I have never read Marcel Proust's massive work "Remembrance of Things Past." The work contains 7 volumes and approximately a million and a half words. But I do know that it is widely considered a modern masterpiece. When I taught, I used an essay in my OAC English class that contained a reference to an episode from the work. In it, the narrator describes his experience attending a party given by an old aquaintance and attended by numerous people from the narrator's past. He is especially moved when he meets a woman whom he had loved when both were much younger. His reaction seeing this woman, after so many decades apart, is poignant and provides the narrator with an important epiphany on the fleeting nature of youth and love.
We know intellectually that we cannot go back in time. We are told this in songs, poems and stories. Yet, deep inside us, is the self-image we all carry, and that image is rarely of the present. In our mind's eye, we see ourselves as forever young, vigourous, happy and always forward-thinking. We see ourselves as running free, unencumbered by the ravages of time and age, looking always to a new day full of promise and potential.
The opportunity to visit the distant past comes rarely. When it does, as in the case of the recent 100th anniversary of Brantford Collegiate Institute and it's accompanying reunion, we often go to the visit hopeful of seeing people and sights that we remember fondly and simply take up from where we left off. But, after the decades, we enter a room full of vaguely familiar strangers. Surely these people don't belong here: they must have gone to the wrong address. We expected to see classmates still young, still wearing the clothes of youth, still laughing and making smart-ass comments about parents, teachers, jobs, and the future. What are all these grey-hairs doing here?
But, after a few uncertain moments, the faces become those of past friends. True, lines in faces tell of a lifetime of achievements and set-backs, and the minis, platform shoes, and bell-bottoms of the past have given way to golf shirts and sensible shoes. But you can see them staring at you and search: it only takes a few seconds for them to find you, deep inside the middle age. And you look back at them and see that there are only a few layers covering the high school brightness. Yes, it's us, we're still here: we're just a little shy now, a little more quiet than we used to be. Laughter, hand shakes, hugs and back slaps give way to stories of the decades' long battles in families, schools, jobs, kids, marriages, and divorces. Sad stories emerge of those who are no longer here. How can that be possible? The last time I saw them, they were only teenagers. Suddenly, the truth comes clear: the kids in the yearbook pictures are all gone, all of them. And for a moment, you wonder who you are talking to: is it really you?
But, it's still us. As Proust said, it is out of the youth of the past that old men and women are made. Old? Us? Never !!