categories: Cocktail Hour
It’s been a season of reunions… First my family in New Hampshire, the yearly bash, bunches of cousins for Elysia and most of my siblings and their partners (Carol and Mac, sadly, left behind in Washington State—this no economy for traveling, though they’ve sent their kids), also a giant whoopee pie, not to mention the neighbors on the lake, and their kids and grandkids and platters of gingerbread, bowls of whipped cream, also brownies and ice cream cones, chocolate-chip cookies, fruit in a pinch—I don’t know—and Kale strudel courtesy my genius niece Isabella. The Fourth of July was over and done but we got out the fireworks (my brother Doug and sister Janet both live in Georgia—picture those roadside rocket stands). Great explosions and reports and smiley faces in the sky, also an errant trajectory: fiery pinball in the oak branches. More controlled fire in the portable firepit, cards in the gazebo, Clue and Risk and Pictionary all around the house, guitar playing, piano, ballet moves, facebook cousins on opposite couches communicating via satellite. Also slideshows from the archives—real slideshows on a screen—all these photos of my siblings and me and our impossibly young parents in various parts of the country, old boyfriends, old girlfriends, cousins as tots, lots of laughs, the kids unaccountably glued to it all. Oldest brother Randy turns up and we hike to Half-Mile Pond in the evening, hike to the top of Mount Cardigan in the morning. We swim, we fish, we sail, we jog, we eat and eat and eat. We get caught up: Madeline’s going to Germany for Ultimate Frisbee, Rosie’s on her college rock-climbing team, Olivia’s designing clothes and dancing ballet, Isabella loves to cook. Allen and Johnny and Flo, well, they’re young boys. They pound one another. They dive off the raft holding huge stones. They cry when no one’s looking.
Elysia revels at almost ten years old in the teenage energy all around her, announces she’ll water-ski this year. As a parent you say “Wonderful!” and also, “Doesn’t matter if you don’t,” neither wanting to discourage her or set her up for disappointment—but, oh, there’s nothing like sitting in that boat with sister-in-law Jennifer in the captain’s chair and hearing E.E. shout “HIT IT!” Of course she falls, and gamely shivers and tries again, and tries ten more times, kind of pulls herself up out of the water on the eleventh. “That’s enough for today,” she says contentedly.
Next try, next day, a different cousin holds her in the water and advises—and after a few tries, the kid gets up on her wobbly knees and keels along bent at the waist for two-hundred yards or more, those not-so-skinny arms, success!
By the end of the trip she’s spinning around the whole lake, and standing up straight, throwing the rope near the dock and gliding in, all smiles.
Me? No. I don’t water-ski anymore. They’d have to circle around picking up all the pieces after a fall. Not to get all E.B. White here, but looking around you have to realize that we’re the grownups now, that we’re in the mortality vanguard. Life has come pretty fast, all right.
Reunion two has come about because of this website, and because of “I Used to Play in Bands.” Tom Ferris has seen the videos and invited me to a yearly reunion of old high-school pals. Chris Bremser will be one of them, the keyboard player from The Credibility Gap, c. 1968. The host is Mike Kenworthy, whom I haven’t seen since maybe his Prom party in 1971, Linda in her black dress, me in my purple paisley tux, black sneakers. It’s just four days after the New Hampshire trip, and I can’t believe I’m driving back on Route 2 through the White Mountains and down to Vermont.
Mike’s family has long owned this place, a 200-acre farm nestled in green hills, not so scruffy as Maine, handsome old homestead laced together with stone walls, plenty of venerable trees, outbuildings sagging, various automotive projects, sweet old house with a black walnut tree out front and shagbark hickories up on the hill, both species at the top of their range, strange to a Mainer.
Jim Fox is there, and after somewhat awkward greetings we recall a couple of things clearly: the first time I heard the Band’s “Music from Big Pink” was in his attic bedroom with his brother Pete. The conversation warms. The first time he heard Buffalo Springfield was in my attic room with my brother Randy. Our mothers were friends, too. But maybe that was later. His is still alive. The rest of us have steadily lost parents, and we talk about that, two notes playing concurrently: irreverent, sad. Mike’s got two Russian guests, business associates of his, and they join us in uncertain translation of conversation and cocktails. Chris Bremser speaks Russian passably and fills them in as we go along. Boris speaks English some and same, tries to fill us in. At some point in the deep of the night we realize that he was born in 1953–same year as the rest of us–he hid under his desk in first grade for atomic-bomb drill just like we did!
Tom and I set up our tents up by the fire-pit on the hill. He was a grade behind the rest of us, I start to recall. Suddenly, I remember several nefarious afternoons with him at his house—he was a kid in trouble a lot. He recalls my sister Carol (who couldn’t make the Roorbach reunion, though her two daughters did). Kind of a tomboy, is what he remembers. Very funny, he recalls. He and I dispensed Freon into balloons and inhaled it, listened to our heads boom and Jimmy Hendrix. I mean back then. Back then, we did a lot of stuff. Tom got sent away. I haven’t seen him since.
Around the fire Mike reveals his middle-aged conservative leanings. Tom and he battle over every detail of everything, anything, the merest hint of politics instantly explosive, hilariously at times, but also emotionally. I try to stay out of it, but can’t, not quite, I mean, global warming, come on! We drink rum, we drink whisky, we drink beer. There are things we all can agree on. The new older faces around me slowly occlude my memories of the young faces, become the young faces. These old friends, they’re going to be new friends. Wives, divorces, girlfriends, bachelorhood, we run the gamut. We’re computer geeks, carpenters, writers, bankers, salesmen, inventors. We’ve graduated from the best colleges. We’re no different for all of that. We drink. We remember stuff piece-by-piece, year-by-year. Whatever happened to so-and-so? She was your fucking girlfriend? You? Teachers, coaches, bars, bands, deaths, life. Boris and Constantine grin—they don’t understand much, but they don’t have to.
