MOUNT HERMON SCHOOL REUNION USA
“Purple is the sunset”
Mount Hermon School Reunion, Montreat, North Carolina, June 4-7, 2015
The Atlanta “Party” consisting of a three vehicle caravan inches its way up the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina through winding mountain roads that are oddly reminiscent of someplace else I've been. Can't quite place it. Pine trees soar heavenwards in a rich jungle over a damp undergrowth of dogwood interspersed with rhododendron. No, it still won't come to me! We wonder if we’ll ever arrive as the GPS' forceful tones instruct us to make yet another right turn up the hillside.
We'd assembled the evening before at Karl and Kimberly Hagen's lovely home in Atlanta, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Senguptas from Tulsa, Oklahoma, a twelve hour's drive away. I’d flown in from Naples, a short hop by comparison, and was met at the airport by Ken Hagen in his rutfut truck. Finally Robin, his wife Noella and daughter, Priya arrive and hobble stiffly out of their vehicle. Sixteen year old Priya sees a blonde guy Ken, rush out to greet them, accompanied by his wife, Linda. Apparently he speaks no English, just Nepalese, a language she's never heard before. "Talae!" he insists on calling her father who has a perfectly good head of hair. She can’t help but be apprehensive about the days ahead. "Hey Kancha!" he addresses his brother, Karl, thumping him affectionately on the back.
Today, we turn one last corner and finally arrive at The Glen Rock Inn in Montreat, a two storied lodging with a mossy shingle roof, nestled under the pines. Kenny Jones greets us enthusiastically and suddenly we’re surrounded by warm smiling faces and offered hot cups of tea. Arun Jones appears, a shadow of his former self. He shares with us later that he was sent to MH because he needed to lose weight. He's accompanied by his charming wife, Yolie who he met in the Philippines. We're shown to our rooms, which are up a steep staircase and along narrow corridors. I sniff the aroma of pine outside my window, strangely evocative of another time and place. Can't quite put my finger on where.
Back downstairs, Marianne Nichols-Roy smothers me in a bear hug. We figure it’s been 45 years since we last met and she hasn't aged a bit. I would have recognized her anywhere. She introduces me to her hubby Steven Schwartz, to Josna Rege, bubbly as ever and to Tsognie Wangmo who all represent the Class of '69. JoJo later shares that, unlike Arun, she was sent to MH because she was too thin! We are privileged to have among us Gordon Hostetler who was at MH between1941-45 as a kid in junior school. He's accompanied by his wife, Phyllis. How special our school must be to inspire someone to attend a reunion after a period of seventy, yes seventy years! They fit right in and bring a new perspective to the gathering. I turn around and suddenly there's Cynthia Nichols-Roy, my dorm room-mate and confidante of yore! How we'd whispered and giggled deep into the night, long after lights-out, about boys in our class and couples caught kissing! With her is Ed Austin, her stalwart spouse who braved the Colorado Reunion of 2004, and is therefore somewhat prepared for the onslaught of singing and reminiscing that's to be an integral part of the reunion.
Lalrinpuii Changte, our resident historian par excellence, arrives in her car laden with old sepia photographs, song-sheets and ancient copies of the Hermonite Magazine. What joy to flip though those pages and read our earnest and comical poems and articles! David Nichols-Roy brews awesome pots of tea with the milk mixed in, MH style. He and his wife Minnette, both staunch MH supporters, have flown across the country from California to be part of this. At Mount Hermon and in our homes in Shillong he'd been the Nichols-Roy’s puny kid brother and therefore beneath our notice. Now towering over me, I consider it prudent not to boss him around. Besides, he resembles his father, Stanley, more and more, a person we'd all respected.
"When's dinner?" someone asks. It seems no one has lost their boarding school hunger! We're told Barbara Nichols-Roy is bringing it in her car all the way from Arlington, Virginia. Without her, there'll be no dinner. All of a sudden she arrives, accompanied by her lovely mother, Helen, who’s almost ninety years old. We swarm around them, delighted they'd arrived safely, reassured that there would now be food! Some things never change. Barbara has apparently brought everything but the kitchen sink. Apart from coordinating the reunion, she has taken on responsibility for cooking and organizing dinner on two nights as well as accompanying most of the singing on piano. Kenny prints up song-sheets typed with the words of Going Home Day Songs and our favorite anthems. She and Kenny put in extraordinary effort to make the reunion happen. Kenny shopped for most of the groceries we enjoyed, booked and paid in advance for the accommodation, the excellent lunches and catered dinner. He did all the negotiating and accounting and we just can’t thank him enough.
Margaret Mapley who left Darjeeling back in 1972 arrives with her "air-head" husband, Nigel Jackson all the way from Canada. And in time for dinner! "I'm fascinated by anything to do with flying," he laughs, "so you can legitimately call me an air-head." He's obviously good MH spouse material. Margaret is hungry for news about everyone and later reads an email sent her by Lucinda Gibbs who recently visited Mount Hermon. It brings disquieting news of the current situation. We discuss and reflect on what, if anything, we can do to help. The issue is complex and bewildering.
