Cinder-Bella at the 50th Reunion Ball
Bella Gilbertsen Rossiter
The Way We Were
Fifty years of my life skittered across my mind, since reading the invitation to my high school reunion. Whatever made me think that getting together with people I barely remember would be appealing and worth the investment of airfare from Phoenix to San Francisco, plus the price of the event itself?
It all started in the summer of 2007, while my husband was in England for a year studying film making. I got a job in Alaska working for Princess Tours at Mt McKinley.
Out of the thousands of tourists I encountered in the Talkeetna tour office, Darlene Corsiglia Purcell and I discovered that we had practically been neighbors and fellow Mustangs at Abraham Lincoln high school in the 1950’s.
You can picture the scenario, right? I asked her, “Where are you from?” “I’m from San Francisco, originally,” she said, to my surprise. “Me, too! What school did you go to?” I couldn’t believe my ears when she answered, “Lincoln High.” “So did I!” I gasped.
She hastily conspired with me to fool her brother Bob, the good looking guy with the beard, who was on his way in the door. I greeted him with a friendly smile, saying, “Hi Bob, remember me from Lincoln High?” You should have seen the look on his face, trying to recognize me! His sister and I just giggled, and then filled him in.
Bob and Darlene had grown up in San Francisco’s Sunset District at 24th Avenue and Vicente. The Avenues run parallel to the ocean. The streets run alphabetically, from Golden Gate Park to Sigmund Stern Grove. Although I lived at 23rd Avenue and Ulloa, we hadn’t known each other.
As we marveled at meeting at this unlikely location in Alaska, Bob said, “Be sure and come to our 50th reunion next year!” He gave me his card and a quick hug and dashed out the door. His wife, Sue, and the rest of their group, which had just completed a river rafting trip, sprinted to catch the tour bus ready to leave for the national park.
I shoved the card into the pocket of my gray fleece vest, shaking my head in wonder at what a small world it is, and busied myself with answering other tourists’ questions. Later, getting ready for bed in the staff cabin that I shared with a room mate, I remembered the friendly woman and the business card from the pleasant man who had made me feel like a long lost relative.
Never having attended even one reunion, I couldn’t imagine myself getting together with strangers at this late stage in life. Still, I did allow myself to reflect on a few old memories.
Months later, at home again in Arizona, I wrote to Bob’s e-mail address, wondering if he would remember me and write back. I sent pictures I had taken of the grizzlies I saw during a tour deep into the interior of Denali National Park. He wrote back, sending excellent pictures of his own.
The following March, I moved from Gold Canyon to Mesa; the invitation caught up with me at my new address.
I lifted the lid of my cedar chest, not sure if I still had my 1958 year book and memorabilia stashed away. But right there beneath years of accumulation were the treasures I was seeking. With stacks of collectibles I couldn’t bear to part with scattered across the floor, I settled into the rocking chair in the corner. I searched first for my own senior photo and found it in the top left hand corner of
page 26. Could I ever have looked that young and innocent, on the verge of stepping out to face the real world? At seventeen, my smile reminded me of Mona Lisa’s, concealing the naiveté of the girl/woman within.
Then I looked up Bob in the fall class of 1957. Wasn’t he cute? How did I miss him?
Scrawled autographs and cryptic messages conjured up faint images; but mostly the mystique of: who was she or who was he? Putting names to faces solved some quandaries, but far from all.
Regardless of how intriguing this was to me, I decided I couldn’t afford to satisfy my natural curiosity. I returned the invitation marked No. I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend. I mailed it off with a feeling of reluctance mixed with nostalgia.
Bob was on the alumni committee planning the Big 5-0 reunion, and told Is-e Nadel Hogan, the chairman, about meeting a fellow Mustang during their Alaskan tour, and gave her my e-mail address. She wrote, urging me to reconsider attending this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event. Some classmates, she said, would also be coming for the first time; from Japan, France, and other far away places. Many would also be attending solo.
By e-mail, we shared brief histories and I felt as if I knew her and would enjoy meeting her in person. The unimaginable was becoming a reality. I decided to go to my 50th high school reunion in San Francisco!
The alumni website included a listing of over seventy deceased classmates. My best friend was on it. Forty years had flown by without us having kept in touch. But I was blessed to see Lana Bright
Scott, my little Hawaiian friend, fellow clarinet player and lunch mate, three months
before she died of breast cancer on New Year’s Eve 2003.
The third member of our brown bag trio, June Cook Evans, and her husband Bill, live just north of Santa Rosa in Kelseyville. Having attended the 25th reunion, they declined this time around.
