,” I responded, sensing her hesitation.
“What will we say if they catch us?” she replied. Clearly the nuns had installed a fear of being caught that 40 years could not erase.
“We’ll tell them we graduated from here 40 years ago and tonight we’re attending our reunion,” I said. Truth is stranger than fiction and always seems to do the trick.
As my feet crossed the threshold from the sidewalk into the school, I was transformed.
I was no longer a 58-year-old woman with a sudden urge to pee, but a 14-year-old freshman — fearful, excited, overwhelmed and thinking I was about to crap in my pants.
To my left I could see Dotty Pat — Sister Dorothy Patricia — in full nun attire sitting at a small table with an open notebook ready to issue a late pass to those who dared show up after the morning bell.
I walked into the first floor and there it was … an elevator … the elevator I had completely forgotten about when I wrote the reunion preview article the week before.
Everything seemed so small.
How in the world did we all fit in here during the change of classes, going to our lockers to exchange our books before the sprint to the fourth floor for our next class?
With iPhone in hand, I went live on Facebook to record that climb from the first to the fourth floor, stopping briefly along the way to record a classroom or two, while dodging the pre-school kids who now call the school home.
Back down to the second floor, I found myself at the backstage entrance to the auditorium/lunchroom.
I stepped onto the stage and in the rows of empty chairs that filled the room, I could see family and friends waiting for our next Sing performance to begin.
I walked down the wooden steps from the stage to the auditorium floor — the same wooden steps that had been there last time I was here — and to my right I could see Maria behind the piano, Jessie on guitar, Carol on drums, and someone who looks a little like the girl who greets me in front of the mirror each morning tuning up her guitar for 76 Trombones … the song that highlighted our Senior Sing on our nation’s 200th Birthday.
To my other side was the corner where the kitchen once stood. Nothing had changed in 40 years. So much so that I was tempted to walk up and order a pretzel with mustard, a cup of the hottest clam chowder ever made, and a tuna sandwich like none I’ve ever tasted since.
Next up was a quick stop to the Senior Stairs … the stairs at the front of the building, that only Seniors were allowed to use.
I never made it to the gym because the door would have locked behind me, and the thought of being trapped in “the dungeon,” even for a few minutes, gave me the creeps. In our Senior year the walls had been painted orange and it was creepy even back then. The ghosts of blue gym uniforms past were certainly there to hold me hostage should I get trapped behind the locked door.
Our final stop was to the church. I could still feel my joy on Ring Night as Father Cowan placed the ribbon with the ring around my neck.
When we left, the 12 o’clock bells tolled. Even the angels were celebrating with us.
As Kathy’s car pulled away from the curb, I felt a peace I hadn’t felt in years — a sense that everything was going to be OK, because no matter how challenging life gets, the peace and happiness of St. Brendan’s will always be just a thought away.
Another quick stop brought us to Marine Park, where I’d trained for all three NYC Marathons that I took part in when running, eating and sleeping seemed like a good way to spend my life.
“Why are you taking a picture of the parking lot?” Kathy asked.
“That’s not a parking lot,” I replied. “That’s make out alley.”
Then we were off to pick up the former Jackie Gallagher — the now Jacquie Taylor — before heading back to Queens to get ready for the big event of the night.
We arrived at Matteo’s at 6:15, 45 minutes before the scheduled start time. I did a quick checkin on Facebook — “What in the world is a checkin?” my 17-year-old self would have asked in 1976 — and within seconds got a response from Tracy Berran — the former Tracy O’Hara.
“Where are you?” she asked.
The night had officially begun.
The details of the evening are too many to outline in this brief look back. But we all took something from that 4-hour bridge to the past that will guide us into the future.
Although 40 years had passed, that night, the women in front of me transformed into the girls I remember so well.
Talk of what we’d done with our lives was kept to a minimum. It’s like no one cared what we did for a living. We only cared about the life we had lived.
Words were unnecessary.
A glimpse across the room brought us to a familiar face and carried us into an embrace with a friend from long ago.
We rushed through each course of our meal so we could stand up and continue conversations we’d started 40 years ago. Bottles of wine evaporated before our eyes. Yearbooks and photos were scattered about the tables.
We danced to the music that shaped us.
We sang songs whose words we will never forget. We fondly recalled St. Brendan’s High, where we will always have a friend … where the greatest love the world has known first came into our hearts.
And just like that … the night was over.
As I said so long to each of the girls, they slowly turned back into women … women who will always embody the spirit of the girls we once were.
And as I wrote down my favorite memory of St. Brendan’s in the notebook on the table near the exit before leaving the reunion, I was flooded with so many memories that only one thing came to mind:
The lyrics of the songs we sang rocked me to sleep that night and when the American Airlines 757 took flight from JFK the next morning, I knew that no matter where life took me, St. Brendan’s would always be home and the women I left behind would always be my family.
Our reunion was so much more than a reunion … it was graduation day all over again. Only this time we were blessed enough to know who we had become, and wise enough to realize that the future is a blank canvas and we are the artists who decide the colors we will use to create the masterpiece of our lives.
My friends, I will carry the memories of Oct. 1, 2016 in my heart until we meet again.
Thank you for your kinds words, your inspiration, your laughter and most of all … thank you for letting the real you come through that night … the you that so often gets hidden behind the grownup masks the world forces us to wear.
I really do love you all.
And remember … St. Brendan will always be our guide.
See you soon.