|Carol LaVesser Salinger and me -|
friends since age 8, and Rome roommates
Last week, when I joined a reunion of Loyola University’s Rome Center, I became part of a living human example of an abstract mathematical construct.
The first day of the gathering, I shared my puzzlement with a classmate: “I’m trying to figure out why I feel so comfortable here, even though I never met most of these people in Rome.”
She explained: “It’s like fractals. We’re a self-selecting set. It all started in 1970 when a bunch of kids were willing to study in Rome even though they didn’t know Italian.”
I had to look up the word “fractal.” Now it makes sense. Even though most reunion attendees didn’t know each other a half-century ago, we are part of a group that has gotten tighter and tighter. By our own choices and a bit of luck through the decades, we selected our own set.
In human terms, we created our own similarity that made us kin.
My dorm neighbor Julie Michuda and me, posing as statues in an alcove in the wall.
We had seen a lot of classical statues!
So, how our "set" came to be, and how it got smaller and smaller:
In 1970, drawing from 81 different U.S. universities, there were 338 of us students, mostly 19 or 20 years old, who chose the Rome Center. For most, it was our junior year in college. We studied for one or two semesters there, taking the humanities classes offered (it was challenging for business/science majors). Over the years we stayed accessible despite not always keeping in touch, with active phone numbers, email addresses, and/or social media accounts 51 years later. We responded positively to an invitation to an April 2022 class reunion in Chicago, home to the main campus of Loyola’s Rome Center. We remained alive and physically able to travel to Chicago. Then 51 of us alums (and 19 partners/spouses) traveled to Chicago for the gathering.
I felt a kinship there that cannot be explained by any mathematical theory, and others told me they experienced the same feeling. I can only describe what it felt like.
It began with travel. . . .
|Our Amtrak train pulling into Milwaukee's Mitchell Field|
station; sleek, nothing like days of yore.
I went by Amtrak from Milwaukee to Chicago with my husband, Mike. He already knew four of my Loyola compatriots: my childhood friend Carol, who was my roommate in Rome; our dorm neighbor Lynn Ferrone; and two other classmates - Mike Corso and Mike Matre (Michael was the most popular boy’s name of the 50s).
In the hour trip from Milwaukee to Chicago, the sounds and rhythms of the train took me back to those days in Europe when our lives depended on the railroad. The sleek Amtrak train zoomed along smoothly and quietly, unlike the clunky boxes that carried us along in the olden days; only in my own mind could I hear the click-click, click-click, click-click from a half-century ago. I was lulled to sleep as always. The nap was sweet although I couldn’t snooze in the luxury I once knew. In the private little compartments on European trains, I’d clamber up into the hammock-like luggage rack above one of the two bench seats that faced each other. There I’d rock, rock, rock to the click-click, click-click, click-click.
Somewhere along that short Amtrak route, memories started rolling . . . .
|My beloved, bedraggled map of Rome. This is how we got around...|
or in my case, how I got around after getting lost a lot.
Official Rome Center policy was: Go man go! Campus administrators encouraged us to get away from our English-speaking bubble and, go, go, go meet the people of Rome and beyond. To facilitate this education by travel, we had two three-day weekends every month plus three long holiday vacations. I remember sitting in the cafeteria having dinner one Thursday evening, turning to the friend next to me and asking “Wanna go to Freiburg this weekend?” The answer was “Sure, why not?” I tossed some clothes into my avocado green Naugahyde shoulder satchel, and we jumped on a bus that took us rocking down Monte Mario and to the train station.
Off we go! was the theme of that year. Everything was cheap. Loyola’s Rome Center was not unique in that respect. Thousands of American kids migrated abroad, and you’d bump into an acquaintance wandering the Louvre as naturally as if you were back in your home town. Study abroad programs like ours cost about the same as, or less than, college back home. Our bible was Europe on $5 a Day by Arthur Frommer. A night at an Italian pensione set us back less than $2.00, and we could enjoy a restaurant entrée for about a dollar. I don’t know what that train ticket from Rome to Freiburg, Germany cost, but it certainly wasn’t expensive. I have a ticket in my Rome scrapbook for a train ride from Rome to Venice – it cost 4,950 lire, or about $9.00.
|Menu from a favorite restaurant in Rome|
|Inside the menu. You can see how cheap everything was|
when you figure 1,000 lire equaled about $1.80.
