February is the time of year for invitations to college reunions. As I open and consider the invitations I’m reminded of the students during my elementary, high school and college years, and I realize now we were a diverse lot. You wouldn’t have known it then, but I can see it now. I grew up in a small town on the New England coast, where diversity rarely meant more than one’s religion (and all Judeo-Christian groups). And yet my former classmates and I took a number of very different paths.
Among those I went to school with (both high school and college), most have lived successful and mostly uneventful lives, raising families, building careers, and enjoying the pleasures of adulthood. As expected, most have married, a few divorced, and some remained single. A few made brief detours into drug addiction, but survived and recovered.
Others went deep into the life of the 1960s—marching in the streets or trekking in Nepal. I went to live in India, and ended up writing about it in the Anita Ray novels. Several others were able to come out and live more authentic lives. Yes, they were gay, and though some of us suspected as much we never thought to comment on it. None of this is surprising.
But my peers also include at least one suicide, which still grieves me; at least two lost to Vietnam; at least one living with a crippling disease; one who narrowly avoided prison for attempted arson; one guilty of involuntary manslaughter; and one who was murdered, the crime still unsolved. Those are the life markers I never anticipated. Who expects to open the newspaper one morning and read about the violent death of a graduate student, and then recognize her name? And she was the most brilliant student in my class.
These men and women were part of my early life, and their faces are still sharp and clear to me. As we went our separate ways after graduation, most of us were enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. We expected only the best. But over the subsequent decades our quirks came to take over our lives—the appetite for risk; the impulsivity that aborted projects before they could bear fruit; the doggedness that propelled the mediocre student onto the top rung at work; the unswerving determination to explore that led to something special in a life; and the surefootedness of the one who knew at the outset what he or she wanted to do.
Sometimes I think where we end up in life is the result of chance, and then I decide it’s DNA, or perhaps it all depends on hard work, or perhaps we’re the produce of a series of helpers who see something in us that we miss. But in the end, as I look back on those whose lives I’ve followed, I see once again that there are no easy answers. Those who knew early on what they wanted to do and stayed with it are as much dependent on chance as those who came back alive from Vietnam only to die years later from an infected wound.
My former classmates are the kind of people who populate my and other writers' traditional mysteries—the men and women born to opportunity and advantages who lose their way and end up taking extraordinary risks, or those who watch their lives fall apart after missing a train or signing up for the wrong evening class. They watch as the consequences clog their paths to a better life. When they look back on what they have done, or what has happened to them, they too must wonder how it all came to be. Some things even a mystery novel can’t answer.
To read about a New England town or a village in India, go here.