The end of reunion and the “after-party”

On Sunday morning, I went to breakfast early and was able to say good-bye to some of my classmates who were heading out before the official end of reunion to beat the Sunday afternoon traffic. Everyone was very appreciative of the events and very happy to have had time together. It is amazing how easily we relate to one another, even if we only see each other in person every five years, or even if we had not known each other well during our student days.

Helen Hills Hills Chapel Smith College Northampton MA

At nine o’clock, several dozen alumnae gathered at Helen Hills Hills chapel for a service of remembrance. I arrived early and had a few moments to talk to the college organist about changes over the years. His role and the life at chapel are very different than in my years at Smith. When I was a student, there were Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chaplains and weekly services at chapel for each tradition, along with a network of faculty and community advisors for other traditions. There were three choirs who periodically provided choral music for services, plus a student led gospel choir which sang for some of the ecumenical Christian services and other student volunteers who most often led music at Catholic Mass. (As a Catholic and an organist, I played often at Mass over my four years at Smith, as well as serving for two years as accompanist for one of the choirs and playing almost every organ piece I learned as a prelude or postlude for the Protestant services.)

Now, there are no chaplains and no regularly scheduled religious services on campus. There are advisors available in different spiritual traditions. The chapel still has space for prayer and meditation, but the main body of the chapel is now a multi-use space for concerts, lectures, classes, and the occasional service, such as the one we were gathering for that morning. The chapel was built in the New England Congregational style, but the pews on the main floor have been removed and the floor was changed to wood. It is jarring to me to walk into chapel. I do understand the need to make the space more versatile, but I think it could have been done in a way that was more in keeping with the architecture had the floor been New England hardwood and the chairs less clunky and modern in design. Even more, I lament the loss of service and leadership opportunities in their faith traditions for current students on campus. It was powerful to have services that were planned and attended almost exclusively by women; this basis has been a rock on which I have relied often in the storms that have followed in subsequent decades.

Sorry. End of rant. Back to our service of remembrance…

The prelude and postlude were Bach and we sang three hymns drawn from various traditions and a fellow ’82er sang a solo. There were readings from the Bible, the Qur’an, and from Rumi. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Matilda Rose Cantwell prepared and led the service very gently and thoughtfully. The most moving part of the service was when Rev. Cantwell invited alumnae to come forward and give a remembrance of someone close to them. People from many different reunion classes spoke about classmates, professors, and family members. Two of my classmates who were from Northampton spoke movingly about their parents’ relationship with the town and the College. My college roommate, who served as one of the deacons of the Ecumencial Christian Church, spoke about two of her fellow deacons who died, Beth, during our senior year, and Amy, who died just weeks before reunion.

After the service, we visited Beth’s memorial tree beside the chapel.

Then, we continued on to our final official reunion activity, Sunday brunch. Our table did express our disappointment that our favorite sour cream coffee cake was not on the buffet.

We went back to our rooms to pack up and make sure that our headquarters was squared away before we left.

Several of us decided to stay in Northampton another night in order to process and decompress, particularly to support our two housemates who had chaired the reunion for our class. We decided to visit the Art Museum, which had a special exhibit on the villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. We then dispersed for hotel check-in and reconvened at Fitzwilly’s in downtown Northampton for dinner, joined by a housemate from the class of ’81 who lives locally. We then went back to one of the hotel rooms and proceeded to talk and talk and talk, with quite a bit of laughter mixed in!

We spent Monday morning doing what we needed to do, in my case, catching up on a bit of shopping, including buying some Massachusetts maple syrup to bring home for us and for Nana and Paco. We met for a final lunch together at Paul and Elizabeth’s, a restaurant at Thorne’s Market that was new when we were students. More eating, talking, and laughing and then a round of good-byes.

