Sunday, October 25, 2009

Loyal Be Thy Sons and Daughters...

I just arrived home from a truly wonderful weekend spent with my husband in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse is a very prominent city in my life for many reasons. It's the place I lived when I left home for the first time to attend the University there. As a musical theater major at Syracuse, my classmates and I honed our dance, vocal, and acting skills, working without ceasing to accomplish the highly-coveted status of "Triple Threat." It was where we performed in various productions, worked on backstage crews, and even caught a football game or two in-between our rehearsal schedules. Syracuse is the place where I met and fell in love with a fellow theater major who eventually proposed to me shortly before graduation. It's also the location where he and I returned after living in NYC for a short time, so that he could teach dance back at the University. It was at that time when he eventually left me, making Syracuse the place in which I spent many sad, troubled nights grieving, trying to make sense of the whole mess.

Because of that awful, horrible time involving my ex-husband's abrupt exit and our eventual divorce, my memories of SU have become a little cloudy and jaded, I'm afraid. Our separation at the time became the fuel for some pretty juicy SU Drama Department gossip, and my only way to deal with the intense hurt was to draw further and further away. While living in Orlando, if I received Syracuse University literature in the mail regarding Drama Department reunions or invitations to alumni weekends, I'd wait for the inevitable, familiar sting of sadness and hurt to subside, then drop the flyer in the recycling bin. I hadn't been back to SU since I left over sixteen years ago. But, Alan had some business in the area, and there just happened to be an SU football game that weekend, so he asked if I'd like to join him. I decided it was time.

It's only been very recently, maybe the last five years or so, that I've been able to gaze at old photos from my time as a student at SU. I have albums filled with all of us mugging for the camera backstage in our dressing rooms, arms thrown around each other, unyielding in our quest together to become famous. These are mixed with the countless pictures of my ex-husband and I, walking hand in hand on campus, sitting in a diner on Marshall street, so in love and full of hope and promise. I study the faces in those old photos, searching for signs of the tragic end that will eventually occur. All I can see is youthful happiness and excitement, two young lovers, invincible about their future.

So as Alan and I drove around the campus this past weekend, I smiled and sighed as we passed by my old dorms, the library where I worked, and the beautiful Visual and Performing Arts building where we daily climbed the hundreds of steps to attend voice classes. We parked the car and strolled down Marshall Street, the campus "strip." Some places had changed, of course, like the Starbucks located in the space a bookstore used to inhabit, and the former McDonald's that was now home to a Sushi bar. But I was also tickled to see how many of the old haunts remained, like Cosmos Diner, Manny's Campus Clothing Store, and my absolute favorite, Varsity Pizza.

The Varsity is an institution at Syracuse, it first opened in 1928 and is still owned and operated by the same family today. I have never, EVER, in all the places I've lived, tasted better pizza than the ones made at The Varsity. Just tremendous. It could be the no-frills atmosphere of the place that makes them seem so delicious, like the orange and blue chairs at the tables and the same giant old black and white photos that adorn the walls. These photos are of Ernie Davis, the SU rowing team, Lacrosse Players, and a tenor sax player marching on the field, to name a few. On the wall above the area where you place your order hang the flags of the opponents the football team will be facing during the present season. All the ones that have been turned upside down are the schools SU has defeated!

The Varsity is where my fellow drama classmates and I would gather every Wednesday after a late-afternoon, department-wide lab we were required to attend at the theater building. We'd all trudge up the hill afterwards, grab our usual table, throw in a couple of bucks for a pie or two and a pitcher of coke, then eat, talk, and laugh until it was time to hike back down the hill for rehearsal of some kind. It was a standing date every week, whomever could make it knew to just show-up at The Varsity, and someone would always be there. Actually, I think it was at those gatherings at The Varsity that my ex-husband and I began to fall in love.

