My 40th reunion at Smith

Last week, I attended my fortieth reunion at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. For those who may not be familiar, Smith is a women’s liberal arts college, chartered in 1871, one of the traditional Seven Sisters, five of whom remain as women’s colleges.

I came into town a day early in order to meet up with an alumna friend who lives in Northampton and graduated a year before me. Her sister was a member of my class and passed away in fall 2020. I was honored to be able to commemorate her at the Service of Remembrance during our reunion. My ’81 friend and I enjoyed hours of conversation on her front porch, followed by dinner on the porch at Mulino’s, an Italian restaurant that did not exist back in my student days.

I stayed at the historic Hotel Northampton, which has fun features like a mail slot near the elevators on each floor that connects to a large brass mailbox on the main floor for pick-up by the postal service every morning. I also got to do a bit of shopping at Thorne’s Marketplace, a collection of local shops and restaurants housed in a grand historic building. Thorne’s was a fairly new undertaking back in my undergrad days and I’m glad to see that it continues to thrive. I bought some cards and gifts and books and made two trips to Herrell’s ice cream shop. I got a sampler each time, so I got to enjoy eight – count ’em, eight! – of their delicious homemade flavors. This will surprise no one that knows me. I also got to have lunch at Fitzwilly’s, a restaurant/bar that was also relatively new during my student days. I had mac ‘n cheese that featured fresh asparagus from a farm in nearby Hadley. I love asparagus, which is one of the glories of spring in New England; it reminds me of going with my parents to harvest a patch near my father’s hydro station, a remnant of a garden from an old company-owned house that had been torn down.

On Thursday afternoon, I went up to campus for the duration of reunion. Because of the pandemic, everyone had to have proof of vaccination and boosting to register and many of the meals and events were held outdoors. Indoor events were masked, except while eating and drinking. I immediately met up with some of my ’82 friends and the celebration began!

One of the things about Smith reunions – and Smith alums in general – is that we somehow manage to have meaningful conversations with each other at the drop of a hat. Perhaps because of our shared liberal arts background, we are engaged with a broad range of topics across current affairs, public policy, arts and culture, and on and on. Of course, the deepest conversations happen with our close friends but there is a lot of sharing of ideas with acquaintances, too. In retrospect, I wish I had prepared a succinct answer to the question “What do you do?” Lacking a shorthand reply, like “I’m a lawyer, working for this government agency” or “I teach at such-and-such school”, I found myself stumbling to explain forty years of my life in any brief, comprehensible way.

Unlike the vast majority of my classmates, I’ve done little paid work in my life. I’ve devoted many years to being a caregiver of both elder and younger generations, with more than our share of medical issues. I’ve volunteered in church music and liturgical ministry and facilitated a spiritual book study group. During my daughters’ years in public school I served on curriculum committees and shared decision making teams and helped design the honors program at the high school. I joined NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, in 2000 to advocate for social justice. I was part of the anti-fracking movement in New York which finally achieved an administrative and later legislative ban in our state; this led to ongoing involvement in the fight for climate and environmental justice. There is my writing life, as a blogger and poet.

This does not condense into an easy answer to “What do you do?” but it does constitute the bulk of my adult life, which would not have been as rich and varied were it not for my Smith education. The ideal of a liberal arts education is that you “learn how to learn.” By studying across the spectrum of academic disciplines, one absorbs different approaches to real-life issues, enabling critically sound and creative solutions that promote well-being for ourselves and others and for our environment.

Maybe I should have replied, “Just forty years of being liberal-artsy.”

The other thing that I hadn’t quite prepared myself for was the flood of family memories. Because it was only an hour-ish drive to campus, my parents visited often for concerts and events. They were there for my recitals in Helen Hills Hills Chapel and John M. Greene Hall. They visited at Haven House where I lived all four of my years on campus. There were there, of course, at B and my wedding, a few weeks after commencement with the reception at the Alumnae House. This reunion was the first time since their deaths that I was back on campus and missing them added another layer to the strange mix of familiarity and difference that the passage of forty years brings. For example, I thought about my parents when we were attending the remembrance service, sitting in rows of chairs where the pews had once stood. The pews were removed years ago to allow for more flexible use of the space but their absence felt strangely current when I remembered B and my parents there in the front pews on either side for our wedding.