Margie Sleath Kendall, my classmate through elementary, junior high, and high school, had been a nearby neighbor. Her sixth grade autograph reads, “Violets are blue, roses are red, you’re so lazy you eat in bed.” She played the saxophone in the band and orchestra, and we often practiced together after school. Sadly, her family moved to Tennessee a year before graduation, so she wouldn’t be going, either.
My lifelong friend since kindergarten in Bay Shore, Jeanne Huffstutter Sartorio, moved away and went to San Mateo High. We were in each other’s weddings and we each had a boy first and then a girl. She named hers Tommy and Wendy and mine were named Tony and Debbie. As she moved south and I moved north and had two more sons, we eventually lost touch with each other.
Was I making a big mistake by agreeing to be a part of this grand gala? I had no one to remember me...
The final weeks before November 1st were quickly vanishing. I checked the growing attendance list for familiar names and made note of them to compare to the year book pictures.
Frank, my husband of 48 years, offered to take me, but was just as happy to let me go on this venture alone. He is from Liverpool, England, and wanted to keep his distance from my teenage past. He waved me off at the Southwest terminal at Sky Harbor, reassuring me he would be right there to pick me up again the next evening. He had given me his blessing.
I stood on the curb in my jeans and tennis shoes. My evening wear, borrowed from my big sister, Karen, some things never change with siblings, was tucked into the pack on my back. In my sixth grade autograph book, she had written, “Roses are red, violets are blue, rain on the roof reminds me of you; drip, drip, drip.”
Due to a thunderstorm over San Francisco, our flight was grounded an hour in Phoenix, where it was sunny and 83 degrees. I bought a WordSearch book for stress relief and the time passed quickly. Once airborne, I had worked ten puzzles by the time our plane touched down at SFX in a steady misty rain.
Hefting my backpack, I boarded the courtesy shuttle headed for the Embassy Suites Hotel, a ten minute ride away. Nerves leaped fleetingly as I braced myself against the wind and dashed for the entrance to the elegant reception area. Once pointed in the right direction, the first couple I saw was Bob and his wife, Sue Corsiglia! How delightful to run into someone I knew! At least five minutes in Talkeetna, right? After happy greetings, they continued on their way to a private cocktail party. Bob signed my year book, “To my new Alaskan friend. Bob Corsiglia”
I slipped into the ladies room to change into the chocolate velour Chinese tunic top and pants, which I had never worn before and prayed would look okay. My heart blips quickened as I saw my reflection pale in the subdued lighting. Shaky hands dumped makeup on the counter to brighten up my face. I practiced smiling in the mirror, “Hi, who are you?”
There was at least another twenty minutes until the scheduled social hour. On the Welcome table in the hall, I found my name tag with the year book picture on it and draped it around my neck. While I was shuffling through the alphabetized piles, a woman stopped beside me, introducing
herself and asking me who I was. My guardian angel turned out to be Anita Hoffman Marshall. She said I could leave my pack in her room on the second floor. Before we knew it, we felt like old friends; she had been best pals since grade school with none other than my cherished Lana Bright! This must have been a God thing, as my daughter would say. We had this dear friend in common, and we were strangers no more.
I was shocked to learn that shortly before our graduation, which occurred at the San Francisco Opera House, Anita’s parents were killed in a car accident! And even further tragedy struck when two years later, her brother ended his own life! Sadly, her husband died six years ago. She flew from Las Vegas alone the night before and was eager for the celebration to begin.
I told Anita about marrying an English guy in 1960 that I had met on a blind date. Frank landed a job as a commissary cook for Foster’s Cafeterias. We had four kids in our first five years together before moving to Santa Rosa. Moving even further north in 1969, we continued raising our family in rainy Olympia, Washington. Eventually, we retired to sunny Arizona.
“Should I wear the black earrings or the bright red ones?” Anita asked.
“The red ones definitely bring out the highlights in your dark hair; and you look so much younger than I do with my white hair.” I grimaced.
“Well, you really look young, too, Bella,” she complimented.
“Oh, thanks, Anita, you just made my day!” I smiled, doubting what she said was true.
We stood shoulder to shoulder oohing and ahhing over the stack of pictures she brought of her children and grandchildren. Before leaving her cozy suite, we were already grousing about our aching feet. And the night was still very young!
I spotted Is-e in the midst of a crowd at the ball room door, and I was determined to make myself known to her.
Oh, what a wonderful welcoming embrace we shared as our eyes met in recognition. During the course of our brief acquaintance, I had mailed her my story, published as The Crystal Hummingbird.
