From the first he loved Princeton—its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes, the handsome, prosperous big-game crowds…
(Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise)
Princeton takes reunions very seriously. Very. This weekend is my 15th. This will be Matt’s 3rd reunion and for the first time, we are bringing the kids. The centerpiece of reunions is the parade on Saturday – the P Rade. All of the alumni classes put on costumes and parade through campus, while the rest of the gathered alumni stand by the sides of the road and cheer. You heard me right. At his first reunion, my 5th, Matt turned to me incredulously and asked if he had unwittingly married into a cult. Why yes, honey, you did! I smiled and answered, and then promptly returned my attention to my friends and the orange-clad groups of alumni, ranging in age from 100+ to 22, parading past me.
The P Rade always makes me cry. It has something in common with why the World War 2 veterans walking in the Fourth of July parade in Marion make me cry. The first class to march in the P Rade is the 25th reunion, and after them comes the Old Guard, is the oldest returning alumni (of which my grandfather is now a proud member). These men are elderly, some of them walking, some riding in golf carts. There are always some widows in this group, who come back in their husband’s honor. The embodiment of how much a place can mean to a person brings tears to my eyes, as does the visible evidence of time’s relentless forward turning. For these men, I’m certain, it feels like mere moments ago they were the graduating class, arms slung around each other’s shoulders, singing bawdily, rowdily into the spring air, more in touch with their futures and their promise than they ever would be again.
I know, because that was just me. Mere moments ago, I swear. And now I’m in the thick of the pack, among the strollers and toddlers and grade schoolers. This year I’ll have my own children walking beside me, holding my hands. Both Whit’s godmother and one of Grace’s will be walking with us; simply writing that makes me cry. How to capture or express the feeling when the past, the present, and the future are all animate in a single moment, in a place that was – and still is – home to me as nowhere else ever has been? I can’t even begin to do that. I’m emotional about and nostalgic for a moment I have not even lived yet.
The P Rade is tradition exemplified. Our fierce commitment to it speaks, I think, of the deep human need to feel a part of something. It is authentic, the love that swells through the crowd on watching the Old Guard and the young graduates and everybody in between. There are always many tear-soaked cheeks, and even the most sophisticated or cynical of my friends give themselves over to the rolling pride and belonging and nostalgia that is tangible in the air during the P Rade.
I’m reminded, as I think about this weekend, of how I too loved Princeton from the first time I set foot on its campus. I visited with my father, Labor Day weekend of 1991, and within an hour of our wandering around I knew I wanted to go there. Somehow I half-grasped the significance the place would have for me and in an instant made a decision that would alter the course of my life forever (to withdraw my early application elsewhere and to pursue the magnolia-strewn road I’d precipitously, and firmly, decided I wanted). For someone who makes most decisions cautiously, who is only now learning to trust the voice of her soul, this kind of instinctive, impulsive change of course was distinctly out of character. And how extraordinarily thankful I am about that to this day.