We lived on the edge of a woods in South Carolina when I was a little girl. Through the woods and past the big pasture there was another woods, smaller than the first, and that’s where the Blackerbys lived.
At first only my sister could go to the Blackerby house. It was part of her grown-up world, her eleven-year-old world anyway, and quite beyond me. She used to buy chickens from Mr. Blackerby. She built a coop for them out back and they roosted in the trees all around our house. When they got sick, Mr. Blackerby knew what was wrong and what my sister needed to do to make them better. Eventually, she took me to the Blackerby house, holding my hand as she led me through the woods, and soon enough it became my place as well.
Mr. Blackerby seemed very old. He had a freckled, bald head and he always wore a pair of bib overalls with a handkerchief tucked in the pocket. He had a vegetable garden where he showed me how to find shiny, black eggplants and gave me warm tomatoes to eat right off the vine. He had dozens of dogs, all barking. And, of course, the chickens. He raised Banties, which were very small, and Rhode Island Reds, which were about as big as I was. If you got too close to one of the mothers, she might peck your leg — a terrifying experience. Mr. Blackerby showed me the secret places where the hens hid their eggs.
Mrs. Blackerby always made a butter and sugar sandwich for me when I arrived. Oh, sensual pleasures of childhood! She gave me paper dolls of Dale Evans to play with on her cool linoleum floor. Sometimes, in the afternoon, we’d sit together on the front steps and pull the strings out of beans for their dinner. We got our water from a well in the yard. It was always cold and delicious and we poured it from the bucket with a dipper into aluminum cups. My mother said there were dead squirrels in that well, but I never saw any. We peed in an outhouse that had a crescent moon carved in the door. Black widow spiders lived under the front steps. Inside, there were pages of an old catalogue for wiping your butt. Not understanding the exigencies of economics, of poverty, I thought the Blackerbys were merely eccentric.
Mr. Blackerby had an old porch swing — some kind of a mattress, tied up at the four ends with a rope so that it hung like a swing. That’s where he sat and that’s where I sat, day in and day out. Now, I wonder what an old man and a six-year-old girl had to say to each other for all those long, hot afternoons, and I honestly can’t recall. It was easy to be with him, that’s all I know. It was easy and comfortable.
(These days no mother — at least no nice, middle-class mother like mine — would let her little girl run off through the woods to visit an old man, especially an old, white trash man like Mr. Blackerby, but that was a long time ago, before everybody was afraid of everybody else. Whenever I read one of those articles called “How To Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse,” telling me to beware any adult who is interested in my child, I feel sad and bitter. To have adults who cared for me because I was myself, to have my very own friendship with them, to share the lives and work of grown-ups for the simple pleasure of each other’s company — how special that was! What an affirmation of my worth!)
And so the luxurious days of childhood rolled past.
One Sunday afternoon, I was having dinner at the neighbors’ house with my family. The McCleans were pig farmers. They grew corn and watermelons, too, and they called black people “niggers,” which we did not do at my house. In the summer I helped them with their vegetable stand, selling produce out by the highway.
Mrs. McClean said to my mother, “Oh, did you hear about old Mr. Blackerby dying last night, Mari?” Just like that. Just like that and laid out in a coffin someplace, under the ground, face up in his old bib overalls, all alone. And everybody kept right on eating. They kept right on eating their Sunday dinners and saying, “Please pass the chicken,” and “Can I have more gravy?” as if nothing were different.
I never went back to the old house. Someone said later that Mrs. Blackerby went to stay with one of her daughters across town, but I never went back to look.
No one ever talked to me about my friend dying. No one ever thought to help me make sense of it. He was white trash and I was a child and, on the scale of things, neither of us was very important. I have always missed him and I miss him to this day. I never got to say goodbye until now, in this funny, public, adult way. Goodbye, Mr. Blackerby, farewell. I love you.
It’s close to midnight on a warm September evening. In a few short hours I leave for college 600 miles away. She’s the last of my friends I go to see, not because she’s the most important, but because I know she’d like to be. For the first time she says she loves me. I tell her not to worry, that things will be the same when I return for Thanksgiving vacation, that we’ll write and call each other, that there’s no way we’ll grow apart. It’s a lie and I know it. I know this is not just the end of a teenage love affair but of an era in my life. She cries. We kiss. I say farewell full of hope, exhilaration and the smallest tinge of guilt.
