The past week has been non-stop Goodbyes. Goodbyes to kids, classmates, friends, family, pets…too many to count. Some of them were painful and tearful, and some — God willing — were temporary, but none of them were particularly easy, especially given that they came in a flurry, one after the other. Sometime mid-week, I had the urge to stand in the middle of the front yard and scream: ENOUGH ALREADY!
Along the way, I started thinking about traditions (and singing the song by the same name in my head. If you don’t know this piece of musical theater excellence, here it is from the film version, with subtitles so you can learn the words: Fiddler on the Roof, Tradition)
There’s a great line in this piece, at the 1:45 mark, where Tevye says, “…because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects us to do.” Obviously, Tevye is referring to the rituals that comprise Judaism, but I think his definition applies everywhere: the traditions of our various communities — whether it’s the Pledge of Allegiance or the Prayers of the People or our culture’s social norms or the fact that when the Cult is coming over we stock up on four different kinds of booze — tell us who we are.
My kids’ (now former) school is steeped in tradition, my favorite one being the singing of a particular hymn on the day any school vacation begins. The refrain of the hymn is God be with you ’til we meet again, and the students don’t sing it, they scream it — and augment their screaming by standing on the pews in chapel. At graduation, this refrain took on special meaning — and volume! — and was complimented by the traditional hat toss; the seniors did, however, wisely refrain from jumping onto their chairs, which no doubt would have collapsed under their collective enthusiasm.
As they hollered their final God be with you, a few other traditions came to mind.
The first one, because I was weeping like an idiot at that point, was how thankful I am that my dad, in the tradition of Southern men, always has a freshly laundered white handkerchief in his pocket. I have never known him without one, and I remember him telling my brother decades ago that you simply never know when a woman might need one…or you’ll need to change a flat tire (and subsequently wipe grease from your hands), clean up a spill, check the oil in your car, wipe dust from your glasses, or craft a tiny funeral shroud for a hamster. (Okay, I made that last one up, but as anyone with a hamster knows, it’s a legitimate concern. Those things drop dead with no advance warning).
I don’t think my brother took this to heart, as I’ve never known him to have a handkerchief, but he’d be the first one to whip his shirt off and let you cry into it (or use it to clean the oil dipstick), so that’s okay. I will say, however, that for a certain segment of Southern women, the fresh white handkerchief — which may or may not be monogrammed, depending on the formality of the occasion — is something special. That little square of cotton represents care, concern, preparedness, gentility…and something intangible, too. It is Southern manhood at its finest, reduced to cloth.
My dad also always, in the company of a woman or child, walks on the outside of the sidewalk, which is something else I love. I suspect this tradition is a holdover from olden days, when you were in danger of being plowed into by a rogue horse-pulled carriage, but regardless of its origin, it’s still meaningful today, when you’re more likely to be splashed by nasty street water…or plowed into by a texting driver. It’s a simple act that says that I value your well-being over my own.
Here’s another tradition I love: In Austria, where I used to live, you say a shortened form of something akin to May God Greet You when you walk into a store (obviously, you say it in German: Grüß Gott). Aside from the religious implications of this statement, I like the idea of the greeting, the simple hello when you walk into a place of business, followed by a thank you on the way out.
I don’t know when people stopped doing this when they entered a place of business, as a general rule (and of course, some of us still do it), but isn’t it funny that Walmart, the quintessential impersonal shopping experience, hires retirees to do nothing more than greet shoppers on the way into the store?! (The Walmart at home has a darling old guy stationed near the avocados; I have a tiny crush on him).
I daresay few of us, after having been sucked into the Walmart vortex and emerging with a much lighter wallet and fifteen items we didn’t know we needed (in addition to the Clorox necessary to wash our eyes after sights like the one above), feel like thanking anyone on the way out, but those same elderly greeters, given the chance, will say goodbye, wish you a nice day, and — in my case — provide a lengthy update on their bunions, bursitis, upcoming hip replacement surgery and their granddaughter’s boyfriend’s GED quest.
Our own “goodbye,” is, of course, a holdover from the days of theologically-inspired greetings, a shortened version of God be with ye, just as Spanish, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Arabic, etc. all share a wish for divine blessings in their words for goodbye.
There’s a reason for this: saying Goodbye is an inherently hopeful act of faith.
In all of the Goodbyes of the past week, and all of the Goodbyes still to come, my unspoken sentiment has been that whatever the situation is that keeps us apart — whether it is time, distance, other commitments, or just life in general — my hope is that it will be resolved quickly, and we’ll be together again.
In order for that to be possible, I have to trust that God will keep both of us safe and whole in the meantime. The very utterance of the word Goodbye requires hope, the ability to see a path forward in the darkness of our separation [Et lux in tenebris lucent], and faith, a belief that God knows each of us, and cares about us.
My favorite tradition in the Episcopal church is the Aaronic blessing above. I especially love this blessing when it is delivered by the second of my Father Davids, standing in the middle aisle and making the sign of the cross over the congregation. There’s something really beautiful in the idea of being blessed and kept safe as the object of God’s light and look, and this blessing always took on special meaning for me when it was delivered by a priest I have the good fortune to know and love so well.
Another day we’ll go into all of the tradition and meaning behind the Aaronic blessing, and the textual references within it, but for now, I’ll just say, whatever your particular traditions may be,
May God be with you until we meet again.