The stars of several TV westerns in 1959: Will Hutchins, "Sugarfoot"; Peter Brown, "Lawman"; Jack Kelly, "Maverick"; Ty Hardin, "Bronco"; James Garner, "Maverick"; Wayde Preston, "Colt .45"; and John Russell, "Lawman."
The stars of several TV westerns in 1959: Will Hutchins, "Sugarfoot"; Peter Brown, "Lawman"; Jack Kelly, "Maverick"; Ty Hardin, "Bronco"; James Garner, "Maverick"; Wayde Preston, "Colt .45"; and John Russell, "Lawman."

Reuniting with old friends gives me a window into my past

My father loved Westerns. A man with a photographic memory who could quote poets and philosophers with ease, he also loved the simplicity of a Western. As he explained to 12-year-old me:

There’s a good guy and a bad guy. A girl. A horse.

There’s a gun fight. The good guy wins.

He’s already got the horse. He gets the girl.

The end.

At the time, I should have realized I was learning a life lesson about men. Men, even smart ones, yearn for simple. Women? Women, I would learn later, not so much.

This “simple” lesson came to mind recently. I was all set to travel to New York City for my usual troika of delight — shows, museums and nonstop food gluttony. But this trip was unusual in one aspect. I was also scheduled to attend two separate reunions with childhood best friends, friends I had not seen in decades and with whom I have had little contact in the intervening years.

My family moved multiple times back and forth across the country, causing me to attend 21 schools. College and careers also increased the distance and lack of connection between my friends and me. Time took its toll. We simply grew distant. Then two years ago, happily, unexpectedly, in middle age, we began — tentatively — to reconnect on Facebook.

Preparing for the trip and the two reunions, I was in a quandary. How to launch conversations with women I had grown up with but had also grown apart from? Would we start by catching up on the past? That inherently involves so much talk of death. Parents, grandparents and, in my case, two brothers deceased. Such sadness.

Start with the present? What work do you do? How is your health? Tell me about your husband. Where did you meet? How old are your children? How are they doing? All important, good questions, but somehow they wouldn’t get to the heart of reunion and reconnection.

My husband and son advised “keeping it simple.” But, for me, that didn’t ring true. I was seeking — indeed, yearning for — something deeper. I wanted a link to my past. Unlike my friends in my new community of Berkeley, these two women knew and loved my family. They knew my history and didn’t need the backstory to understand the present, my present.

You can talk about current affairs with anybody. Politics, weather, the last good book you read. That’s the stuff of today. But the past, that’s special. Pausing to provide preamble and context to a family joke or reminiscence is no fun. It kills the punch line or the mood.

Yes, to celebrate the past you need an old friend, someone like Janie H. Janie knew my grandmother. She tasted Grandma’s kreplach and chopped liver, remembers her wooden chopping bowl and her yellow apron. Janie knew my father. She endured his foul cigar and fled the house with me, giggling and groaning, each time he lit one. She knew my brothers, my aunts and all my cousins. We shared a childhood, “The Secret Garden,” The Beatles, Twiggy, and Yardley lipsticks. Why would we ignore it? Why would we “keep it simple,” even if keeping it “real” and going deep would bring on tears?

The same with Diane B. She, too, knew my family, my stories, my secrets, just as I knew hers. Like me, she misses parents who have been gone for many years. Who but I and a select handful of other old friends could nod sympathetically and share our own stories about her sweet, funny, fastidious mother and doctor father who took care of us all?

The more I thought about the two upcoming reunions, the more I understood. Neither conversation would be simple. Both would be deep and bittersweet. No carefree chit-chat would do.

“Keep it simple,” my family had advised. Bah! Instead, a good laugh and cry were on the reunion menu, along with a little lox and a shmear.

And that is exactly what happened, especially with Janie H., whom I hadn’t seen in 46 years. When we greeted each other, we burst into tears. Then we talked — and laughed and, yes, cried a bit more — for 5½ hours until we had to part. And, wonderfully, we made plans to meet again soon.

Shoot-’em-up Westerns where they use fake blood may satisfy the guys, but true guts, glory and tears are the stuff of womankind worldwide.

But it’s OK. We’re strong. We can take it. In Proverbs 31, a “Woman of Valor” is described this way: “Strength and honor are her clothing.”

Keep it simple? Never!

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. An award-winning journalist, her nonfiction and fiction essays and stories have been featured in multiple publications. She lives in Berkeley and can be reached at karen@muddling.me.