To put money in perspective, when Mike and I got married in 1972, a $5 wedding gift was not uncommon. In his first job after graduation, Mike earned about $8,000 as an accountant, and I made the same as a teacher.
Even factoring in cost of living, our travels were indeed cheap, and far from fancy, sometimes . . . um . . . gritty. We were young, strong, and agile, and could handle, for instance, squatting over hole-in-the-floor toilet “facilities.” Sometimes trains were crowded, and we stood for a whole trip. But no matter how we got there, we had most sites to ourselves. I don’t recall long lines of tourists any places I visited, all of them wonders of my world.
That was our unique travel life. Back on campus, we learned from teachers we’re still talking about – with awe – today. The teachers cracked open our minds and the travel cracked open our hearts.
We knew we were lucky. Now we know that just by being there, we captured lightning in a bottle.
We walked the town through two days of sun and two days of rain. How appropriate; the first Italian sentence I ever learned was Piove spesso a Roma (It rains often in Rome). We saw spring burst in Chicago, trees in blossom all white and pink. Ninety miles south makes a difference – nary a tree was blooming in Milwaukee when we left.
My first impression, the same feeling I’ve had at all reunions past the two-decade mark, is “Who are all these old people?” No one’s age is a secret at a reunion of peers. We are all about 71 or 72 years old.
And no one cared. I didn’t hear the euphemism “senior” once, all four days . . . but I did hear folks call themselves old. We laughed at ourselves – a lot. Laughter is a celebration of lasting this long.
About a half-dozen of us had a sing-along after dinner at the home of classmate Cathy Bjork Marquis and her husband Oscar. A highlight of our gathering was singing "Old Man" by Neil Young and snickering every time we loudly sang "and I'm gettin' old."
And I'll never forget Jack Norton singing "Great Balls of Fire."
|Me singing with classmate Joe Williams as |
Bill "Johnny Cash Junior" Garcia looks on.
With big smiles, we asked, “Is it the white hair?”
“No, the name badges,” they said, straight-faced.
A committee of 17 alums worked for years on this reunion as well as one in Rome last fall (I wasn’t at that one).
|Part of our organizing committee. God bless 'em all. They herded cats!|
Thank goodness they designed name badges that included our yearbook photo on front and our personal reunion schedule on back. (Participants could fashion their own Chicago activities from a plethora of choices.) We grabbed each other’s name badges without hesitation . . . “Now who are you again?” . . . “Are you a classmate or guest?” There was no sly glancing down at badges and pretending you knew the person.
We are past pretending.
The daunting thing was that I could only recognize the few classmates I’ve kept in contact with. I counted only one man and one woman whose faces looked exactly like their yearbook pictures.
|Classmates the last night, at Osteria Via Stato|
I had four evenings of conversations with people who were nearly all new to me. Everyone agreed that 90 percent of us didn’t know each other back in Rome.
We talked about the old days and new days as well. We reminisced about teachers who shocked our minds open with their passion, especially Dr. Michael Fink. We mourned the fact that he died young. We discussed every topic from gut health and playing piano to marriage and divorce, gardening and retirement, drugs and alcohol, children thriving, children and spouses dying, beloved grandchildren and the great cities of Chicago and Milwaukee.
During the days, we gathered by foot and boat to experience some of Chicago’s “must-see” places. The food, marble, mosaics, stained glass and bridge statuary transported me right back to Europe.
|The ceiling of the Palmer House eating area. (We stopped in to snoop.)|
|Mosaic arch at the Chicago Cultural Center.|
|A stairway at the Palmer House|
|The peacock gate at the Palmer House |
|The Tiffany-designed dome at the Chicago Cultural Center. . . . |
The glass panels were assembled by a team of women.
