The Goodbye

Saying goodbye in the South is an art form. The courtesies of a well-done “so long” can be complicated. Next to “please”, “thank you”, “M’am” and “Sir”, learning the various movements of a proper goodbye are among the most important social skills that a person can learn.

So, in preparation for the holidays, here’s how it’s done.

When a goodbye is done right, it’s like a choreographed dance. It starts with a delicate two-step designed as a signal to the audience that something is up. A change is approaching. One person moves and the rest follow. This leads to a chorus line of leg kicks and swaying that crescendos into a round of hugs until the last person quietly leaves the stage with a subtle wave of the hand. And the show is over.

It’s a wonderful experience to have friends and family over to the house for supper. The house is alive with conversation and food and love. But as the hours pass, everyone knows the visit must eventually come to an end. Despite the welcomed company, parting ways is inescapable. How do you say goodnight and goodbye when no one really wants it to end?

My Dad was famous for cutting straight to the point. He always ended phone conversations rather abruptly, and at times he would apply the same approach at the end of an evening.

Friends would come over for supper. The adults would all move into the den where they could be more comfortable. The wives sitting on the couch. The men sitting in chairs. Two conversations going on at the same time. The wind section trying to play over the string section.

Eventually there would be a pause. Maybe a yawn. Minutes away from the 11:00 news. Dad would stand up and announce, “Well, Helen, we better go to bed so these folks can go home.” He had had enough.

The typical southern “goodbye” has way more flair to it than that. Abruptness is not the way. Finesse is how it’s done.

A proper goodbye starts with a hint. “We sure have enjoyed having y’all over.” That is the signal that the visit is about to come to an end. If the hint is successful, someone will usually stand up and offer a comment of appreciation for the hospitality.

If the hint is unsuccessful, the host is allowed to take the lead. He will stand up, stretch like his back is sore from sitting on the couch. “This has been great. We should do this again sometime.” In most cases, the chorus line will follow suit. In agreement someone will offer up, “Yeah, it’s getting late. I gotta get up early in the morning.”

Once the hint is taken and understood, the second stage of goodbye takes place. Stage two is the move toward the door. Everyone gathers near the door, but no one actually opens the door. At this point, while the group is standing, there are two more stories, one trip to the bathroom, and a frantic check for cell phones, keys and eyeglasses that have been laying around the house.

Next, there is phase one hugging and handshakes. This is simply the warmup exercise to goodbye. This is not the real goodbye, but only the prelude to the finale. During this interlude, the group embraces, well wishes are offered, and coats are gathered up. But the possibility remains that someone might start telling how Uncle Bob’s arthritis is acting up, or ask for the recipe for lemon peppered chicken, or how one more trip to the restroom before heading home would be a good idea.

“Well, y’all don’t be strangers.” Someone opens the door.

This is the signal that the group is getting serious about goodbye. There is usually no turning back from this point. The open door beckons the crowd to move out onto the porch or into the driveway. Where, of course, there are more hugs and handshakes and ample conversation. This is the shuffle stage of goodbye. Ambling down the steps. Hands in pockets. Heads down, kicking at the gravel. Chuckles at quirky comments. A car door opens but no one gets in.

The hard part of goodbye is that something special is going on. You really like these friends. You really love your kids and grandkids. There’s nothing like sharing life with the ones you love. BUT. They don’t live here. They have their own home. You’re so dog tired that your head is swimming. You’re not sure if you even heard the last three sentences. And you wonder if anyone noticed the REM movement beneath your closed eyelids right before you got up off the couch.

Finally, one last round of hugs. Everyone starts piling into the car. Potluck dishes are put into the back seat. A paper plate with a slab of cake wrapped in cellophane is held secure in a lap. The doors close and the engine fires up.

You stand there with one arm around your wife. The curtain is about to drop. A hand waves from the window. You wave back. The window rolls down. “Y’all take care. We sure had a good time.” Your knees are about to buckle.

The goodbye is almost complete. But just as the car starts to back up it stops, your buddy opens the door, steps out and looks back over the rooftop. “Hey, I forgot to ask you. Are you gonna help with the painting over at Tom’s next week?” “Yes sir, I’ll be there.” He nods and waves. “Okay, see you then. Bye.” He gets back under the wheel.

They back out. More waves from inside the car. Big wave from the bottom porch step.

Just then it occurs to you to offer one last word of advice. Out of concern you walk toward the car. He rolls the window down.

“Hey, y’all be sure to watch out for deer. They’re bad this time of year.” The watch-out-for-deer-warning is an essential part of goodbye. You shake hands. “See ya.”

You listen to the gravel crunching under the movement of the tires. Taillights moving up the hill and out of sight. The goodbye is finished. The curtain closes.

You walk back into a quiet house. Put away a few dishes but decide that most of it can wait ‘til morning.

“That was great”, you say to your wife. “We should do that more often.”

“Yeah. I hate they had to leave.”

The lights go out. Your head hits the pillow. Goodbye to all and to all a good night.

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