One of the more disconcerting parts of growing older, I’ve discovered, is watching the subtle change in who remembers your birthday. When I was growing up, my father would herald the occasion by marching into my room in the morning with a yellow rose he had picked from the garden. My mother would follow behind with balloons and presents. That was nice. More recently, though, the most regular celebrants have been my dentist’s office (Happy Birthday! Time for your annual cleaning!) and, sadly, my insurance agent (Happy Birthday! Time for—what? Another tick up the actuarial charts??) This year, my daughter inaugurated the day by throwing up in the kitchen sink and then, somewhat sheepishly, wishing me well. At least she remembered.
Meanwhile, my friend Kalypso, a professor at Oxford, sent something very sweet. “Happy Birthday,” she wrote. “You will always be 25 to me.” I found this touching on so many levels. First, that she had remembered the day. (True confession—I love my friends dearly, but almost never remember any of their birthdays.) Second, that she had taken the time to write. And third, that she so deftly noticed how, at some stage, we all stay frozen in time. I met Kalypso when we were both in graduate school, before we had our jobs, our babies, our homes. I knew her before either of us had met the men who would eventually be our husbands. And so, to some extent, we will both always be 25 to each other, caught in that magical moment of time when nothing has quite yet happened but everything is possible.
Vicariously, I felt these same clutches of nostalgia at Barnard’s wonderful Reunion, which unfolded on campus June 4–6. On the lawn and in classrooms, at classmates’ apartments and in cafés along Broadway, women were embracing each other and their pasts, grappling with the fact—so obvious and yet so mystifying—that they were no longer 18, or 25, or 32. Ruefully, some would point to portraits of their younger selves, noting the passage of time. Quietly, some were comparing who hadn’t apparently aged, and how. But what struck me the most—and hit me anew when I received my own friend’s note—was that everyone still identified so strongly with their 25-year-old selves; with the women they had been before their lives took shape. Part of this focus was surely a factor of Reunion itself; after all, we bring people back to precisely where they were at 22, and then surround them with all the vestiges of those years. And yet part of this identification, I suspect, has to do with the age at which women see themselves in their own minds’ eye, the age that sketches the eternal portraits in their heads, if not their mirrors.
Arguably, women are at the height of their physical attractiveness in their early 20s. Certainly (unlike men) they are at peak of their reproductive potential. But for women—and particularly for smart, educated, and ambitious Barnard women—this period of life also represents a time of nearly infinite choices. Whether or not to get married, whether or not to have children. Whether to pursue a profession, or indulge a dream, or move to another country. After one’s 20s, even in an era of enhanced mobility and advanced fertility, paths tend to become narrower and more concrete. We make choices and accumulate baggage and define who we become. That is why I think we all love to remember who we were before we decided; who we were when we could have been anyone.
At Barnard, I have been particularly struck by the strength of connections between current students and alumnae. Our students adore meeting our alumnae and hearing about their lives and life decisions; our alums revel in our students’ successes and in the vast array of opportunities they face. At some level, all Barnard women—regardless of their age—seem to recognize the magic that occurs during their time on campus and the extent to which the choices of their college years echo across the rest of their lives. That’s why Reunion is such a powerful event here, and why it connects Barnard alumnae not just to their classmates but to the entire community of smart and beautiful Barnard women—women who become even smarter and more beautiful with age.
So come back next year, and the year after, and the year after that. It’s far more fun, I promise, than a birthday.