I was surrounded by classmates who are up on current events, who care
about our world and the people in it. Perhaps some of that passion for
others started when we studied the great ideas, art, music and architecture of
Western civilization at school . . . and then grabbed the chance to go beyond,
roaming Europe, Africa, and Asia. The “great conversation” of the world’s
thinkers came to life for us that year, and stayed alive. These are people who love learning.
I was surrounded by classmates who are up on current events, who care about our world and the people in it. Perhaps some of that passion for others started when we studied the great ideas, art, music and architecture of Western civilization at school . . . and then grabbed the chance to go beyond, roaming Europe, Africa, and Asia. The “great conversation” of the world’s thinkers came to life for us that year, and stayed alive. These are people who love learning.
|It wasn't only classical art and architecture in Chicago - we loved THE BEAN!...|
|...and the Oscar Mayer wiener-mobile!|
We all agreed how important that year was; there were no theories why. “Life-changing” was a term I heard often. That was true for me. I remember feeling shocked in May 1971, getting ready to return to the States, when I realized I didn’t have to maintain the persona I had adopted since high school.
A sign between the river and the skyscrapers acknowledges
that native people were there first.. . .
We saw the sign from our Chicago architectural tour boat.
|The curvy skyscraper was designed by a woman named Jeanne Gang.|
I learned a lot about skyscrapers on our architectural walking tour.
The songs we sang back then give clues to why this year was a watershed. I remember walking through ancient cobblestoned cities with my roomie Carol, belting our slightly-off version of lyrics to a Steppenwolf song:
“America, where are you now?
Don’t you care about your sons and daughters?
Don’t you know we need you now
To protect us from all the monsters.”
In Chicago, Carol and I once again sang the song wrong and loud.
Another lyric we loved to sing in Rome was from Simon and Garfunkel: “We’ve all gone to look for America.”
It’s strange to think we were searching for America when we lived thousands of miles away. But it’s true. We were asking all the questions you’re supposed to ask when you’re 19 or 20 . . . “Who am I really?” “What do I belong to?” The people we met – on campus and in our travels – helped us answer that.
At the reunion, I learned that at least 42 classmates have died. Their searching – on this earth – has ended. The committee hosted a memorial for them and for teachers and staff who have died. We recited Psalm 23 and sang “Amazing Grace” and part of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Carol Loverde sang “In paradisum: Mode VII.” We listened in silence as Kevin O'Connor slowly read the name of each deceased person. This was the only somber time during the whole gathering, and everyone seemed to feel it.
By the fourth day of the reunion, I could finally recognize most classmates and some partners. It was then I realized that I saw something in their eyes that I don’t see every day: a light, a twinkle, a spark. I’m not even going to try to posit a theory on that.
|Typical reunion scene - LAUGHTER! - |
Keiren O'Kelly, Mike Corso, me, Bob Hamilton
Also by the last day, the hugs were tighter than the first day. Were fractals at work?
Mike and I loved meeting Tort and Mac for the first time.
Like so many others at the reunion, they were warm and fun.
I nominate them as organizers of our next reunion - in San Diego -
so we can visit family nearby!
I will never forget my conversation with Tom McGrath. My grandmother’s name was Edna McGrath, so I call Tom cousin (also his wife Kathleen, another McGrath by birth). Tom and I are retired writers and we commiserated about feeling a lack of inspiration these days. I bemoaned losing my writing mojo and told Tom I finally understand what Jack Kerouac meant when he said, “I don’t know, I don’t care, and it doesn’t make any difference.”
Tom nodded knowingly. Then he quoted Thomas Aquinas: “It’s all straw.”
I’d never heard that one. Later I looked up the exact quotation attributed to Aquinas: “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”
But on Sunday, the day I had to pack for the train home, I woke up at 5:00 a.m., unable to sleep. . . .
. . . . And wrote the notes for this.
Gail Grenier is the author of Young Voices from Wild Milwaukee, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, Dessert First, and Calling All Horses, all available on Amazon.com.