I am sitting in the sun at a metal mesh garden table on the back deck of a small house called “Georgie’s Cottage.” This two-story building was built in the 1880s and comprises a small living room, smaller dining space and a pretty basic kitchen, with a large bedroom and bathroom at the top of a somewhat steep set of stairs.

I am in my hometown for a high school reunion.

I go to these things. I think the first one I went to was the 10-year; I had finally developed the self-confidence to allow my curiosity about a handful of people to overcome my fear of all the others.

At that reunion, I mostly sat with three other women who had been friends in school. I enjoyed sitting at that table, hearing their own versions of their lives instead of the ones I’d carried in my head all those years. I won’t share those stories here. They belong to my friends and are theirs to tell.

I will say that, while I learned more than a handful of interesting facts about some important people in my life, I was also discovering a larger truth. At the age of 28, I was starting to understand how much of who we are is not visible to those around us, and what assumptions we make based on the little we do know.

Yesterday was Friday and when my time on interstate highways came to an end, I found the route to Georgie’s Cottage would take me through the town where I had worked, that year of our 10th reunion. It was then and is today a place of stately lawns, gentle hills, and quiet woods.

My job in that idyllic spot was to prepare lunch and supper for a family of five and their daytime staff, five days a week. Once every month or so there was a dinner party, served by candlelight in the formal dining room. Now, having only eaten lightly while driving, I needed food.

The A&P I remembered no longer exists; that small-town supermarket chain died decades ago. Now the New England town center hosts a very tasteful mini-mall with a Brothers’ Market and a take-out place that, according to its website, offers “… underexposed Homestyle Chinese comfort food to a demographic that could not access it easily.” Oh, the limits of wealth.

I ordered supper – some dumplings and a great spicy braised beef soup – and shopped for breakfast foods but did not linger there. Instead, I headed down the road to see if my old workplace was still standing.

With is its wood-framed, diamond-mullioned windows, Jacobean presentation and general air of substance, I doubted harm had come, unless a more recent owner had decided to do something drastic and unfortunate to the 15,000 sq. ft. building, its seven bedrooms, eight baths, 42×13 kitchen and beautiful glassed-in sun porch.

From the road, what I could see of the house looked much the same, its imposing brick facade and three roof peaks just visible above the wrought iron fence and gate, and seven-foot masonry wall that post-dated my tenure. It was not the same place, if only because the people I had worked for would not have put those barriers between their home and the surrounding woods.

When I got here, to Georgie’s Cottage, I looked the estate up on the internet. I was curious how it got to be what it is today. I learned about the additional houses that now grace the property and saw pictures of a pond, fountain, and waterfall that were not there in my day.

According to a couple of who-knows-how-reputable real estate websites, the 21-room house on 23 acres that my former employers sold sometime in the 1990s was purchased in 2018 for $9.2 million, about 11 million in today’s post-housing-boom economy. Oh my.

 

I grew up two towns down the two-lane highway, in a place that was mostly farmland prior to World War II and, by the time I graduated from high school, had become a town with a Colonial center surrounded by comfortable and mostly modest middle-class housing developments.

The Class of 1971 celebrated its 50th reunion last year with a small gathering at a restaurant that did not exist when we graduated, masks indoors and uncovered faces on the deck, low expectations and the promise of a real party when such things once again became possible. A handful of stalwarts used social media to keep us up to date on plans and possibilities, and sometime last summer they announced a time and place. The same restaurant and the time that was now three hours away.

Once there was a date to put in a calendar, I posted a query asking those still living nearby if they had a spare couch or bed for the night of the event.

The classmate who replied told me he had a place at an inn and wanted to book me a room as well.

I looked up the inn, saw that this was a substantial gift, and wrote back, “It looks interesting, but it’s a lot of money.”

“Just making up for how I treated you,” he replied.

I drew a blank. My friend and I had really been more like acquaintances in 1971. We got along, but tended to run in different packs, with some overlap when we showed up at the same parties. Nothing that happened in high school rose to the level of bad treatment.

What had happened, he reminded me, was an event some might consider a social media insult. Someone posted a meme and we disagreed in our response. He unfriended me. We fell victim to our assumptions, widening a divide that, I learned today, had never existed.

We are both more nuanced thinkers than either of us expected. At the time, it was easier to give up on a conversation that only looked real; our actual conversation began this morning over breakfast in Georgie’s cottage.

 

After I wrote what appears above, I took a walk and a shower and changed my clothes. I drove to the restaurant, ordered a whisky at the bar, and began to circulate among my former classmates.

People who do not attend reunions tell me they don’t need to see those who ignored, marginalized or mistreated them all those years ago. What sane person would want that?

One of the many things I have learned in 50 years is that all of us are always learning. We may not accept our lessons, but they are in us nonetheless. Most adolescents are far more attentive to the slights others give them than to the insults they themselves flung out among their peers.

Some of us build walls of brick and fences of iron to protect against pain that is already inside us. You can identify people with all sorts of markers and still not know them at all. If we are lucky, we learn to see past those shortcuts and former acquaintances can become old friends.

I am grateful for those members of the Class of ’71 who put aside the self-consciousness of their youth to meet, embrace, and share their present.

Let’s do it again, soon.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.