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Observations: The last goodbye

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image My hometown during an early November snowfall. Photo Mitch Traphagen

In life, trains are always leaving the station.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

I’m not sure why I am so amazed that things change in the passing of decades. After all, the only constant in life is change. Yet I spent the bulk of my growing-up years in this small town and as I looked around a restaurant I was dining in, I was stunned to realize that I didn’t recognize a single person. And no one knew me. New families have moved into the houses on my former street and there, too, I knew no one. It’s an odd feeling to know a place so intimately yet discover that I don’t really know it at all.

The town has changed so much. Unlike many small, rural towns it has managed to grow and it appears more prosperous than when I lived here. Many of the homes have been rehabbed, remodeled and rebuilt, reflecting that prosperity, but also feeding the displacement I felt in my own hometown. It’s not just the people I don’t recognize — nearly everything is different.

Except for one house.

This one house looks exactly like it did when I was growing up here 30 years ago. It is even the same unearthly blue color. In a town that has changed so much, in a world that has changed beyond description, there is something comforting about seeing the house, it being the same through the passing of time. It stands there like a little rock of stability in an unstable world.

So many times this past year I’ve struggled with saying what could be a last goodbye. And now, the time is rapidly approaching to do that again. But it seems I’m gaining the awareness that I’ve said my goodbyes. More, I’m realizing it is not the goodbyes that are so important but rather the hellos and the time spent between the hello and goodbye. That time is meaningful; it is invaluable.

I’ve lived in Florida since 1994 and have never seen a Christmas Eve there. In my entire life, I’ve only missed one Christmas in my small hometown on the northern plains. That year, Michelle and I were cruising through the Bahamas on our sailboat. At the time, I found the telephone (priced at one dollar per minute) to be a poor substitute for the warmth of my family gathered together up north in a place so cold. But this year, I think, will be my first in Florida. Like the growing awareness about goodbyes, Christmas is increasingly more in the heart and mind than it is a specific date on a calendar.

The wind blows hard and cold, making a warm home feel so welcoming. So much like home. The wind and the cold, at least, have not changed. Christmas will be different, but except for the wind, the cold and that blue house, all things eventually change.

Between visits at the nursing home and with my brother and sisters, I drive around the town marveling at how small it is, wondering how anyone could grow and grow up in such a finite space. But somehow we did and somehow the town has produced artists, authors, photographers and playwrights, apparently finding something within them that far supersedes the confines of the town yet somehow they were nurtured by it.

It is time to go for the last goodbye, at least for this trip. And perhaps forever. There is no way to truly reconcile that. I have no magic wand to transform myself into the perfect person with the perfect grace and words. But now, at least, I am growing comfortable with the knowledge that the important words have already been spoken. That was in the hello; it was in the past; it was in the time between then and now.

There are always goodbyes but that isn’t what is remembered. That isn’t what we take with us when the train leaves the station. In life, trains are always leaving the station and tomorrow is always another (but different) day. We wave goodbye, perhaps shed some tears and then smile while remembering what was good and important. And what we remember is what warms our hearts — the stuff before the goodbye.

I walk out the door into the cold November air and drive the streets of this town. It is early morning and it is starting to snow, with the wind driving it, stinging my face. So much has changed; I sometimes can barely recognize this place that at one time was my home. But then I come to the blue house that looks exactly as it did 30 or more years ago. It looks like my childhood. Right at this moment, just after the last goodbye of the trip, this house somehow stands for the time between then and now. It reminds me of what was, and perhaps what will be tomorrow, and it warms my heart.

Yes, there are tears. Once again, I may have said the last goodbye. But driving out of the town, my heart is warmed despite the cold wind, at the thoughts of what was between then and now.

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