Acknowledging her Jewish heritage and her marriage to a Catholic, she spoke of being drawn to spiritual things. After reading about my son’s drug overdose in 1993 and my subsequent suicide attempt, she was moved by how God brought me through those dark days and gave me the inner peace I so longed for. I am humbled by her warm response.
“Bella, thanks for sending me the book. Wow! You are a really good writer. I loved your story, your passion and your journey in The Crystal Hummingbird. Could I have permission to give it to the Alumni Association, for inclusion in a new section on books by alums?... I look forward to seeing you at the reunion! Hugs, Is-e”
Is-e, what an excellent, elegant evening you created for this very special event. It was a pleasure to be there! This must have been a God thing, as my daughter would say!
Although Anita was seated at table #22, I found my name on the list for table #19. Sitting beside
Sue Etzler Sarti, who wrote, “After 50 years – a new friend,” I felt as though we could have been good friends all those years ago if fate hadn’t propelled us on our separate ways.
I flung my shoes under the table and blithely traipsed all over the place; elbowing my way through the crowded room full of old people, looking for the table numbers where the names on my list
were seated. At table #13, I found Steve Sankoff, who had lived up the street from me at 23rd Avenue and Taraval, during grammar school, junior high and high school. In our youth, I recall that he and his buddy threw pebbles at Margie and me, because they thought we were following them home after school! Margie lived on 21st Avenue and Ulloa.
I showed Steve our Parkside sixth grade graduation picture and autograph book, remembering that our party was held at Sigmund Stern Grove at 19th Avenue and Ocean. His mouth dropped open when I showed him what he had written to me:
“God made butter, God made cheese, God made Robert for you to squeeze.” Stephen Sankoff.
I must confess I crossed out “Robert” and wrote “me” instead! Steve exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kiddin’ me! I wrote that in 1952 when I was twelve years old? I can’t believe you still have this stuff.” His face was glowing with embarrassment. I also had pictures of our Aptos Junior High and Lincoln High bands, in which he also played the clarinet. We sat several spaces apart in the first row.
I searched for another class mate, which someone pointed out to me. I never would have
recognized the white-bearded man as the Ken Knutsen I knew! He wrote, “It’s great to be alive after 50 years!” As a teenager, he had shown me the ropes during the time I worked as an usherette. For a brief stint, I was assigned to the balcony at the Parkside Theater at 19th and Taraval in 1956. To his surprise, I showed him I still had my first paycheck stub for $31.06!
I finally found Bill Collins, whom I sat next to in senior English class. Our teacher, Bill Coleman, wrote in my year book, “To the second highest student in English VIII.” Was Bill Collins #1?
I recall Bill saying to me once, “I really enjoy listening to you read.” He graciously signed my year book, “Bella, 50 years and you’ve not lost a single essence of cuteness.” Huh?
But, I was glad to meet the man he has become and to hear about his entertaining career!
John Oppenheim wrote, “50 years later and still going strong! You look great!”
Around eleven p.m., Anita decided to retire for the night, since she would be joining the others over a late breakfast in the morning. I changed back into my jeans and returned to the emptying ball room. Like Cinderella with a midnight curfew, I hovered about still searching for familiar faces. None were...but, I didn’t want it to end too soon. I hoped for some final note of completion from this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And there stood Dennis Jones. He signed my year book, “It is so good to see you after 50 years!” “Would you like to dance?” he asked. We tentatively touched hands to do a little rock and dip to the lively music, feeling as self-conscious as teenagers.
He said, “I have fond memories of you,” and somehow he made me feel special. The evening was ending in a grand finale and Cinderella did get to dance at the Ball. We exchanged looks, parted with a smile, and walked away again from the memories made fifty years in the past.
My kindergarten friend was waiting with her coach to wisk me away as the bell tolled at midnight.
I had been remembered after all...
It must have been a God thing, as my daughter would say.
A Golden After Glow
By Bella Rossiter
Jeanne had stayed up late to be there for me, again. Tall and trim with sandy wavy hair, she does not look like someone about to celebrate her own 50th high school reunion.
She and Peter have been world travelers since their retirement. Gourmet cooking has been a recent interest and I am spoiled by her cooking. I feel so welcome in her comfortable home in San Mateo.
Since our personal reunion in 2003, after forty years of separation, she has continued to be there time after time. She is the most thoughtful, kind, generous, compassionate friend I could ever have. When we got home, she offered to hang out for a while and talk about my adventure before going to bed; like we did as teenagers. But all I could think of was stretching out and slumbering through the rest of the night. I’m not as young as I used to be! Standing on the landing, our whispered good nights trailed off as she went up the stairs to her room, and I went down the stairs to mine.