In the morning Tom and I take a walk and I realize that the kid I knew least well back then is the man I most enjoy now. We talk in the present. We take in the terrific hemlock glades, the hardwood hills, walk the old road lined with rock walls and wolf trees, all the former pastures. We stop to make sculptures with sticks. We tell stories, more stories. We share certain disasters. We share certain joys. I hear about his wife. Her name is Fabiola, and she’s from Peru. He’s got pictures of her in his i-phone. They live in Brooklyn, which means when I get to New York next I’ll see them, see him. He’s very funny. He’s very smart. That’s what I remember, and some things don’t change.
Friday, after another late night of arguments and laughter and the fire and the odd poignant moment and a dinner of hot borscht made by the Russians (served again and then again for lunch), I’m all packed up and in my car and cruising toward the Adirondacks, reunion three.
In Keene Valley (back up to parallel 45) I take the familiar left turn and then another and I’m at Pinecrest, the old Merle-Smith family cabin. Well, something more than a cabin, much more, more like a log mansion, an elegant compound built on a rock promontory and frozen in time, moose heads and mounted trout, groaning bookshelves and billiards and a well-stocked bar hiding in a closet, bedrooms and kitchens and pantries, hallways and studies, huge fireplaces, glorious. Van Sandvoordt (born Merle-Smith) is the first to greet me—my actor loft-mate in New York City back in the late seventies, early eighties, now a noted set-designer. His younger brother Bart is next, big hugs. Bart was my friend and band-mate in Ithaca, which is how I met Van. They’re setting up a stage and band equipment—this is to be a musical reunion. It’s Bart and Susan’s 30th anniversary. She’s as youthful as ever, offers smiles, makes fun of Bart in the old style: loving and rueful at once, very funny, warm and intelligent. She’s a tall drink of water. He’s more like me: a keg. We all lived together in Ithaca, big farmhouse, the Daily Planet Band, rent 18 bucks apiece, TV melted by the woodstove. Boy, if those weren’t the days, mid-seventies. Last time I was at this place? Pinecrest? Well, their third daughter, Julia, was two years old.
“So that was twenty-two years ago,” Bart says.
No fucking way.
“Here she is,” Bart says, and I do recognize her. She’s playing in a punk band in Minneapolis where her boyfriend is from. She’s here for the party. She’s got a certain amount of metal in her face and lots of intricate tattoos and a warm, skeptical smile, pretends to remember me, or maybe really does. She’s very tall. She’s very beautiful, too, just as beautiful as ever. I can see the two-year-old in there. The rest I’ll just have to guess.
Jon Zeeman turns up—good old Jon, roommate in both Meat-ho and Soho, and then lots of other places, from Martha’s Vineyard to Munchsgata in Norway, band-mate all those places, too. Bart calls him the glue of our crowd—he’s the one who keeps us all in touch. “Dudes,” he says, not entirely ironic.
And more old friends and old acquaintances, and then more yet. Brian Hess (from New York City)! Brian and his son, Ryan! Who is 18! Who plays the piano! And whom I’ve never met. And Van’s wife Sandra (these are all weddings I’ve been too…) and their daughter, Sonia, who’s 19. And whom I’ve never met. Pretty soon Susan’s college roommates arrive from Massachusetts, Hannah and Leigh, Leigh and Hannah, and they look just the same as ever. We’re all laughing about who dated whom and what road trip spawned what romantic disasters. I’m both now and then. How did time do that? Shut down like that? Or did it just fold so that those days touch these?
We’ll go down to the river for a swim, we’ll take walks in the Adirondack woods, we’ll swim in the pool, we’ll talk and talk and talk, we’ll sit in front of a fire and remember shit no one’s thought of in thirty years! Jon has to leave early—he’s got a gig in New Hampshire—he’s sad about that, we’re all sad.
Bart and Susan know how to throw a party, all right, and there’s a great dinner for 24 or so the first night, 100 the second. Afterwards, Bart’s current band plays, and before I know it, I’m onstage, wailing away on the organ, looking up to see Bart’s face, he playing his guitar and hunching his shoulders as he’s always done, and singing beautifully and gazing into my eyes as the music heats up. He’s been practicing all right. He’s sounding good! And Brian’s over there on bass, unbelievable, Brian Hess, the real thing, putting a bottom on things, and Dave Elliott on drums (he came roaring up in the afternoon on his Harley, lots of chrome). But wasn’t that a different band? What difference—we’re rocking out, more or less, playing many of the same chords at the same time, slowly pulling some kind of sound together. We miss Jon, all right. We’re all graying, but we’re all the same. We’re all the same but the cumulative weight gain probably strains the stage. Correction: Brian is not graying. Brian is not one ounce bigger than ever.
Anyway. Bart’s band mates join us and we’re all laughing and playing as best we can with no rehearsal for thirty years and then getting a notch hotter and then two notches tighter (many notches to go, but that’s for another night) and people are dancing and Bart’s daughter is singing backup and Leigh is singing, too, and long lost faces are laughing in disbelief that these oldish men can have such fun and it’s like no time has passed at all, like nothing’s changed at all.