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Lawrenceville High class of '49 still upholds memory lane

Staff Photo: John Bohn Grace Cain views a class photo of her high school graduation in Lawrenceville during 1949. A group of 80-somethings from the same high school class meet monthly to discuss their lives. A Christmas luncheon meeting was held at Cain's Lawrenceville home.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Grace Cain views a class photo of her high school graduation in Lawrenceville during 1949. A group of 80-somethings from the same high school class meet monthly to discuss their lives. A Christmas luncheon meeting was held at Cain's Lawrenceville home.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn From left to right, Ruth Greene, Marie Britt Duncan, Reba Bridges, Mary Long, Grace Cain, Joyce Jones Reed, Jo Brownlee and Sula Clack, all part of a group of 80-somethings from the same high school class of 1949, meet monthly to discuss their lives. Their Christmas luncheon meeting was held at the Lawrenceville home of Grace Cain.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Marie Britt Duncan, right, prepares plates of food as a group of 80-somethings from the same high school class meet to discuss their lives. Their Christmas luncheon meeting is held at the Lawrenceville home of Grace Cain, center rear. At left is Mary Long.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Marie Britt Duncan, right, tells a story about her serving as Miss Lawrenceville 1949 as a group of 80-somethings from the same high school class hold a monthly gathering to discuss their lives. Their Christmas luncheon meeting is held at the Lawrenceville home of Grace Cain. At rear, from left to right are class members Mary Long, Sula Clack and Reba Bridges.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn A group of 80-somethings from the same high school class attend their Christmas luncheon meeting at the Lawrenceville home of Grace Cain. From left to right are Mary Long, Ruth Greene, Reba Bridges, Marie Britt Duncan, Joyce Jones Reed, Sula Clack and Jo Brownlee. The group meets monthly to discuss their lives.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn In a 1949 Lawrenceville graduation class photo, are members of a group of women, now 80-somethings, who meet monthly to discuss their lives. Marie Britt Duncan is seated, second from right, Grace Cain is seated second from left, Reba Bridges is seated 3rd from right, Joyce Jones Reed is standing, 4th from right, Sula Clack is standing 5th from right, and Ruth Greene is standing, second from left.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Joyce Jones Reed, left, and Mary Long, right, are part of a group of 80-somethings from the same high school class who meet monthly to discuss their lives. Their Christmas luncheon meeting is held at the Lawrenceville home of class member Grace Cain.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The six chatty ladies in the living room recall a time when folks came to Lawrenceville by way of wagon and mule, when outhouses -- or "privies" -- dotted most backyards, and when the road to Snellville was a foreboding stretch of hard red dirt.

It's been 63 years since the Lawrenceville High School class of 1949 donned white gowns and lined up in two rows for their senior class photo. The photo's white edges have gone vanilla and then caramel with age.

But by the vividness of the ladies' recollections, a listener might think the caps had flown last week.

They have been meeting on the first Monday of each month for several years. It's a lunchtime ritual one member calls "organ recitals" -- that is, a chance to hash over which of their organs are ailing.

Of 24 graduates in the class, six have died. Five men from the class are living, but they're either too feeble, too far away or too indifferent to attend.

So it's a girls club by default.

Save the 79-year-old baby of the group, today's host, they are all octogenarians, born roughly the same year as the Empire State Building. They are witnesses to a bygone era -- to a slower, simpler way of life that seeps more into history each day.

Individually, the ladies have overcome cancer and crushing life tragedies to attend a special Christmas luncheon today. They convene on couches and recliners in a big white home, buried in a woodsy 33 acres off Gloster Road, a place tailor-made for private socializing. Together, they are a study in vintage grace.

Theirs was the first class to graduate from the newly built high school on "academy hill," the highest point in Gwinnett County. It overlooked Lawrenceville and once injected the town with foot traffic. The abandoned, asbestos-plagued structure was razed in August. These ladies have outlived their school.

In the context of their friendships, the Lawrenceville High School alma mater, or school song, was applicable. Its two verses began like this:

In the Northern Hills of Georgia

Stands a school so rare

Loved and honored for her standards

By her students there...

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No one recalls a specific impetus for the first organ recital.