I also found myself missing my mother in particular among the spring flowers. We were blessed with unusually warm weather for mid-May and the flowers and trees were blooming simultaneously and profusely in response. The scent of the lilacs between the President’s House and the Quad, where we were staying, was so overwhelming I nearly choked. There were lily-of-the valley in bloom, which are Nana’s birth flower. What would have been her 90th birthday was the day after reunion and the third anniversary of her death is a few days from now.

I’m grateful to have been among friends who could support me with this grief aspect. Many of us have lost our parents now, with some still in the phase of dealing with their final years and indeterminate endpoint. As classmates, we were also dealing with the deaths of more of our ’82ers, adding to the list that, sadly, began during our senior year when we lost one classmate in a plane accident and a second to cancer. That’s why I and some friends always make a point to attend the service of remembrance during reunion. We want to honor our departed ones and their importance in our lives, even if they left us long ago. After the service, we visited the memorial tree planted beside the chapel in honor of our classmate Beth. We took a photo which we will send to her mother, who I know finds comfort that we remember her all these decades after her death.

While the central activity in reunion is visiting friends, there are plenty of other things to keep us busy. Some are long-standing traditions, such as Ivy Day when the alums, wearing white, parade between rows of the graduating seniors, also wearing white and carrying red roses, welcoming them into the community of alumnae. The night before commencement, the central campus is illuminated with Japanese lanterns. People stroll among them with live music in several locations.

There are also a number of lectures, receptions, and concerts. The President gave an update on the state of the college. Everyone is very excited that grants are replacing loans in financial aid packages at Smith, making an education possible without graduating in debt. Smith also highlights its accessibility for students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. That was my situation forty years ago but it was not recognized in the way it is today. I also attended two lectures of interest. One was how the Botanic Gardens are being re-imagined in keeping with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and best practices for preserving species in the face of climate change, all with an eye toward education and social/environmental justice. The other was about the transition of campus to ground-source heating and cooling, which will be a major contributor to Smith being carbon-neutral by 2030 without making extensive use of purchased off-sets. I was particularly interested in this because of the projects we have done at our home to reduce our carbon footprint and because my church is in the process of drawing up a strategic plan to reduce or eliminate our use of fossil fuels.

Besides college activities, we had a few opportunities just for our class. I alluded to one in this post – an open mic event to read something from our college years. I chose a passage from my adult psychology course journal about my experience coming from a tiny town to Smith. A few of us had brought something with us but we had time to do additional sharing which was fun. Our class theme for Reunion was “Writing Our Next Chapter” and I appreciated that our futures also came into that discussion.

We were also honored to have a preview screening of Where I Became, a documentary about South African students who came to Smith during apartheid. Our classmate Jane Dawson Shang is co-producer and shared some of her experiences making the film. When it becomes publicly available, I will surely share that information here at Top of JC’s Mind so everyone can see the remarkable story of these women.

Reunions at Smith are always exhilarating but exhausting. I had originally planned to attend commencement on Sunday morning but opted for quiet conversation with friends. Walking 17-20,ooo steps a day for three days straight in hot. humid weather proved to be a bit much for my feet and ankles, which swelled rather impressively.

It also meant that my reunion experience ended with what is always most important, sharing with friends in a place that was instrumental to our lives. I hope to see some of them and return to campus before our next reunion.

Five years seems too long to wait.

back in Northampton

In my second year at Smith College, a new voice teacher arrived on campus. Her name was Karen and my dear roommate Mary became one of her first students. Through Mary and her friendship with Karen that continued over the decades since we graduated, I felt a personal connection with Karen and had had a chance to reconnect with her a few times over the years when I was back in Northampton.

On March 23rd, a retirement recital was being held in her honor. Mary, who now lives in Colorado, had been planning for months to attend and marshaled me and two of our classmates, both sopranos who studied in the department with other teachers, to join her for the concert weekend.

The recital was given by one of Karen’s more recent students, Victoria Fraser ’10. It was a lovely mix of compositions, including a rarely-heard Buxtehude psalm setting. I was especially touched by “i carry your heart”, a setting of the e.e. cummings poem by Smith professor John Duke (1899-1984).  I have sung a choral arrangement of the piece and loved hearing Victoria’s sensitive interpretation of Duke’s original art song setting. It also reminded me of a board book of the poem, illustrated by Matti Rose McDonough, which daughter E bought for granddaughter ABC, which brings me to tears every time I look at it.