A light rain continued in the gray-glow of morning, keeping the King Charles Spaniels indoors. They looked longingly at their hillside patio through the sliding glass doors. Bandit and Tootsie bring joy to young patients in the Children’s Hospital. For Halloween they were a big hit dressed as a skunk and a ballerina. Jeanne had found the costumes during their recent visit to China.
Tootsie was quite upset with being trussed up, causing her fur to bunch like a cape about her neck. Bandit lifted his paws very high, distaining the hampering doggy shoes! The camera captured the distress in his big brown eyes.
Following a nourishing meal with Peter at the breakfast table, Jeanne and I took our coffee into the den. We settled in for a leisurely visit before she would drive me to the airport at two o’clock. Peter discreetly drove off to the hardware store and left us to our girl talk.
What a gift it is to know that someone has been there and done that, exactly what you have gone through with your own family joys and sorrows. That’s how it is with Jeanne and me. One hour flowed into another so seamlessly, it was unbelievable that it could already be time to leave.
At the airport drop-off zone, we both hesitated to say goodbye. Like a playful kid, Jeanne said, “Let’s drive around again!” That junket was so short, she pleaded, “Just one more time?” Nothing compares with the bond of childhood girlfriends. “It must be a God thing,” as my daughter would say.
The Airport Travelers’ Help Desk
By Bella Rossiter
The tension-filled weekend had caught up with me; the pack felt too heavy on my back. A male voice called out, “May I help you find something, miss?” I had been scanning in both directions for the reader board listing the gate numbers for all the flights. I propped my elbows on the counter and told the tall brown-skinned man what I was looking for. His face was sincere and his voice solicitous and helpful. Before I could get away, though, he went into a spiel about the clipboard and donation plate which, he assured me, he had legal permission to promote in this public place.
“I’m helping to raise funds for ...” (oh, heck, I really can’t remember what he was raising funds for!), but it was a recognizable Christian organization. I put a dollar on the plate, for which he thanked me profusely. I said, “Praise the Lord!” His face lit up like a sunbeam and he said, “Praise the Lord!” We both laughed and the other guy behind the counter joined in.
Also engaging me in conversation, the shorter olive-skinned man told me he was a Jewish Christian and the Lord Jesus Christ was his Messiah! He smiled from ear to ear, reiterating that he tells Jesus every morning he wants to serve only Him! I put out my hand to shake his hand and said, “You’re my brother!” We assured each other we’d meet someday in heaven, and I resumed my trek toward the gates.
Several yards away, I turned around and retraced my steps to the help desk. I knew why my pack felt too heavy. I was supposed to leave my books in San Francisco with these two brothers. The name of the brown brother escapes me now, but my Jewish brother’s name was Eli. I autographed each book and told them this was a story of how God worked a miracle in my life. I jotted down my e-mail address and said I hoped to hear from them after they read the book. Eli scurried around the counter and gave me a big hug; I waved congenially; my pack now a lot lighter. I stepped lively and, light-hearted, turned around to wave just one more time.
It must have been a God thing, as my daughter always said, and I was going home!
The Guy in the Center Seat
By Bella Rossiter
I wanted to stay close to the front of the plane so getting off would be easier. There was an empty seat four rows down, but a rough looking guy was in the center seat. Next to the window was an attractive young girl.
I glanced down at the seat, saying, “Is this seat taken?” He answered with a nod, “It is now.” I settled my pack beneath the seat in front of me and groped to fasten the seat belt. For some reason, it refused to lock in place. I sighed deeply as I tried it several times. Feeling the belt down to its source, I told the man that he had the wrong end connected to his seatbelt. “It works for me,” he said. Deciding to comply, he discovered I was right. We successfully traded ends and I finally settled down.
I didn’t want more conversation, so, with my pencil, I circled the first word I found in the word search puzzle. I was under the impression that he and the girl were traveling together, as they engaged in familiar conversation. He was not put off, though, by my focused concentration. In a confidential aside, he loudly whispered, “Another passenger wanted this seat, but I frowned at him and he kept going. I didn’t want a fat, sweaty person sitting so close to me.” He affirmed his statement with a conspiratorial wink.
The roar of takeoff filled the cabin, yet moments later as the plane leveled at the required elevation, my seat mate started to ask me the standard questions: Do you live in San Francisco? Where are you going? I answered briefly and made a point of studying my book again. Undeterred, his monologue began.