I’m packing all my earthly belongings into a small red car as she looks on. We’re both twenty-three and we’ve lived together three years. We dropped out of college together, ran off to California together, made love together a thousand times, rarely fought, and grew apart. I want to be an enlightened yogi and live in a cave in the Himalayas. She wants to be an organic earth mother in the hills of southern Indiana. I’m numb, scared, my mind in neutral. I’m doing what I have to do. She tries bravely to look appropriately somber and hide her sense of buoyancy and relief. We cling together for a few minutes in a hug beside my car. “Namaste,” I say, get in my car, and drive off.
My first daughter is two months old. She’s small and red and has a perpetually intense look of unblinking eyes and furrowed brow that reminds me of my father’s face when he reads The Wall Street Journal. On a beautiful spring day we drive 200 miles to take her to meet her great-grandfather in the retirement community he reluctantly calls home. He holds her, tells her she’s cute, but his mind is somewhere else. He tells us stories of when my dad and uncle were boys, stories we’ve heard a hundred times and know by heart. He tells us how good the food is here and how much trouble he’s been having working up a decent bowel movement. When it comes time to go I tell him we’ll be back to see him again in a couple of months. “I won’t be here,” he says matter-of-factly, as if he means he’ll be off playing pinochle rather than dead. “Of course you will,” I lie, kissing him on his bald head. I never see him again.
My thirty-sixth birthday is about to end and I’m in bed with my wife. We haven’t been getting along at all lately but we went through all the motions of celebration. She baked a cake; we went out to dinner with the kids; my four-year-old daughter gave me the pair of bright blue sweat pants I’d been wanting. Just as I start to drift off to sleep my wife says, “Oh, I did get you something for your birthday — your freedom. I filed for divorce today.” The drifting stops. We talk, we cry, we never leave the bed and stay awake until 4 a.m. We make love with a passion that we thought had died long ago. We recount all the best times we’ve had together. We laugh and have more fun than we’ve had in two years, and still it doesn’t change a thing. The next Sunday I move out. Four months later we’re divorced, and some days we’re still struggling to say farewell.
This morning I go by the babysitter’s to take my five-year-old daughter to school. She isn’t waiting out front as usual, and so I go inside to get her and encounter my two-year-old daughter eating pancakes all alone at the kitchen table. “Want more syrup?” I ask her as I watch her struggle with the last two dry bites. “No more syrup,” she says, pushing the plate away. “Don’t need pancakes. My coat right there,” she says pointing to a chair in the corner. “I’m just here to take Jessie to school,” I tell her. “I’ll be back to pick you up this afternoon for your weekend at Daddy’s.” Her mouth falls open, her chin begins to tremble, she tries bravely to hold back the tears now welling in her eyes. I pick her up, hold her to my chest and she clings to me not with tenacity but with resignation, like a small beached whale. The hello has barely begun and the farewell is already under way.
As I look back over past farewells I see that none of them, not even the ones precipitated by death, were permanent. Daily, I relive the people, the experiences, even the farewells themselves. Sometimes I feel stuck in paradox. The people who transcend farewells to continually inhabit my life bring me uncounted richness of feeling, and yet at times I’d like to be free of the past, totally present. Perhaps being an amnesia victim would be nice.
So now I practice the yoga of farewells. It’s not a glamorous yoga, like bhakti or kundalini, full of bliss and wondrous psychic experiences. It’s a yoga made up of small everyday events. It’s not the yoga I would have chosen; it’s the yoga that has chosen me. At night I lie in bed and before falling asleep say farewell to everyone I’ve seen that day. My children, friends, colleagues, ex-wife, the old Mexican gentleman who asked me if I knew where he could get a job as a dishwasher, the pretty high school girl who flashed me a shy smile as she got on the bus, all get the same treatment. I beam them love from my heart, I withdraw my desires, attachments, and expectations from them. I hope that they fare well and I drift off to sleep.
Life seems to be an endless series of farewells. Each day I say goodbye not so much to other people but to my illusions about other people and about myself. I chant the farewell mantra continuously even as I create new relationships, new illusions, new selves to outgrow.
South Bend, Indiana
Any time you’re with somebody, it could be the last time. I don’t harp on it but I keep it in mind. I try not to leave any major unfinished business from one meeting to the next. I don’t like to stay angry with or suspicious of people unless I don’t care about them much.
