A Memory Framed in Magnolias

Memory. Where to start? I’ve written so much about it. About the mysterious alchemy whereby small moments, inconsequential as we lived them, become significant, weighty memories, full of recollected details. About the way that certain songs can transport me back, instantly and vividly, to the past. About the occasional awareness of the memory of a moment even as I live it, the experience of present and future recollection colliding, the sparks of that collapse flickering in my mind. Also, about the way that I am losing my memory, my mind, the ability to juggle twenty things simultaneously that used to come so easily to me.

Today, I’m thinking about a specific memory, one that is framed in magnolia petals, flat beer, and laughter. My college senior spring. These weeks shimmer in my memory, so full are they of feeling, laughter, sadness, and promise. They are saturated with the impending farewell we all lived with: every single day was a step closer to leaving the campus we’d grown to love so much. We turned in our theses, the reunions fences and tents went up, and we marched inexorably towards our forced exodus from that sheltered and sunny place we’d spent four years.

Of course there was much of college that was not sunny or happy. There were difficult times, experiences that hurt me, and heartbreak. But when I think of April and May 1996, I’m hard-pressed to remember anything but the joy. It was, perhaps, my first taste of that special kind of joy, the kind that is haunted by the promise of loss, that has become so central to my experience now. This now-familiar happiness was thick with feeling, the reminder that an end was coming a viscous swirl through the fluid of every day.

What were those days like? I sit at my desk now and I can close my eyes and be back there, my mind a kaleidoscope of details recalled with startling lucidity. I turned in my thesis two weeks early, and I forgot to include my middle name on the cover and frontispiece. The entire campus seemed to burst into bloom at once, the magnolias riotous in their celebration of spring. The soundtrack included The Tide is High, Killing Me Softly, and Glory Days. Mission Impossible had just come out in the theaters, we all went to see it, and then spent many nights trying to dance to the main instrumental song from the soundtrack (very difficult). There was a heat wave and we set up baby pools on the back lawn of our eating club, sitting in them and running through sprinklers in the oppressive humidity.

At our eating club’s annual alumni dinner, some male alumni stood up and toasted the days before the club was coed. That was nice. Not. My friend wrote a thesis called I Love the Freedom of It about water imagery in Virginia Woolf’s novels, and we mocked her incessantly for that title. We studied for the final comprehensive exams in our respective majors and then sat for long hours in those beautiful lecture halls, writing in putty-colored exam booklets. As I sat in a wooden chair bolted to the floor, wracking my brain to identify a piece of prose on the exam, I looked at the shafts of sunlight coming in through the windows, watched the dust dance in the light, and felt aware of the centuries of life that this room had held.

Reunions arrived, ringing the bell that our time was truly almost up. On Thursday night we started at Forbes, at the Old Guard reunion, because they had good alcohol. We then made our way through all of the tents, visiting them all before the crowds arrived on Friday. Saturday’s P-Rade was hot and beautiful, and we stood for hours outside of Cuyler Hall, cheering ourselves hoarse. In our matching orange Gap t-shirts we drank warm cans of beer from ripped-open cases stashed on the lawn behind us. When it was our turn to fall into line, we marched across Poe Field field together, arms flung around each others’ shoulders, tears rolling down our faces as President Shapiro welcomed us to the alumni body. That night, wearing blue shorts, a cream J Crew wool cable-knit sweater, and flip-flops I bumped into a long-lost face and unexpectedly rekindled a relationship that had been dormant for two years and that I had presumed dead.

We spent a week driving all over the tri-state area for graduation parties. One night, Quincy and I decided impulsively, around midnight, to leave the party where we were. We drove through the night from the Hamptons to her parents’ house on the Jersey shore, singing Bob Marley the whole way. The next day, we made possibly the most labor-intensive recipe I’ve ever made, artichoke soup. Hand-scraping every single leaf of ten artichokes.  Another night, Kathryn‘s mother hosted us, hungover, and we ate vegetables and chugged water, all swearing we would never drink again (right).

Our rooms slowly disappeared into brown moving boxes. Our parents arrived for several nights of celebratory group dinners. We ran from a restaurant in town to the Senior Arch Sing, and because we were late we wound up sitting on the bottom step of Blair Arch, belting out “Eye of the Tiger” with our class as though our lives depended on it. My instinctive use of “we” to describe this time reminds me of The Virgin Suicides, and underlines how critically important my friends from this time of my life were and are. We really were a we then, and while that we has receded to secondary status, it is still a group identity that I draw strength and solace from.

We knew we were coming to the end of something, but also knew we were about begin something. Our real lives. “We prepared our hearts for something drenching and big,” writes Lorrie Moore in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, and those words always reminded of these weeks of my life. We were liminal creatures, still in college but peering at the great wide open that lay just beyond the threshold that we were barrelling towards. We drank and danced and laughed and loved and left. I am so grateful that my memory has kept such a detailed, fully-dimensioned account of those once-in-a-lifetime weeks.