Fui Chung Li arrives from Canada with his wife June, who attended school in Kurseong. He presents all alumni with MHS caps which will be poignant souvenirs of the reunion. They're followed by Michal Silliman and Michael Ashkenazy from New York. Michal was another brave soul who attended MH for only one year to do her HSC in 1976 but felt sufficiently inspired to attend this reunion. Michael, who turns out to be from Shillong, is quickly inveigled into participating in the Talent Night scheduled for Saturday. Nalini (Nelly) Jones arrives with her five year old son Rohan, a mischievous soul. Nelly's husband, Jude Joseph, roars in later on his motor cycle. She confesses that when her big brother Arun was sent to MH because he was fat, she was afraid to eat for fear of being sent there too! Eventually the entire Jones family moved to Ailina and Nelly was able to eat again.
Last but not least, Barbara's husband, Vinai Thummalapally, arrives from DC. He co-hosted the Colorado Reunion of 2004 and is well-honed in the art of indulging old Hermonites. The party is now complete! We do all the things we came here to do. We sing our hearts out, we catch up on each other's experiences, we trek up the mountainside, we exchange phone numbers and email addresses. It's a magical time. Despite singing about how "We said we wouldn't look back," we do little else.
The more active among us wake up before the rising bell (siren) to take a hike, Priya included and I'm impressed. Her parents are still asleep. She's roughly the same age we were when we created many of these memories we're trying to recapture. She walks with the Hagens, ahead of the pack. Apparently Ken does speak a little English. They’re kind and funny and she feels included. Suddenly she sees how cool they are, and that maybe there's more to this reunion thing than she realized. Does she perhaps even feel a twinge of jealousy? How is it that these people still have so much in common? What type of bond brings people across countries and continents after so many years just to get together to share a few old jokes (come by running, one, two click three), to look at old pictures and sing the same old songs? She wonders if she'll want to get together with her school friends half a century later in another country. She seriously doubts it. (Sorry, Priya! We identify with you more than you realize!) Tsognie forges ahead without leaving so much as a footprint, much fitter than she's any right to be, but what else can you expect from a Himalayan? The view from the top is stupendous. We are above a shroud of mist that enfolds the valleys below. I rack my brains for where I might have seen this phenomenon before.
We assemble later to formally introduce ourselves and talk about what we've been up to since we "passed out" of school. We learn new amazing things about each other. At an ecumenical gathering the next day presided by Arun Jones we pay homage to those who have recently passed away. Tragically, we've lost three school principals this past year, Rev. David Stewart, Rev. Bill Jones and Mr. Graeme Murray. We share in a time of reflection and sing "Lord of all hopefulness" in loving remembrance of Mr. Murray. We each believe we were at MH in its heyday. Perhaps everyone thinks the same, but we're eternally grateful for the blessings bestowed on us by our beloved school.
Saturday afternoon is set aside for momo making with Robin and Noella Sengupta in charge. We all have guilty memories of "bunking" to North Point to indulge in momos and soup...mmm delicious! We consume dozens of these culinary masterpieces and I dish out fresh mangoes for dessert. But Barbara informs me we have yet to eat dinner, and the momos, apparently, were just the appetizer. Seriously? The Talent Show follows with Barbara nipping into the kitchen between performances to see to the rice. Cynthia has already cooked her famous dahl.
The Talent Show is living testimony to the skills fostered in Mount Hermon. It's a feast of music, comedy, literature and drama that I am privileged to compere. The Khasis, (not the Kardashians - we have a little less money) kick off with a sad lament about a deer. Marianne's voice is clear as a bell in her rendering of "As long as he needs me" from Oliver Twist. Nina Wason reads from her novel, "A Sahib's Daughter." Puii reads a spine-chilling poem called “Fear” by Kenny Jones from an old issue of the school magazine. He listens, oblivious to the fact that he wrote it, and has no memory of doing so! Robin, one of those guitar playing guys the girls swooned over (in bell-bottoms and tie-dye on Mufti Saturdays), still rocks! Marianne, JoJo and Tsognie enact the three witches from Macbeth. The long-suffering "spices" (spouses) valiantly enter into the spirit of things with their own vocal performance accompanied by Steven on guitar. Gordon relates hilarious tales from when he was seven. Cynthia, Barbara and Nina sing "Three Old Maids" (a Mikado take off) while Helen plays a very credible Sister Digby administering spoonfuls of tonic. Did anyone else claim to have a cough just to savor the syrup she doled out in those sugar deprived days? Ken Hagen impersonates Mr. Jones and JoJo reads her Blogs which whimsically recount her memories of life in MH. Nina reads an episode about her mother, Mrs. Wason from her book, "The Jewel Daughters" followed by a hilarious impersonation by David Nichols-Roy. (Did he miss his true calling?) The show winds up with everyone wearing towels on their heads (shades of Junior School Chapel Play costumes) for "The Hermonites-13th Tribe of Israel," written and recited by Margaret Mapley.
And yes, we're hungry when it's time (again) for dinner! We share in our final hours together and decide not to leave it so long before our next reunion, perhaps five years? Fui Li and Vinai declare that five years is too long, we're none of us getting any younger! It's heartwarming to hear concurrence from everyone, especially the spices! We reluctantly turn in for "light's out."
Sadly I ascend the stairs to my room under the eaves. I shed quiet tears as I gaze at the dark trees outside my window. And then it comes to me! The mountains, the pines, the rhododendrons and the mist! Our dear Kenny has chosen the perfect location for the reunion that brought us together to ruminate, reflect and reminisce about a place that’s been instrumental in shaping our lives. We'd travelled back in time, reunited with old dear friends, and for a few shining days, cocooned among the pines of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Montreat became Mount Hermon!
Nina Wason Harkness (1961-1972)