The only thing that could have improved the concert would have been the opportunity to hear Karen sing. I have many fond memories of hearing her expressive soprano voice when I was a student. She went on to sing in many recitals and concerts over the years, including singing premieres of works by Smith faculty composers Donald Wheelock and Ronald Perera, who was the Elsie Irwin Sweeney professor at Smith, an honor which Karen now holds.

The post-recital reception was fun! Many of Karen’s colleagues, most now emeriti, gave little speeches about her and told stories about her with warmth and humor. It was nice to see some of the faculty members with whom I had studied. At the same time, it was sobering to realize how much smaller the music department is now, both in number of faculty and number of students involved. It reinforced the discussions we alumnae had had three weeks earlier when we had gathered to sing Brahms Requiem to bolster the current Smith choral ensembles.

The next day, our class of ’82 quartet spent most of the afternoon visiting with Karen in her office. It was enlightening to hear about how things have changed over the years on campus and within the department. We told Karen what has been going on in our lives and listened to her plans for her retirement. We are happy to know that she will be staying in the area, so that when we return to campus we will still be able to connect with her, now without the time constraints of teaching, committees, and all the other obligations that come with being a professor.

The rest of the time, we four talked and ate and talked and shopped and talked and ate ice cream from Herrell’s. I admit that I also snuck in a solo run to Herrell’s, so I enjoyed not one, but two, samplers on Saturday!

After Palm Sunday services on Sunday morning and the scrumptious brunch buffet at Wiggins Tavern, I had to say good-bye to head for home. I am hoping there will be more mini-reunions in the future. We realized that we can arrange a weekend together even without a special event, so I hope that we will get together again later in the year when Mary comes east to visit her family in New England.

organist update

I posted here about a disconcerting incident at the church in Northampton when the organist fell ill at the console during mass on the first weekend in March.

As luck would have it, I was again in Northampton three weeks later for Palm Sunday. There was a gentleman filling in at the piano and organ, so I knew that the regular organist, a woman named Jeanne, was not there.

After mass, I asked two parishioners who were handing out church bulletins for an update. They told me that Jeanne had been ill with bronchitis and on medications, but arrived at church to play anyway – without eating breakfast, as she planned to receive communion. The combination was too much, resulting in the collapse which we witnessed.

The doctors ordered rest for four weeks before returning to work, so I hope that Jeanne was back in the loft for Easter Sunday, leading the congregation from the organ, and feeling well again.

(I am continuing in to be in catch-up mode on posts. With luck, there will be a post about why I was in Northampton again coming soon. Also, the navigation and layout problems with my blog are persisting, with a month’s worth of posts not loading on the main Posts page. The posts are accessible by using the prior or next post links at the bottom of each individual post.)

on the way out of town

This is the final post about my long weekend in Northampton, Massachusetts to sing Brahms at Smith College.

I was up early for breakfast with CK as my plan was to attend 8:00 mass on my way home. As in many other places, the Northampton-area Catholic churches have consolidated, so I was not very familiar with the church building itself.

As a former organist and church musician, I always pay particular attention to preludes and all the music. The organ was in a loft, so I couldn’t see the musicians. I noticed that there were mistakes in the prelude, but that isn’t uncommon, especially at early masses at Catholic churches, which sometimes fall to student organists or people who are trained as pianists rather than organists.

The cantor/songleader was also in the loft and announced the opening hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” – a very familiar hymn that is usually one of the first an organist learns. The introduction started as one expects but became increasingly atonal, ending in a cluster chord that was held for much longer than expected.

The voice of the cantor came over the microphone, asking for a doctor to come to the loft. A woman in the section of pews in front of me jumped over the back of a pew to reach the aisle more quickly and rushed to aid the organist.

The chord on the manuals stopped, although a bass note from the pedals remained. We could hear the parishioners who had gone to the loft asking questions, trying to get a response.

I’m sure I was not the only person in the congregation who immediately began praying.

After a couple of minutes, the priest came to the front of the church and led a “Hail Mary” for the organist. He told us an ambulance was on the way and that we would begin mass shortly. He said that she would be okay, although I am not sure how he could have known.

The organist’s name is Jeanne.

At some point, the long-held pedal note stopped, a bell rang from the front of the church, and we began mass.

