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Roisin Meaney on REUNIONS

We have an extra special treat for you today with a piece from Irish author Roisin Meaney on reunions. The Reunion is a heart-warming engaging story about sisters and second chances…will sisters  Caroline and Eleanor find the courage to return to the town where they grew up and face what they’ve been running from all these years?

Reunions? I run from them like a small mucky boy from a bubble bath. If I had a euro for every reunion invitation I’ve turned down since I left school about nine hundred years ago, I could give up writing in the morning. It’s not that I have anything against reunions per se: on the contrary, I love the idea of them. Meeting up with people from the past and finding out how life has treated them, what paths they’ve taken, what sorrows and joys they’ve experienced – imagine the different stories they’d recount, imagine the book fodder I’d get. It’s just that in my case, an evening spent with people I used to know would be an exercise in acute mortification from start to finish.

My problem is my memory – or rather, my utter lack of memory. A goldfish would put me to shame when it comes to remembering stuff. I can’t recall people I met the previous day, let alone someone I shared a classroom with thirty-odd years ago. At any reunion I’d spend the evening apologising to people whose names had long dribbled through my sieve-like brain. I’d have to speak as little as possible (never easy) for fear of exposing the bottomless depths of my amnesia, and pay constant attention to their remarks, so I could jump in with ‘I was just going to ask you about your brother’ right after they’d mention that the self-same brother (whose existence, needless to say, would have been completely obliterated from my brain) had recently married, or divorced, or something.

To make matters worse, my best friend forgets absolutely nothing, and nobody. She and I were in college together; since then she’s attended several reunions, and tells me all about them afterwards. ‘Oh come on,’ she’ll say, ‘you must remember so-and-so from Kerry with the red curly hair. She always wore black, and those big floppy hats – and remember their house burnt down the first day of our final year exams, and her brother swam for Ireland in the Olympics, and her uncle was arrested for money laundering.’ And eventually she’d get tired of my blank face and give up on me, and leave me feeling even more resolved never, ever to darken a reunion’s door.

For years I got away with it. I resisted every attempt to haul me back into what was essentially a group of strangers for a few excruciating hours. In the meantime, my mother attended her fifty-year Teacher Training College reunion – she remembered every single one of her forty-odd classmates – and came home exuberant, having caught up with all their news (miraculously, only two or three from the group had passed on).

And then it happened. In the academic year 2014–2015 the school I’d resigned from in 2008 to become a fulltime writer was celebrating its twenty-fifth year in existence, and as part of its anniversary events it was hosting a night for all past students, parents and teachers – and so my invitation was duly delivered, and I was thrown into a quandary.

As I was still living in the area, I was still meeting people from the school on a regular basis, either by accident or by design. On the one hand, it meant that turning down the invitation would be awkward. On the other hand, it meant that I’d have a few people at least to chat to without embarrassment; maybe I could even persuade some discreet ally to whisper names as others approached, and spare my blushes somewhat. So I decided to accept, and see what happened.

On the day in question, I suffered a crisis of confidence. I’d make a fool of myself; I’d insult people wholesale by not remembering them. What’s more, I’d doubly insult them by not remembering their children, whom I’d taught. I decided I wouldn’t go; I’d invent a last minute family emergency. I paced the floor in my finery. I couldn’t invent a family emergency – imagine if one happened the following day: I’d spend the rest of my life blaming my cowardly self for it. I decided I’d have to go, and suffer what mortification was to come.

So I went – and guess what? It was fine. I remembered a respectable number of people, and was graciously forgiven by the ones I forgot. I caught up with families who’d been through my hands, and was touched by the number of teenagers who approached me to tell me they’d enjoyed having me as their teacher, and who didn’t mind a bit when I confessed to not recognising them. The funny thing was, as soon as they told me their names, their four and five year old faces popped immediately into my head. I could remember them perfectly as Junior Infants: go figure.

And the real bonus occurred towards the end of the night, when one of the mothers remarked that a reunion might make a good theme for a book – and as soon as she said it, I thought ‘of course it would’.  The story would open with invitations, say to a twenty-year reunion, and then it would return to the time when the characters were last together, and follow the ups and downs of their lives over the intervening years. I was still writing my previous book, but as soon as I finished it I began The Reunion (even the title fell into place), and it was duly published in July 2016. I made sure to give the mother in question a mention in the acknowledgements.

I have yet to attend another reunion – no new invitations have arrived since. But if and when they do, I might just consider going along. After all, you never know what I might hear.

If you enjoyed this then why not catch up on Books on my Bedside Table: Sheila O’ Flanagan