“I’m in the jewelry business,” he said, offering his card. I tentatively accepted and read it. T & C Diamond & Jewelry Brokers ~ Dallas, Texas ~ Tim Petree, Owner. “I’ve just been to a diamond show in San Francisco.”
It’s hard to ignore someone speaking to you, so I asked, “Do you have family in Texas?” Well, that was just the opener this guy needed. “Oh, yeah, I’ve been married twice. I was a real bad *@# when I was young. I’ve got grandkids older than my daughter. My first wife divorced me when I was in the penitentiary.” I frowned and tsk-tsked at him, sorry I got myself into this and wondering how I was going to get myself out.
I turned my attention to the steward standing in the aisle asking for our beverage orders. I asked for water, the girl asked for white wine, showing her I.D., and the “thorn between two roses” ordered a cocktail. Lowering my food tray, I put the puzzle book down and feigned being totally engrossed. The rough man turned back to his attractive companion.
When next the steward returned, joking, “Steak and lobster; get your steak and lobster here,” we
reached out for the bags of peanuts and crackers with a smile. I’m relieved that it’s only a two hour flight from SF to Phoenix. But the cocktail only loosened my new friend’s tongue all the more. I munched my way through the crackers, and he helped me open the Fort Knox peanut wrapper.
“Yeah,” he continued, like he’d never been interrupted, “when I was in prison the second time, I started reading the Bible. I guess I finally reached the place in my life where I decided, enough is enough. I wanted to give up drugs and alcohol, and all the other stuff. I needed to get my act together.”
“That’s always a good thing,” I said, surprising myself by entering in.
“I’m sixty now and I’ve wasted a lot of years. When I got out, I was lucky to meet a beautiful woman. I guess I should say, blessed, because I know it was God who led me to her.”
Finding myself paying attention now, I asked, “What happened next?”
“She married me and we had a little girl; the joy of my life. When Charlene was three years old, my wife died from cancer, leaving me alone to take care of her. It was the saddest thing that ever happened to me. For the first time, I had really been in love.”
Turning to look at me, he saw that I was still listening. “God gave me some good Christian friends to help me. My daughter is thirteen now, and Lilly here,” nodding his head in the girl’s direction, “has been raising her up like a girl needs, and I’ve no idea how to.”
I leaned forward to acknowledge Lilly with a smile. She smiled sweetly back at me. I’m thinking, these could be two cons working me for some unseen reason. I remained on guard, but open to God’s leading, if his story was genuine.
The cocktail and the subject had mellowed him. He was probably wondering how he got started on all this with a complete stranger.
I talked about my son who had addictions and spent time in prison, too. “Even though he read the Bible and turned his life around, he still ended up dying from an overdose of methamphetamine. It broke my heart. I believe he’s in heaven. Standing beside him in death, I saw him leave his body and go into the arms of Jesus...”
This man gave me a softened look of empathy that completely transformed his rough features. The hardened exterior became of no account. “I believe it, too,” he said, “and I believe I’ll see my angel again.”
I became contemplative, resting my head against the seat. One steward passed through the cabin again, collecting the refuse. The other steward, on the microphone, reminded us to “Put your seats in an upright position; secure the trays on the chair back in front of you; make sure your baggage is stowed beneath the seat and your seat belt is fastened.”
If there had been a con brewing, it was no longer there; I didn’t want to be anybody’s fool. But, I couldn’t shake the thought that this was a God thing, as my daughter would have called it. Joy filled my heart; joy radiated from his eyes, too. Maybe he was also thinking, this must have been a God thing.
The captain’s tinny voice crackled, “We are approaching Sky Harbor airport and will be landing in about ten minutes. Please keep your seat belts fastened until we land and come to a complete stop in front of the terminal. Those passengers going on to Dallas please stay seated while the Phoenix passengers leave the plane. We will be about fifteen minutes early upon arrival. Thank you for
traveling with Southwest, and we hope to see you again soon.”
I stood to load on my pack; straightened up to stretch my back; grinned at my new friend and said, “I’ll see you in heaven, Tim.” His face lit up as he answered, “I’ll see you in heaven, Bella. I can’t wait to read The Crystal Hummingbird. God bless you!”
I strode out into the Sky Harbor terminal with a Cheshire cat grin, with just enough energy to make it to the South curb where Frank would be waiting for me, just as he said he would.
Far and distant memories from the past, far and distant places to look forward to in the future. In the last twenty-four hours I had been an ecstatic time traveler. But when the tires hit the tarmac I was back home again; safe with my own companion who cares for me implicitly, without reservation. Because Frank had set me free, I could safely explore and be the real me. What kind of blessing is that? It must be a God thing, as I always say.