Last week I ran into a woman I had gone to high school with. While not necessarily that remarkable, it made me ponder the concept of identity. In particular, two of her responses to our chance encounter got me thinking. First, was the fact that she recognized me after so many years. And second, she had trouble acknowledging the identity of my wife. It seemed strange. On the one hand, she rediscovered me with immediate finesse, while on the other, she clumsily failed to acknowledge how we, and the times, have changed since we last saw each other.
It has been 37 years (yes, that long….) since we went to high school together in the suburbs of New York City. We were not friends then; but we knew each other’s names and faces, as you might of a neighbor down the street whom you’ve never spoken to. Our class was large – 450 students – and I had not attended the one or two reunions that may have been held in the intervening years. So, not only had we not been in touch, we hadn’t even thought of one other during these many years. Nevertheless, as I walked into Yom Kippur services in the Washington, DC suburbs, and reached for a prayer book, the woman pulled me aside with a “Hey, I remember you.” I was astounded that, after all these years, she recognized my face, pulling it out of her vast, deep well of memories. How did she do it?
Maybe it was because of the setting of our encounter. It was the holiest day of the year, and we were fasting so as not to be distracted by such earthly activities as cooking and eating, but not everyone in synagogue was 100% focused on repentance. In fact, it’s common for minds to wander after many hours of prayer and sequestration. I’m imagining that my re-found friend was entertaining herself with memories of high school since our services were taking place in a high school auditorium (necessary because the regular sanctuary cannot accommodate the twice yearly surge in congregants during the High Holidays). Maybe she had temporarily and unconsciously placed herself in the mindset of her adolescence, narrowing the gap between then and now. When I appeared in front of her, I fit into the picture her mind was creating, and became easily recognizable. This, in spite of the fact that we were now 250 miles and nearly two generations from where we had gone to school together.
A second theory is that I have not changed substantially since my senior year. Of course, I find this hard to believe, as I feel very different from that awkward, shy teenager of 1974. I have become more educated and socially aware; have lived in six states in the U.S. and several other countries; have worked in offices, as well as rural villages drastically different from suburban New York; and have vastly widened my circle of friends, interests and competencies. Most recently, after many years of what I thought would be eternal singlehood, I got married. In short, I’ve matured in numerous ways. And, I look different. My hair is cut short; I’ve gotten skinnier and grown wrinkles, to mention just a few easily visible modifications. Yet, my eyes and other facial features are the same, and I probably move in a similar manner to how I did then.
In any case, I remain quite impressed at my fellow synagogue-goer’s powers of recognition. Her unexpected discovery of my identity is a feat worthy of respect, whether aided by the environment in which we find ourselves or by the constancy of who we are throughout our lifetimes. However, I was surprised at her reaction to something I said as we conversed about our families and how our lives had evolved since high school.
After she told me about her parents, son and husband, I said that I had recently gotten married. I told her about our two weddings – the simple legal one in Washington, DC, where same-sex marriages are recognized, and the ceremonial, Jewish wedding at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. It was clear that I had married a woman. However, later in the conversation, when I started to say something about Eileen, referring to her as my wife, she interrupted me. “Do you really call her that?” she asked. “Yes, of course. She’s my wife,” I answered, and then continued on to make my point.
As I thought about it afterward, I remained perplexed, as well as sympathetic. When I told her that I had married a woman, she had been congratulatory and supportive. So, I was surprised that she didn’t (at least, at first) consider Eileen my wife. Of course, I fully realize that it sounds strange for a woman to talk about her wife. And, to tell the truth, I feel a bit self-conscious each time I say the words my wife. It sounds strange, even to me, because I (as well as you) grew up in a society that is not accustomed to women having wives. That will change, but it takes getting used to. I do my part by using telling strangers, who have no idea of my marital relationship, about my wife. And as I do so, I imagine a momentary pause or blip in the revolving of gears in their brains. Good to addle their minds, I think.
While most strangers exhibit no response to my statement, my high school colleague’s reaction was idiosyncratic, as well as spontaneous and instinctual. She exhibited the same aptitudes that helped her recognize me so efficiently just moments earlier. I thank her for it, because she has prompted these reflections on identities and human behavior. And, it turns out that this is all in a day’s work for her (even on Yom Kippur!). I learned that my high school classmate is now a professor of sociology at a local university. Her personal skills and her profession are melded together – contributing to, and bringing up additional questions of, identity.