Had they grown too tired of seeing each other exclusively at the funerals of mutual friends? Had they heard the tick of the same existential clock? Or did they just fancy the chance to eat heartily at meeting points like Steak 'N Shake, Newk's Express Cafe and McCray's?

What's known is that the busyness of life -- kids, jobs, homes, more kids -- had strained the ties that held the class of 1949 together. But the ties never broke. In retirement the ladies make time to kindle what matters.

"Jobs and families keep you busy," says classmate Mary Frazier Long, a retired teacher turned Lawrenceville historian. "And then you have a little bit of space before you hit Marble City."

That is, the graveyard.

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The Christmas lunch is a spread of quiche, potatoes au gratin and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. On deck are deserts of chocolate-dipped strawberries and Russian tea cakes. A ragtime version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" swings from a CD player in the corner, and the exquisitely arranged table settings bear Christmas trees. The host, Grace Britt Cain, a longtime secretary for Gwinnett's superintendent of schools, leads a prayer:

Bless this food as we enjoy it together ...

Some friendships here formed long before high school, at Lawrenceville's lone elementary. A few of them recall walking together on a sixth-grade field trip to a downtown theater showing "Gone With the Wind." Admission was a nickel.

Theirs was a tightly woven Lawrenceville of 2,900 people who felt they knew each other, yet a city more divided by segregation.

Like her friends, Sula Clack, retired from an Atlanta telephone company, still uses a more fanciful moniker for downtown; she calls it "uptown."

As girls, they raced on roller skates around the Historic Courthouse, which back then was coated in white paint. They watched as a huge billboard was erected to list the local men sent to fight the Nazis.

On Saturday nights, street dances ensued at the American Legion. Memories of dancing whip the ladies into giggling fits. The biggest dance of all consumed Perry Street the day the war ended.

Theirs was a town chockfull of characters.

Long recalls a man who rode in every weekend to buy moonshine in Honest Alley, then overindulge and black out. Like clockwork, someone would load him back into his wagon and point his mule to U.S. Highway 29.

Laughs Long: "The mule knew the way home."

She says a road in the county is named for the drunkard, a kind but flawed soul. Out of respect for his family, she won't divulge that name. In the living room her secret sets the other ladies abuzz.

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Attendees at the Christmas lunch include royalty, for Miss Lawrenceville 1949 is here.

Marie Britt Duncan -- master gardener, cookbook writer, Cain's sister -- bested 13 other girls on a high school stage for the honor. After school she used to accept motorcycle rides from the boys. She married her high school sweetheart. Later in life her baby daughter would die. Across the flow of years she kept her oldest friends.

"The best thing about these ladies," says Duncan, "they're just a stability in your life."

A rare note of pessimism comes when Reba Bridges abominates her bad luck in life. The longtime secretary wears a spiffy red jacket and gets around with a cane. Her mobility issues stem from a rainy winter night when she was 20 years old.

When the car slipped off the road it tossed Bridges and her second husband into the air. She was in a coma for five months. He died. They'd been married for a week.

"It's not any fun," Bridges says about aging. "I'll tell you that."

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Between bites of quiche the ladies chat about other people's divorces. They cling to local gossip like pure silver. At the luncheons they barter.

Another interesting pastime: laughing at obituaries.

Not that dying and death are comical. It's that so many of the supposed facts about the lives they knew are fabricated in obituaries, as if the deceased has dolled up in stolen clothing for one last waltz.

"They ain't right," Long says of some obituaries. "I'm gonna have to write me a good one."

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Other topics veer to aches and pains, grandchildren (21 among them), great-grandchildren (6), the eloquence of baby names, the transformation of Atlanta, a woman who dips tobacco and the senior-year caper instigated by Long that sent the girls skipping school to shoot cans with some boy's gun.

One by one, they dole hugs and slip out to their cars. They have husbands to tend to, yards that need primping, Christmas gifts that won't buy themselves. They have lives to keep living.

Says Cain, the host: "We cherish every time we get together." She picks up the class photo and takes it to a safe place.

... Onward, onward be our watchword

As we go down the trail

She will guide us on forever

Lawrenceville High, All Hail