On June 1, my daughter Julie asked if i would take pre-prom pictures of some Canton High seniors and I said yes, although I hadn’t picked up my camera in more than a year. I charged the battery, cleaned the lenses, formatted my SD card, packed my bag, and set off to the house where the seniors were gathered.
It was a landing in Oz moment for me, opening a garden gate into a lush backyard filled with people milling about, young people hugging and smiling, dressed in white shirts and tuxes, satin and chiffon, arms around each other, posing for their parents and their grandparents, cameras and iPhones clicking, conversation and laughter and handshakes and good old-fashioned pre-pandemic life everywhere.
Only a week before, these seniors were not gathering. Restrictions were still in place. At honors night at the high school, masks were required, there was social distancing, and only two parents per student were allowed to attend. Same thing at scholarship night. All throughout May, while daffodils and tulips blossomed without fear right next to each other, families at weddings and First Communions still stood in small groups 6 feet apart from other small groups.
Separate and masked. That’s how we were living. Separate and masked is how we lived for 14 long months.
But on that first day of June, three days after Massachusetts lifted its mask mandate, even Mother Nature pulled off her mask and showed us her smile. The morning had been overcast and ugly with rain predicted. But by midafternoon, the sun appeared and all that was in bloom — azaleas and rhododendrons, the dark green evergreens and the new green grass, plus the young people, every one of them fresh and glowing and beautiful, dressed in their finery — shimmered.
I took pictures but no camera could capture all this. Because everything that never was gave this moment its luster, too. Everything the virus took away: Hundreds of ordinary school days. Lunches in the cafeteria. Hanging out with friends. Classrooms at the end of junior year. Classrooms for most of senior year. Trips. Football. Basketball. Dates. Sleepovers. Concerts. Plays. Freedom.
All that wasn’t, all that had been denied, made what was now all the sweeter.
In that backyard, among the glowing faces, among kids and parents and grandparents hugging and laughing, making plans, I began to believe in the future again. Because this was a victory party, a celebration, not just of the end of something but of the beginning of something, too.
A virus that stopped the world didn’t stop these kids. It changed them. It altered their plans. And it left them malleable, flexible. It was prom night and there they were, the night nothing like they’d imagined. This year’s prom was for seniors only. This year these beautifully dressed, almost grown-ups climbed onto school buses, not into limousines, for their ride to their party. This year nothing was the same as it had been for years and years before.
The kids could have complained about this, about the traditions they didn’t get to enjoy, and maybe some did. But I didn’t hear a single complaint or see even one frown as my camera tried its best to capture some of the magic of this night. I saw only joy and comradeship. I saw victors celebrating.
It’s been all celebration since. Hugs and handshakes, breathing in air which, like everything else, feels cleaner and better than I remember, smelling cologne again, because we’re that close to someone. Sitting beside people. Whispering in an ear. Leaning in, and not away.
I try not to worry about the next wave or the next virus or whatever it is that will turn our lives upside down again. In the middle of the last century, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams wrote what we all know: “The world is violent and mercurial — it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love — love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”
This is exactly what I saw in a backyard on prom night, the love of parents and friends, a love that like gold in a furnace is indestructible, that a burning building — that a world full of burning buildings — can never destroy.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. Read more at beverlybeckham.com.