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Family Reunion

I did hesitate, never attending Reunion before and wondering what to expect at my 35th, but the class dinner’s open seats beckoned. Selecting one, I chatted with people on either side, sampling my soup as the slide show began. Music pressed the hum of conversation from the room while images of our graduation and vintage campus headlines moved us back in time. Something flashed by me on the screen. I wasn’t sure what I had seen, but paid closer attention. There. On the next slide: Two figures. One faced front, her suit skirt taut over a wide lap, upturned chin under a bell of gleaming light hair; the second in feathery curls, darker-than-midnight, heavily rimmed sunglasses over a bold-print dress. Each sported a large square purse, held firmly against an erect midriff, anchoring family dignity. Beaming at me out of the May ’73 commencement sunshine sat my two grandmothers. I hadn’t remembered their attendance at my graduation, yet with their presence so documented, the Grandmas had come to Reunion. Stunned at how easily I might have missed them by failing to attend the dinner or reaching for a roll, I whispered around my table, “I just saw my Grandmas up there.”

Widowed early in life, each lived alone, dwelling in Cord-Meyer’s apartment forest, north of Queens Boulevard, Jamaica Estates expatriates, but New Yorkers, from birth through the Depression and two World Wars. In fine weather, they would band together across the front seat of a wide-finned Buick and barrel out to Long Island’s north shore, joining us and staying for dinner. The afternoon passed in heated debate over memories of the city and society they had shared, while my mother kept her eye on the oven. Listening from my corner of the kitchen table, they seemed as eternal a pairing as the moon and the tides.

Though neither had been to college, their opinions were sought with an expectation of closure. One had studied drama and been a beauty of stage and silent screen. She could make a party of a thick Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake and, turning business-woman, managed her husband’s properties when he died. The other worked in her family’s jewelry concern before marriage and played piano accompaniment in the silent-movie theaters. She knew which colors and styles one should wear and how a nearly right garment might be altered. While shopping on Fifth Avenue one evening, she declined to leave the store despite the announced early closing. She remained for dinner in the employees’ cafeteria and spent the night of the 1965 East Coast black-out in the mattress department of B. Altman & Co.

The Grandmas ventured to my summer camps, upstate and in New Hampshire, and to my adult home in Minnesota. Barnard pleased them unseen, on familiar territory and well known. My mother, a distinguished student, graduated from Vassar in the ’40s. With passion for books, art, politics, and volunteer work, her strong sense of the Seven Sisters accompanied me through childhood, along with her fierce encouragement of me, her only daughter.

The reunion events swirled on. But the marvel to me was my Grandmas. How good it was to see them again, to think of them, alive and seated in that very courtyard. The thought carried awareness of converging currents: my mother’s zeal in staking out the front row; Barnard, taking and preserving pictures; the Reunion committee, unearthing gems I didn’t suspect the College had; time propelling me across the country and back to campus. Barnard’s archivist sped the pictures to me, identifying them and realizing their value. Identifying value is probably what reunions are about, such value as people discover understanding the past, enhancing their present. I had touched treasure so rare I could hardly speak of it above a whisper, returning from Reunion with the unexpected awe of an archaeologist whose emotion eclipses the bare facts of her find.

-by Linda Masters Barrows '73, illustration by Rachel Ann Lindsay