Six weeks ago the reunion committee for the Lincoln High School Class of 1965 decided that, given the corona threat, this year’s event will be next year. Our class of 53 graduates promised to meet every five years on or near Memorial Day weekend. Until now, we’ve had ten reunions without interruption.
Over the decades, 11 of our class have died. On average, about half the class roll has come to reunions, many with spouses. Former teachers are invited. Mostly now we visit. Tables of memorabilia – photos, newspaper clippings, old yearbooks and class diaries – refresh our rough perceptions and reinforce the venerable continuities of time. We nourish a common legacy, sharing forgotten tragedies and triumphs, the sorrows and joys of earlier years on a small piece of the plains. We are scattered about now. As we’ve grown older, the pull of familiar landmarks grows stronger, the memories and legends, the mischief and echoes of old laughter become our inheritors in the human comedy, reaching for our past.
Here is Katie Bishop from distant mists of the 1950s, head cook and guardian of the Lincoln Grade School cafeteria. The cafeteria in the new building was put underground, where it was to double as an atomic bomb shelter. At mealtime we marched past the fallout shelter notice and down the stairs into the rich aroma of a busy kitchen. The lunch room, as we called it, was Katie’s domain.
She was round and grandmotherly, with a ready spoon, a warm smile and a face that adored everyone around her. Katie had help, but everyone knew who had made the bread and biscuits, the cakes and pies, the meats and gravy, the mashed potatoes. For all we knew, the fish sticks (Fridays only) came by Katie’s kind hands; the great sausages and steaming sauerkraut, the salmon and spinach, the carrots, apples, and peaches and even the Jell-O, were Katie’s. We knew that.
Above all, Katie Bishop’s macaroni and cheese set the gold standard; no other macaroni and cheese compared. Often a Friday staple, it came piping from the ovens in big pans with a dark crust, the steam spilling up as Katie cut into it. The macaroni was firm, the sauce thick and cheesy, with a slight hint of butter. On days when she made a lot, we could ask for seconds.
Katie Bishop’s kind, bright eyes and ready laughter were as enriching as the meals that came from her love. When we finished, we placed our dishes in the proper window and thanked her for the meal.
“You’re welcome, honey” Katie sang back – to each of us, every day. We meant it, and so did she.
After 6th grade we went to the south end of town to the junior-high and high school, a wide three-story building with long, locker-lined hallways. Lunch was again below ground, and again, there were few real complaints.
Things took some getting used to. The heavy, military-issue chow trays. The size of the place. The strange women in the kitchen. We missed Katie, but Doris Hunt and Rose Wollesen, among others, soon showed us that the food here was good, and that they were eager to please: Hamburgers on fresh-baked buns. Stews, meat loaf, beef and noodles; baked, broiled or mashed potatoes. Casseroles and chipped beef; biscuits and gravy. And pizza, new then, homemade and deep-dish in long pans. The macaroni and cheese wasn’t Katie’s and we said so – but never to the cooks.
At school there were no vending machines for drinks or snacks. Only water fountains. At lunch we had milk by the pint or water by the glass. We looked forward to lunch at school. There were no other options.
William Faulkner once wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This came from his novel, Requiem for a Nun, but he applied it in many of his stories. We are shaped by recollection, and can’t really ignore the past. Time is not successional, it has no expiration date; our memories, however frayed at the edges, stay with us.
A class reunion, even in postponement, brings together the complexities of heritage, a way to have the past live on for awhile, examine it, turn it over. We resurrect the scent of Katie Bishop’s lunchroom, the looming menace of its earmark as a fallout shelter. Older now, we discover lost voices, the feel of time, the shades of darkness and light which encompass our common humanity.