You could hear the ambulance squad arrive and enter the loft. Jeanne must have still been on the organ bench because there was a pedal glissando as they lifted her off.

Between readings, an usher came to the front of the church and spoke to the priest, who excused himself and went back to her before she left for the hospital.

We continued the mass with no music. It turned out that it was the last weekend for the relatively-young-as-Catholic-priests-go pastoral associate who was being re-assigned to Pittsfield.

We did sing a verse of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” as he processed out to greet his parishioners for the last time.

It’s been two weeks now since that day. I read the bulletins and the church’s website for some mention of Jeanne, but there was none. I hope that the priest was correct – that she really was okay.

 

back in Northampton

I shared previously that I would be singing Brahms’ Requiem at Smith this weekend. The plans were all in place – and then the weather forecast took a drastic turn for my planned Friday car trip to get to Northampton. Fortunately, I was able to re-arrange my schedule to travel a day earlier to avoid a long drive in the storm.

This also meant that I had some unexpected free time in Northampton, a welcome bonus. I went to Thorne’s Market when I arrived, buying local maple syrup at Cornucopia and locally made soap at Cedar Chest. I indulged in a chair massage to loosen up my back and shoulders in preparation for a lot of standing, score-holding, and singing over these next two days.

I also visited Herrell’s Ice Cream, which opened around the time I began at Smith, and enjoyed a sampler, because getting a bit of four flavors is so much more fun than a larger serving of just one! They still make malted vanilla, which was always a favorite of mine, so, of course, that made it into my dish.

Next, I walked around campus. My first stop was Helen Hills Hills chapel, where, as an organist, choral singer, and accompanist, I spent many hours in my student days. Sadly, there are no longer regularly scheduled services held there and it still looks strange to me to see chairs instead of the pews. As I climbed the stairs to the gallery, I noticed that the red carpet that had begun to bleach near the stairwell window is now almost entirely golden on those few stairs from the years of sunlight streaming on them.

I sat on the organ bench briefly, touched each of the three manuals, and looked over the once-familiar stop knobs. It’s been so long since I have been able to play that I sometimes have to remind myself that I ever could. I wonder how many organ students there are now; I think, perhaps, there are three, judging from the organ shoes on the rack in the corner of the gallery.

I noticed a few cracks in the panes of glass in the gallery windows and some dust in the corners, which makes me sad.

I went down to the basement to visit the Bodman Lounge, which has not changed very much. I had memories of being there dressing for my wedding, which took place a few weeks after my commencement. I called my mom, who was awake and alert. My sister had arrived safely and will be there for the weekend while I am gone.

Next, I went to Wright Hall to visit the Poetry Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. There is a case with poetry books written by alumnae. I made a point to find the books by Anne Harding Woodworth, whom I met through the Alumnae Chorus. She will be returning to campus to sing Brahms and I’m looking forward to seeing her.

Central campus is sort of a pit right now – literally. The main library is being mostly demolished and the foundation being constructed for the new building. There is a large area cut off by construction fencing with some lookout posts carved out to view the progress.

Some of the bulbs on the hillside between Chapin House and Wright Hall are already starting to come up.

There are some fantastic large rocks on display near the science center. I want there to be signs near them as there are with the trees and plantings, telling what they are and where they came from.

I wandered around in Sage Hall, which is the music building. There have been extensive renovations since I was there, including in the concert hall. I found the office of a professor who taught me music history by the Berlioz postings near his door. I actually got to see one of the soon-to-retire members of the voice faculty who started teaching at Smith the first year I was a student. My roommate studied with her and they still keep in touch.

I walked up the hill by Paradise Pond and through the relatively newly opened President’s garden on the way back to my car.

A friend from Smith who lives in the area graciously offered to house me for the weekend – and even more graciously offered to accommodate my arrival a day early. She made a lovely risotto for supper and we had some time to chat and catch up.

The storm blew in here overnight, mostly rain, but with a bit of snow mixed in, and very windy. I hope everyone will be able to get here in time for our first rehearsal at 4:00.

I’m very grateful to be tucked in here at my friend’s home, cozy and warm, rather than trying to drive in the snow and wind to the west.

Next on the agenda, some time seated at her piano, spot checking a few places in the Requiem before rehearsal…

 

%d bloggers like this: