Thinking about Exits

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.

7 Responses to “Thinking about Exits”

  1. Doyle Lormah Says:

    Wow! Many thanks for bringing that moment into focus, and those
    unfathomable emotional events that precipitated the exit.

  2. Thank you dear for your blog. I am reminded of various exits, of someone dear waving on high and gradually getting smaller and smaller until just the gesture was visible on the ferry leaving Crete.XXXScotty

    • beautiful image, that brings it back to mind. Also, an image of you with a bloody nose, the day before (or the very day) you left L.A. for Heidelberg. Between the two of us, I’m sure we can summon up many more…

  3. Thank you for this. Now I too am in the stunning presence of your departure from “time past to time present”.
    I am now going to open the box of letters from my father…a WW2 Air Force doctor stationed on a small island in the Pacific. I have not opened them since his “departure” at age 98, two years ago.
    I am also off to find “Souvenir”…all heart stirring.

  4. a wonderful post, Louise. The Russians have (or HAD – I only know of this from reading Chekhov, not from personal experience) a ritual of gathering in a room and sitting together quietly for a moment before departing. Russians sitting quietly together is a momentous occasion in and of itself, judging from Chekhov’s plays. And the Jewish side of my family would linger at the open door, with those departing on one side and those remaining ont he other, just … talking. Me, I just like to get up & go!

  5. I was raised in a house completely devoid of ritual. To this day I feel self-conscious in the presence of any big ritual — I’m okay with the table-top ritual of toasting someone’s health, that’s about it. But I have friends who are avid participants in and creators of ritual, and they are important to keeping me sane in this life.

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