People say a lot of things about our educational system, how barbaric and unnatural it is to expect kids to sit behind desks six hours a day, five days a week. But school gave us something that few of us have had since: dependable, day-by-day continuity with all our friends. If a good friend was absent a few days, it was noticed and that friend was missed. Nowadays I see my favorite friend about once every two or three weeks. He could have three flus in a row and I wouldn’t know.
Farewell is a sad thing — helpless, humble. What else can you say when it’s time? Fare you well. Take good care. Be strong and happy while I can’t be with you. What else can I offer you? What else can I say?
As the Grateful Dead sing: “Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell. . . .”
I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to my father. He died in his sleep, 2,000 miles away. But I was lucky, because the last time I saw him I got my courage up, looked him in the face, and said, “I love you.” He didn’t take it very gracefully; he could never say things like that himself. And I’d never said it to him before.
Another part of my unknowing farewell to my father was that a few months before he died, I had interviewed him and Mom and written up their life stories. He was reluctant. “My life isn’t interesting,” he said. He wouldn’t let me tape him because, he said, “my voice doesn’t sound right on those things.” But he finally let me ask him questions and take notes. When I sent him the finished product, I was sure he’d be upset. Then he wrote me and said, “You did a super job on my write-up.” I was so proud.
He’d slam beers, one after another, not saying a word until he’d finished an even half-dozen. It was always after work. He’d come in covered with sawdust, his shirt dark, soaked with his own sweat. He’d settle in for the evening after seeming to relax from that sixth beer. He was a carpenter. He was willing to enter into conversation about virtually anything: his work, sports, politics, family life, women, and so on — including quantum physics, which I heard him explain one evening as “the very, very small and the very, very large and how they are the same thing.” He spent almost every evening in the bar. If he wasn’t in the bar he’d be at home in front of his color television drinking strong malt liquor until he passed out. He never missed a day of work and he never missed an evening six-pack. He also never got out of hand.
He would drink to relax after eight hours or more of swinging a 32-ounce framing hammer. He also drank to forget about having watched his young wife take five years to die of brain cancer. He never said an unkind word to other people unless they became unkind and then it was always to their face.
He was always ebullient in his drunkenness and would from time to time in mid-hoist take on a faraway smile and hold his glass half-full in a silent toast. It seemed, then, as if a force had entered him. He might stay that way for several minutes, with his arm cocked and a wry smile on his mouth.
He’d often listen to other people’s problems. But he always gave the same advice, “Man, don’t ever worry about tomorrow.” He’d look right in their eyes when he said that, then, reaching for his beer and looking into the mirror at the back bar, he’d say, “Each day is bad enough.” Then he’d drain whatever was in his glass.
A year after his wife died he quit drinking, save for one and only one beer at 5:30 every evening after work. He was standing at the end of the bar the last time I saw him with his single beer, his elbow bent, a half-smile on his face.
James Ross Kelly
White City, Oregon
When I belonged to the Young Democrats, some of us went to a bar one night after the meeting. Tommy, our president, was there with his charming wife, Dixie.
She drank some beers with us, which seemed to release her inhibitions, and when the time came to leave she burst out, “When I’m having a good time with people, I never want to part from them. I just want to take them home with us and make them part of our lives!”
I’d never had the courage to say so, but I’d always felt like that, too. When I’m really enjoying being with a group of people, I never want to leave them.
Like Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I even find myself missing people I used to despise. I can see their comical side now, and I think maybe if I met them again I’d be more tolerant and just enjoy their antics without letting them get on my nerves.
I guess if I had my way, I’d never say a final farewell to anyone.
I’d said so many farewells. After ten years, I thought I’d settle down with somebody I knew, somebody like myself.
We shared so much — including the various afflictions he acquired in the course of studying psychosomatic medicine. That’s the trade-off in opening up your boundaries. You get it all: closeness, warmth, understanding, the illusion of safety — and all the diseases. The one I most resented was eczema. The one I never got over was conjunctivitis. The only one I managed to avoid was nasal allergy.
I couldn’t have a disease without his explaining the underlying message it communicated. With conjunctivitis it was that I really needed to cry.
Once, at the airport in Memphis, when I was about to leave on a short trip, he had a prolonged sneezing attack, which started outside the prayer chapel and continued right on to the gate. As he began to recover I saw the explanation coming.
“Don’t go,” he said, making it sound like “a-choo!” “Don’t go! Don’t go! Don’t go! Don’t go! Don’t go!”
It must have been what I was trying to get somebody to say all along. So I stayed.
