The English-speaking world’s most common expression of farewell, “goodbye,” originated in the 16th century as “God be with you.” Through a series of metamorphoses over the next two centuries it became the contraction we use today.
Its history notwithstanding, I dislike the term. I’m just not a good goodbye guy.
Back before TSA regulations kept family and friends out of airport boarding areas, one of the worst things about waiting in an airport terminal was being around people who were saying goodbye. I tried to avoid eavesdropping or gawking but it’s impossible not to notice airport goodbyes ̶ a tearful embrace, a tender kiss, a prolonged look down the jetway as a loved one disappeared into the jetliner. Worse yet were the wrenching sobs of some goodbyes. Though I tried to keep my nose in a newspaper or magazine, I often found myself caught up emotionally in these moving scenes of real life.
Memories of family goodbyes are etched deeply into my memory. I grew up about an hour’s drive from both sets of my grandparents and recall the lengthy goodbyes when we left their homes after a visit.
Saying goodbye to my maternal grandparents, Opa and Oma Gelder, took some time. Opa’s health was not good, so he remained in his chair in the kitchen while the rest of us gathered on their enclosed front porch with Oma.
Oma said goodbye by giving us stuff. It might be a bag of her scrumptious wafer-thin sugar cookies or a jar of homemade jelly. Sometimes she went to the dumb-waiter and cranked up the food-filled drum from her cellar to find something to send home with us. Before we could get out the door, laden with Oma’s goodies, we got hugs and kisses.
As we finally drove out of their farm driveway she stood on the stoop, illuminated by a single yellow incandescent light bulb, waving goodbye. Opa waved through the kitchen window.
Goodbyes at my paternal grandparents’ home were also prolonged. Here, however, it was my grandfather who was more sentimental. After he retired from the farm, Opa Huisman maintained large gardens and enjoyed giving away his produce. It wasn’t unusual to leave his house in the summer with a large burlap bag of potatoes in the car trunk.
Opa was a large, good-natured man with a ready smile. Oma was nearly as tall as Opa but was much more reserved. Opa talked up a storm, kidding us boys already in our places in the backseat of the family sedan.
Finally we backed out of their drive as they waved goodbye, Oma looking stern and Opa smiling broadly.
My father was not an emotional man when I was a youngster but he softened tremendously as he grew older. That made saying goodbye to Dad even more difficult as the years went by. When he resided in a nursing home, goodbyes were almost always tearful. I was grateful when we could leave after sunset so the darkness would mask my own tears.
When I began working in Creston in February 1988 my family remained in Sioux City until the end of the school year. I rented an apartment in Creston and made the three-hour (one-way) commute each weekend. Sunday evenings were distressing as I had to kiss my family goodbye for another week.
When our children left home saying good-bye became even more difficult. As my wife and I stood in our drive waving goodbye at the kids I recalled my grandparents and their prolonged and warm farewells. I remembered my father’s tearful goodbyes at the nursing home.
Now I remember saying good-bye to my mother as she grew older, wondering each time if it might be the last good-bye.
In this paradox we call life the sorrow of a goodbye is part of the joy of loving someone enough to miss them when you’re apart. Winnie-the-Pooh puts it this way: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
Perhaps we should return to the early version of our standard expression of farewell. “God be with you” feels better than “goodbye.”
Arvid Huisman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.