It’s graduation season. The time when college seniors worry about their future. And so it was in 1967.
In that year’s award-winning movie, “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns from college with his diploma and a problem. He wants his future to be different than the affluent, automated life of his parents.
At a haute welcome-home party a family friend advises Ben to remember one word about his career — “plastics.” It would become the clarion call for a generation of college students, including me.
We understood the metaphor. We saw our parents’ society, like plastic, as only a synthetic imitation of the real thing.
The movie drove home the point when a family friend, the now infamous Mrs. Robinson, forces herself on young Ben. An affair ensues until Ben falls for her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross).
In a rage, Mrs. Robinson turns her daughter against Ben by mischaracterizing him as the instigator of the affair, then manipulates Elaine into marrying an old boyfriend. In the end, Elaine learns the truth and escapes with Ben on her wedding day.
The tale made for great theater. But, it would become more than just a story when I met a free- spirited Houston girl named Abbie (not her real name). Her family was rich, mine hopelessly middle class. Opposites attracted and we became close.
We both loved “The Graduate.” Abbie identified with Elaine and her disdain for the high society crowd. I related to Ben’s fear of a life devoted to the robotic pursuit of money. We both dreaded the seemingly artificial road ahead.
When it was time for me to leave for law school in another city, Abbie wanted to come. I was tempted. Instead, I kissed her and drove away.
A year later she called in tears. After her graduation, she had acceded to family pressure, moved home and gotten engaged to a silver-spoon guy. The wedding was a week away and she knew she didn’t love him.
That night she drove across the state to see me. She asked if I would save her like Ben had Elaine. Life was now imitating art. I agonized, knowing that it was her only face-saving way out.
Again, I declined. I never saw her again.
Thirty years later in my law office, her obituary flashed onto my screen. She had died at 51. Her last name was different, but survivors did not include a husband or children. Only thanks to her caregivers.
Neither of us had made good our escape.
When I muster the courage, I will visit Abbie’s grave for a final goodbye. Although they will not last as long, the flowers I bring will be real, not plastic. She would smile at that.