So many leave-takings in a life; some go unnoticed, some shake us to our foundations. Sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has long been fascinated by exits, from saying goodbye to her children leaving for school to the cataclysm of leaving a marriage. “We are taught to start our stories at the beginning, “ she writes. “We open with ‘once upon a time,’ hoping to capture the nascent moment when everything came to be. But there are few lessons — in our culture, in our schooling, in our socialization — in how to exit well.”
What does it mean to look at our life narratives from the “prism of exit.” As I listened to Dr. Lawrence Lightfoot’s fascinating talk at ALOUD the other night, I did a mental scan of exits and departures that were the major markers of my life. Which ones were made bearable by ritual observances? Is it true that we Americans pay little regard to our exits, that we often “slink away in the night, hoping that no one will notice?” In contrast, our guest suggested, “Watch Russians at train stations—you know something big is happening!’”
That’s when I saw them—the Shimizu family– standing at the window of our bullet train. It was the afternoon in April 1995 when Lloyd and I left Suibara, the little town in northern Japan where we returned the Japanese flag my father acquired in combat in the Pacific. (the subject of my book, THE SOUVENIR)
The ritual of our arrival had been startling, outside of our cultural norm. The entire town lining the streets and waving tiny American and Japanese flags. “Is this some kind of a holiday?” we asked the mayor. “YOU are the occasion,” he replied with a chuckle.
After the sober and awesome ceremony of returning the flag to the Shimizu family, after listening to stories about young Yoshio, who had died in battle at age 21… after the elaborate feast of sushi and sake, after our visit to Lake Hyoko to meet the Swan Uncle, the guardian of Suibara’s Siberian swans… after that astonishing day the Shimizu family packed themselves into several cars to escort us to the train station in the nearby city of Niigata
Lloyd, our translator Masako and I boarded the waiting train. The family assembled outside our window, the colours of their sweaters and jackets making a somber study in mauves, blues and gray.
They did not wave, but stayed in their places as if a portrait photographer were taking a long exposure. The women were in the front, the men behind them. Hiroshi, Hanayo, and Chiyon—the three sisters of Yoshio Shimizu—stood elbow to elbow, their hands clasped together. Behind them: Hiroshi’s husband, Suezo; cousin Yasue, the farmer, and beside him, the new patriarch, young Yoshinobu, Yoshio’s nephew.
When have I taken enough time with an exit, created a ritual if none existed? Perhaps the Shimizus assumed this tableau to allow us to sear the image into our memories. No fleeting goodbye, like so many others, all forgotten. And they are still there in my mind’s eye, after all these years. Their calm presence at the moment of departure marked the rarity and depth of our unlikely meeting and how it had transformed all of us.