When I started going out with Jim again I thought I was pampering myself, allowing myself a well-deserved good time. Instead, I was reminded of why I stopped going out with him the first time, two years ago.
Jim has a lot of money and throws it around. This is almost irresistible to someone as broke as I am. I did things with him that I wouldn’t be able to afford on my own: dining in the finest restaurants, picnicking on the roof of a castle, dressing up and pretending wealth for a while. It fulfilled a romantic fantasy, and at first I had the delicious feeling of truly spoiling myself.
The problem is, I don’t like myself when I’m around him. He has the ability to make me feel bought and paid for. I don’t feel like a person, but an image. Back at his place after an incredible, extravagant dinner, he attacks me. When I try to get him to slow down, he acts as if I’m playing games and tells me to stop being silly. “What’s silly?” I demand. But I get no answer, only a smile and an offered drink.
He acts as if I’m breaking a contract. And the hell of it is, I feel a little guilty. Maybe I am. He fulfilled my fantasy, now it’s my turn to fulfill his. In fact, I deliver. But it feels more like an athletic feat than like making love.
I disliked him for treating me as a commodity rather than as a person, but I disliked myself even more. Wasn’t I doing precisely the same thing to him? His shallowness was merely a reflection of my own.
It seems that people often reflect the images I project. Perhaps as I learn to appreciate the wholeness and human individuality of the people I’m with, they will do the same with me. And perhaps as I learn to respect myself as a multi-faceted and unique soul, people will be less likely to see me as two-dimensional. I will, at least, have my own respect.
Tonight, when I say my prayers, I will pray for strength and health and God’s patience, for friends and family and the peaceful cows in the field. And I’ll be saying farewell to a little superficiality in my life, to the lack of self-respect that made me conform to the shallow image that isn’t who I am.
My Uncle Jack, who died last month, was a nineteen-year-old soldier in the Battle of the Bulge. A shell exploded near him, breaking his eardrums and causing him to be temporarily paralyzed. The medics couldn’t get to him and so he lay in a ditch all night and his feet froze. He was rescued eventually and was sent home to recuperate. I was only a toddler at the time, but my mother has told me that after what happened to him, Mamaw (my grandmother) would just do anything for him. She would iron him several white shirts every day, fix him anything he wanted to eat, and never answer him back when he was rude to her.
I can remember just vaguely the late Forties when Uncle Jack, my father and mother, my grandparents, and I all lived together in a small white house in Knoxville, Tennessee. My grandfather often slept in the daytime and worked at night. He was a conductor for Southern Railway. I can remember when Uncle Jack was dating Margaret Haggerty — who later became my Aunt Margaret — because she used to take me for walks around the neighborhood. She was part Indian as well as Irish. I used to love to comb her hair because it was so unlike my fine, blonde curls. Hers was so black that it had blue shadows in it.
A story: about the time Jack and Margaret got married, my rag doll Polly disappeared. Mother searched all through the house for it, because it was my first and favorite doll, but she couldn’t find it. Years later, after I was married and living in California, Uncle Jack was cleaning his attic and unrolled his sleeping bag which he had brought back from the war and there was my Polly.
Another story: when I was about seven and my sister still a baby, we were visiting my grandparents one Sunday in their new house, which sits near the top of a ridge overlooking the railroad yards in East Knoxville. My parents were there and so were Jack and Margaret, who had built themselves a house right across the street. It was in the hot summertime and an electrical storm blew up. Suddenly a big ball of lightning whizzed right through the living room where we were sitting and vanished out the front door. We were all stunned — but Uncle Jack instinctively dived behind the couch covering his head with his arms. He was shaking all over. Of course they all made a big joke out of it. I feel sure that story was told at his wake. It became a part of the family history.
My father and Uncle Jack were always falling out with each other over something. Interestingly, my grandfather and his brother Arthur were the same way and had not spoken to each other for many years when Arthur died. But they say my grandfather cried at Arthur’s funeral. My sister and I haven’t spoken to each other for about three years now.
There is a snapshot at home, all faded and brown. It shows my daddy when he was about six years old, in short pants, pulling my Uncle Jack in a wagon. Jack is about three years old, his mouth is hanging open, and he looks so blank, it’s comical. He’s sitting with his legs sticking straight out in front of him, his blond hair like dandelion fuzz. Daddy is squinting into the camera and neither of them are smiling. It seems so long ago.
Wendell, North Carolina