About a year ago, my husband came to me full of excitement after he located two women he had known at the San Francisco Red Cross during his years as an active teen volunteer.
One co-worker, whom he located through an acquaintance, still plays tennis twice a week and drives well. She’s over 90. Bob met her for dinner, where they looked at old photos and reminisced, and he marveled at her stamina.
The other co-worker, whom he found on the Internet, was much closer to his age and, as I judged from photographs, very pretty. Her job at Red Cross had been “youth coordinator” but she left around the same time as Bob, who was starting college at UC Davis.
The last time they saw each other, in the late 1960s, Bob was 17 and “Maggie” 24. Bob emailed her to ask if he’d found the right person.
She replied, “OMG!!! How wonderful! I remember you soooooo well! Together we ran the Youth Council and you made an incredible slide show about poverty in America.”
After updating him briefly on her life, she concluded, “Oh, thank you for reaching out! You were such a special student to me! I’d love to hear from you.”
I thought I knew what would happen next, because I’ve seen how things go when people find old friends on the Internet. Excitement. A flurry of email. And then, usually, silence or the occasional holiday message.
But my husband took an unusual step. After a few more emails, he invited Maggie to come from her home in San Diego to our cabin in the country, writing, “We can share some of our love of the river with you while learning of each other’s journey.”
Maggie responded, “A little R&R in a cabin on a river sounds pretty ideal! And it will be such great fun to try and capture what’s been meaningful in our lives low these past almost 50 years!”
Bob was excited. I hazarded that it could “work out.” Despite her overuse of exclamation points, Maggie sounded like my kind of gal.
Soon her visit was getting close. Bob continued to send me copies of emails. “Robert,” Maggie wrote, “Would you like me to call you Bob? I’m still capable of learning new tricks.”
I calculated that she must be 70 years old, and I liked that she could learn new tricks. My husband continued to write lovely responses. “Please call me Robert,” he wrote, “so I can feel comfortable in my current life and be reminded of my youth.”
As we made plans to pick her up at the Sacramento airport, Bob wrote, “Just in case and because it has been so many years — I am Chinese.”
Then I got nervous. What if she talked too much or not at all? What if she drank too much? What if (and this seemed very possible) I didn’t click with her and had to spend three days making nice with a stranger?
Bob got nervous, too. He had been confident that she would be a good person to spend time with, but then he remembered that people change as they grow older, and he began to second-guess himself. By the time we were standing in the airport, he looked a little twitchy. As her flight deplaned, he ran to the bathroom.
It fell to me to greet Maggie, and I had no trouble identifying her as she came down the escalator. She was still lovely, slim and smiling. Her verbal expressions of enthusiasm came as frequently as her exclamation points.
She had been confident about the visit, although friends and family worried. They pointed out that she was flying to see a man who was a virtual stranger, who claimed to have a wife and a cabin and a settled life, but all that could be untrue. Even her seatmate on the airplane gave her his card and invited her to contact him in case of emergency.
No emergency happened. The weekend went great, with lots of time outdoors and good conversation, but the discoveries were not as expected.
Bob went into the reunion hoping to learn something about his younger self: a naive 16-year-old from Chinatown who was lifted out of his narrow world by his devotion to Red Cross.
During his time there he gathered a record number of volunteers and set up a tutoring program. Red Cross was key to many new directions he took, and he wanted to look back on this and understand it better.
But Maggie didn’t remember a lot of detail. Over the weekend, we learned that during her years at Red Cross she was living a double life.
She worked because she needed money, but her heart was at home with her young husband whom she loved passionately and who was diagnosed with cancer only months after they married. She must not have talked about this, because Bob didn’t remember she had a spouse.
While Bob was a teenager finding himself, nourished by Maggie’s support and enthusiasm, she was a young wife living a nightmare. In 1968 Bob left for college and Maggie’s much-loved husband died.
The past can be so different from what we think.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org