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Smiling faces in yearbook are younger and wrinkle-free

| Thursday, Jan. 4, 2001

How many times after a day on the road have you plopped on the motel bed, glanced at the night table and almost unconsciously picked up the telephone book to hunt for familiar places and names. Later, in bed, you might also have picked up the Bible and reread some favorite verses.

I am awed by the staying power of words, especially those that record nonfiction. Another, more personal, book to add to a list of irreplaceables is the high school yearbook, which showcases each graduate.

My yearbook was called the 'Yough-a-Mon,' so named because the city of McKeesport is located at the juncture of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers. With graduates' pictures arranged in alphabetical order, it is easy to review those eager 17- and 18-year-old faces as they emerge from the lap of learning into the arms of achievement.

To look and find one picture and then close the book would be as impossible as eating one french fry or potato chip. Once the book is retrieved from the closet, I'm back in a world of academia, among familiar faces. As I turn one page after another, I update in my mind the lives that moved rapidly from high school to retirement. Each carefully posed face rates a cover story.

As the memory gates open, I find classmates who intermarried from the then largest graduating class in McKeesport history. As time passed, people moved on, but bits of information surfaced in newspapers, at surprise encounters in malls, and through hearsay and conversations at reunions. All too soon, school friends were dying.

Top of the list was Pearl, my friend from the first grade until that fateful day when an aneurysm ended her life just three months before she would have collected her first Social Security check.

Many of us are still living. We acquired college educations, jobs, spouses, kids, first homes and promotions sprinkled with touches of fame and fortune. Unfortunately, reality throws a lot of curveballs - premature deaths of parents, spouses, children and friends, debilitating illnesses and devastating days brought by Mother Nature. But to those survivors comes the acceptance of life as a merry-go-round of loving and losing, with the good outweighing the bad for most of us. Life is still a gift with the ultimate promise of heavenly reunions.

There's a special joy in going through the roster of teachers and principals - and to see those men and women as we left them all those years ago. For those minutes or hours that I am lost in the yearbook, time stands still. It's a validation of the past.

I stare at classmates, reviewing all that has happened to them since those photos were taken. Now, there are a few wrinkles, extra pounds, glasses and hair loss, but the smiles are the same.

In my senior year, some of us modeled in a spring fashion show. Blond, statuesque Anne wore the beautiful satin bridal gown. She was barely blooming when brain cancer struck her. Many others died bravely on a battlefield during World War II. At least one classmate died in childbirth, several went down on planes, some fell or were crushed in industrial accidents, while others suffered fatal heart attacks and battled cancer or diabetes.

Every picture on every page parallels past pleasure and pain. The whole spectrum of living and dying is unveiled. There's a magnetism to balance those beautiful 840 graduates with all their sad stories.

Many left the area for greener pastures, and yet they continue to come back for reunions.

Early reunions share a competitive background. We dress 'to the nines' and compare who is single, married, has kept his/her figure, etc. Most of us left those 25th reunions thanking God for acknowledged blessings.

But the atmosphere at a 50th or 60th reunion is reversed. These are afternoon affairs. All sense of competition is gone. We have gained wisdom, compassion and respect for each other, for we have all experienced life.

Recently I discovered a cousin had lost her yearbook. I was able to give her a copy of it and hopefully launched her down memory lane.

Yearbooks are a validation of the past; at best it's a closing of the book - until next time.

Thelma Cesarone is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer for the Tribune-Review.

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