Before I left Northampton, I had one more visit to make. Another business that opened in Northampton when we were students is Steve Herrell’s Ice Cream. I always visit when I am in town. They have redecorated since my last visit, giving more area for seating. I splurged and ordered a sampler so I could have four flavors: black raspberry, malted vanilla, peppermint, and apple cider. Yum! I was happy to have the company of my in-town friend. We lingered for a long while, catching up on our lives and marveling at how Smith friends, even when they don’t see each other often, can immediately re-connect on a deep level.

Eventually, though, I had to head for home, although I could not help but feel that reunions are too short and too far apart.



Visiting chapel and Beth’s tree

Mary, Tricia, and I with Beth's tree next to Helen Hills Hills Chapel, Smith College
Mary, Tricia, and I with Beth’s tree next to Helen Hills Hills Chapel, Smith College

After the Alice Parker concert at Sage Hall, Mary, Tricia and I proceeded up the hill near Paradise Pond to Helen Hills Hills Chapel.

Our first priority was to visit the winter-flowering cherry tree planted beside the chapel that is dedicated to the memory of Beth McBeath, another class of ’82 Glee Club member, who died as the result of an airplane fire during October break of our senior year.  Her funeral was held at the chapel and Glee Club sang Bach’s setting of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” through our tears during the service.  Later, I attended the planting of the memorial tree, although the tree in the photo is not the original tree but a replacement for the one we planted that day, a weeping cherry that was unrecoverably damaged in an ice storm years later.

Beth was a light-filled, infectiously joyous person. She served the Ecumenical Christian Church (ECC) at Smith as a deacon and liturgist.  She participated in the Smith choral program in all her years there, serving as an officer as well as lending her alto voice to our choirs.  In the best tradition of the liberal arts, she studied with both breadth and depth, including taking a course in the art department on bookmaking.  She was always friendly and interested in other people.  Like me, as we entered our senior year, she was engaged to be married.

Her loss, along with another classmate who died from lung cancer later in our senior year, taught us not to take time for granted.  Her memorial tree is something that I try to visit every time I get back to campus. I make donations to the Smith Fund in her memory, which puts me in touch with her mom, who still survives.  Mary sent the photo, which we took with her phone, to Beth’s mom.  I hope it made her smile.

After visiting the tree, we went into the chapel.  None of us had seen it since the pews were removed, although we had seen a photo in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.  Despite that, it still was a bit of a shock to walk through the front doors of the chapel, which was modeled after a traditional New England Congregational style church, and not see the rows of white-painted wooden pews with the red center aisle carpet down which I had walked as a June bride a few weeks after our commencement.  Instead, there were heavy, boxy wooden chairs, arranged in circles over a wood floor.  Given that there are no longer regular worship services in the chapel, a fact that still makes me sad, I do understand the impetus to remove the pews to make the space more versatile for concerts and other events, but I wish that the wood floor had been a traditional New England hardwood and the chairs had been more elegant and in keeping the architecture.

Still it was better than the last time I had visited chapel in May 2012, when I wrote this poem that touches on both the chapel and Beth’s tree. chapel at reunion  (Sorry for the pdf embedding, but I didn’t have time to fiddle with the editing settings to get the indents and spacing to work correctly.)

After walking through the main body of the chapel, we went upstairs to the gallery and visited the organ, which was a memorial gift in honor of Helen Hills Hills’ husband James. I spent so many hours on that bench, practicing, having lessons, accompanying for Choir Alpha, playing for Mass, prepping for my junior recital with Mary and Natalie, preparing for and playing preludes or postludes for ECC services, and additional hours standing beside the bench turning pages for other organists.  It’s moments like this when it feels odd that I haven’t played for years…

We also walked to the basement where the offices are. Almost every room has a different occupant or purpose than when we were there.  I thought about the series of Marc Chagall prints that used to hang in the hallway.  I think the art museum took custody of them so that they are in a better protected environment, but it used to be so cool to have original artworks in an everyday space. The Bodman Lounge is still there, with shelves of spiritual and religious books and couches and comfy chairs.  Mary had given me a bridal shower there and it was the room in which I dressed for my wedding.

I felt reluctant to leave. Even with all the changes, the richness of the memories will always draw me back.

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