So, this past Saturday, as I sat in a booth and waited for Alan to place our order, I looked over at that cluster of tables where we all used to gather, discussing our classes and worrying about our finals. I know many, many young students have congregated at that particular area since, but it still seemed to sparkle with that sweet memory of those years in the mid-eighties when it was US who sat there. I cradled my chin in my hand and smiled as I pictured each of those young, talented faces and recalled all the things they've accomplished since.

After lunch, Alan and I got back in the car and drove just past campus, past Thorndon Park, to a little yellow house on Cherry Street. The upstairs of the house was made into an apartment, and it's where my ex and I lived when we moved back to Syracuse. It's also the place where I stood a few months later and listened to him tell me he didn't want to be married anymore, then watched as he left. As we sat in the car out front and gazed up at the house, the first thought that hit me was how good it looked. It had a fresh coat of paint, and the large maple tree in the front yard had turned a beautiful shade of orange, providing a carpet of vibrant leaves on it's lawn. It seemed somehow amazing that there was no sign of the sadness that had taken place inside, no stain revealing the middle-of-the-night, floor-pacing grief that once occurred nightly within those walls.

As we sat there, looking at this sweet, quaint little home, Alan grabbed my hand and said, "This is the place where our story re-started! I have such happy memories here!" He was right. It was a few years after my ex's departure, after picking myself up, finding work, and finally getting on with my life, that Alan found me again here. I was living HERE when he called all those Syracuse phone numbers to finally track MINE down, the one belonging to this house. It was in that tiny place that, after months of hour-long phone conversations, he decided to make the trip to see me in person. He talked about ascending the stairs of the house, taking a deep breath, and knocking on my door. I, on the other side, turned the deadbolt, placed my hand on the door knob, paused, then said to him through the door, "Are you ready?" Then I opened the door and there he stood, My Future.

It was then that it struck me. All these years, when I have thought of Syracuse, my mind would immediately focus on all the intense, bad things that happened for me in this town. I've been letting all the grieving, sad memories overshadow all the supremely sweet ones. I allowed all the floor-walking, weepy nights to block the exciting come-from-behind football games, the really top-quality shows we performed in, and the ridiculously good pizza we consumed while discussing our surely-inevitable bright futures. Why was I giving the bad memories all that power?

The truth is, I'm thankful for ALL my Syracuse memories, even the sad ones. As a result of going through that hard time, I now appreciate the relationships in my life much more than I ever would have before. I love deeper, I laugh louder, and I live more intensely because that time has taught me how fragile life can be. The sad times will always have their place, no doubt. But I decided on my trip last weekend that I'm no longer going to let them overshadow the majority of beautiful, fun, sweet remembrances I also hold.

We drove away from Cherry Street that day and headed to the Carrier Dome to watch the football game. Before it started, the marching band took the field and played the fight song, the National Anthem, then the Alma Mater. I actually know the words to the SU alma mater because I sang it for a campus event when I was a student there. It's a beautiful song, but my favorite line has always been the last: "Loyal be thy sons and daughters, to thy memory." Being loyal to memories. I like that. The good, the bad, all of them make up who I have become thus far. I'm no longer going to allow one to cloud the other. It took me awhile, 'Cuse, but I think I've finally got it! Go Orange!!

Thanks for reading!!


Anonymous said...

Damn, you're good.

I'm always trying to shorten the length of time between "a really bad event" and getting to "the good lesson to learn from it." I think I've got it snugged up to about a 22 year lag. :)

It's a beautiful story, Joan; especially about the how the end of one era becomes the beginning of the next.


Just that girl said...

Wow Joan, this might be the best one yet. I love what you wrote and HOW you wrote it. You made me cry yet again. Keep writing!!!!!!

CentFla said...

You forgot to put the part about me showing up on a white Charger and my rippling pecs as I swept you from the tall tower!

Anonymous said...

No she didn't, Alan, she talks about it all the time, I thought you read these, dude!

Jen Taft said...

It is so good to go home again.

-j.p. said...

I think you are seriously set on pulling up all of the hated "chick-flick" emotions out of your readers...

Don't stop!!


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