23 thoughts on “A Memory Framed in Magnolias”

  1. Wow, you remember so much! I’d be hard-pressed to remember a handful of details about college. Then again, that’s probably a good thing, because I didn’t enjoy my time there at all.

    I love how music threads through your memories. Isn’t that true? I can hear a song and Bam! I’m back at a school dance or driving down the highway in an overheated Honda. Love it.

  2. I am with TKW. There are few things from college that are as clear memories as yours. Maybe it is the difference in when my senior year in college was. 🙂 Beautiful writing as always, Lindsey. I love the music as I started singing as soon as I read those songs.

  3. Crying, of course. But laughing, too (had so forgotten about I Love the Freedom of It). At the time, I was never able to pinpoint what made those days so sweet, but, yes, it is that we knew they couldn’t last. And there was an impending sadness behind it all. I hope it doesn’t sound cliched to say those were the best days of my life. I mean, not literally, of course, but in a very literary way. When you look back on the whole of your life, the utter naivite, happiness, sadness, recklessness, joy, celebration — I most likely will never have a distinct collection of days that offered all these. Thank you, from my own personal memories, for capturing this for me (in your lovely prose)

  4. “The ability to juggle twenty things simultaneously that used to come so easily to me.” Oh how I long for those days.

    So amazing that you captured this here. It’s such significant time in our life, and the in-between at the same time isn’t it?

  5. I will be singing The Tide is High all day long now thanks to you.

    It is amazing how songs capture an era. This is brought clear to me as I read your post which is flavored with sound. I can sing along with your college days and I never stepped foot on the campus!

    A song unites us over miles and millennium.

    I do believe that recording our history can be enriching or encroaching depending on how we let it involve us. Thank you for making me aware of this.

  6. The freedom of youth and the inhibition it gives you. Priceless. Also, a hint of sadness that everyone moves in their separate and distinct directions. That’s life I guess. Loved the title of your piece.

  7. Beautiful, as always. Reading this, I was pulled back to my own college years, the ones tucked inside. I hope to always remember that freedom and joy and hurt and growth.

    Thank you. Again. 🙂

  8. I’m finding myself incredibly envious of your memory. Those last weeks of my college experience are foggy, at best. I do remember being very ready to leap into something new. I was leaving for Greece within a week of graduation, to work on an excavation, and even then I was much more comfortable with simply disappearing than having to say goodbye. Thank you, though, for taking us all down your memory lane. It’s a delightful journey.

  9. You painted an intricate picture of those last days I can taste the flat beer. (Okay, maybe it was my own flat beer from 1994…in Indiana..but still), you took me there.

  10. Certain places are so full of memories and overflowing with feeling. College is one of these places for me too–Davidson College. I love the Lorrie Moore quote you mention.

    Another one of those places is the summer camp I went to in Vermont.

    I keep wanting to go back to these places–would go every day if I could–to just sit and try to remember who exactly I was then and what parts still remain.

    Lindsey, I’ve enjoyed catching up with your posts.

  11. When you share your memories of college it sounds so musical.

    My memories of college were equally as happy. Different, but happy. I can’t look back on them with anything but gratitude.

  12. I love this. My memories aren’t as sharp, but I think it’s because after that chapter of my life ended, I moved away from the rest. When I think of them, they are still young and carefree, flitting from bar to party with bright eyes.

  13. Our songs were different, but I can relate to the melancholy sweetness of those powerful and transformative years coming to an end… although my soundtrack was more along the lines of “Stay Free” by The Clash and “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” by The Waitresses.

  14. Your incredibly evocative prose makes me ache with longing to have lived your college life; my college years were nothing like that.
    You have captured these images as though you had a digital camera. Thanks for your memories.

  15. My college memories are not so sharp either, but it’s a pleasure reading yours, so carefully imprinted.

    I know when I return to the “scene of the crime” far more floods back – in music, in scents, in the sense of place.

    “Something drenching and big.” Those were good words.

  16. Oh, how jealous I am! My college years were spent at home, going to school locally full-time, coming home to my parent’s home, steadily dating the man who would become my ex-husband, and feeling completely bored and oppressed. I often joke that I’ve more than made up for my non-partying/non-joyful college years later in life, but really, it’s impossible to do that. How fun these memories, and how amazing you remember them so vividly.

  17. This tells me that when you go to a good university (which I did not) and you come in with a class and go out with a class, not transfer schools and change majors and consider your years in college to be somewhat fluid, that it can be like that – something that has a wistful ending.

  18. It still amazes me how fully I can remember the details of a life lived before this one when I sit down and really spend the time on it — which I know you have done with this piece. Some of the details of your college days remind me of happy, sunny Spring days at boarding schools, with all of my favorite girls performing a balancing act between studies and fun.

    Lovely piece, Lindsey.

  19. I loved reading this. Especially living in a university town with graduation having happened this past weekend, that time in my life has been on my mind. I feel a little envious of your group of girl friends. My husband and I were the tight pair, flitting in and out of groups together, never committing to ‘group’ status, but always welcome and engaged when we dropped in. I don’t regret a thing about it, but there is always such green grass growing where we didn’t graze.

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