Saying Good-bye

My Aunt Marie always leaves without saying good-bye. We will have finally finished eating turkey, or opening presents, or wishing "Happy New Year," and someone always says, "Where is Aunt Marie?" She is gone, of course; she hates to say good-bye. I can't be like that--I kiss every sleeping cousin, tipsy uncle, and friend of my grandmother's. There is a countdown of days until graduation in a window in the courtyard of Dunster House--it started at 99 and today is down to 36. I'm ready to graduate, but not quite ready to say "Good-bye" or "I'll miss you." But I'll try.


Maybe it will be hardest to say good-bye to the roommates whom I've been living with since freshman year: Elena, Tara, Leigh, and Janet. We've figured out that we all wrote down similar defining characteristics on our housing forms: I like to share clothes, listen to Madonna, stay up late; I'm fairly neat. All of those are true, except the last--we wrote that we were tidy because no one wanted to live with someone as messy as herself. By the end of freshman year, our bathroom was so dirty dorm crew refused to clean the mess of curling irons and lipstick-blotted napkins.

Despite our bathroom, Elena has the nicest room at school, with an airy yellow bedspread and a picture of clouds on the wall that one of her artist-father's friendspainted. She comes into my room and plops down on the brown chair that used to be the "patient's chair" in my dad's therapy office. "I'm going to bug you now," she says, though she never does--she is my touchstone. Elena cheers me up with stories that don't immediately seem like lessons, though they may be: how her grandmother once painted only the front of the house, and how, when she worked at a Red Cross summer camp in Italy, she taught her group of seven-year-olds aerobics on top of an empty building, only to realize that a crowd had started gathering each day down below, to watch her dance to Michael Jackson and to shout Biónda! ("Blondie") at her. She helped to run the Hasty Pudding Theatricals show this year, and Hollywood types used to call her several times a day on whirring cell phones, certain that I was Elena's secretary and that our dorm was her office. If only they knew.

Before my first date with my boyfriend, Tara heard a shriek from my room. I sat, half-naked, on the brown chair, my head in my hands. I had nothing to wear, and Tara went into action, pulling out the options: a black lacy shirt, a pink cocktail dress with white stitching, and, finally, a skirt with embroidered flowers. She dresses all of us well, has a sense about these things. We shared a room freshman year, and she showed me what it meant to be the perfect student: to meet with my TF to discuss the draft of my paper; to send cover letters for summer jobs in February, and on nice, heavy paper. She stayed up until four in the morning to finish her work for the next day; I slumped over my books much earlier and conceded defeat. During our theses we would meet in the courtyard for a breath of the fresh, sharp winter air and discuss Walter Benjamin or the end of The Great Gatsby or the role of time in The Sound and the Fury. When I hear a gentle tap at my door, I know who is there--not because I expect her to come (she surprises me by knowing to knock when I need it most)--but because the knock is gentle but insistent. She knows to ask about the family member who is sick or the Chaucer paper I am stressed about, or to offer to buy me Twizzlers because she is going downstairs to the vending machine. She wears a bracelet with the name of a man who died in Vietnam, and she never takes it off; she holds fast to things, she holds fast to us.

I will miss getting up for breakfast and seeing Leigh there only if she has not been to bed yet, but has pushed toward dawn for just a few more hours, guided by the promise of the breakfast sandwich with sausage and egg. She and Tara once watched the sunrise on the river, and then cheered for all the 6 a.m. joggers. She's taught me to percolate over a problem, instead of indulging in my usual phonathon, calling everyone in the book to listen to my complaint or dilemma. Leigh lets a problem sit inside until she has it figured out--its antecedent, consequent, and the precedent it sets. Her desk is decorated with beautiful pictures of her chubby, smiling nephews Bradley and Spencer. I borrow her dad's bell-bottom jeans, and envy the way her Southern accent returns, syrupy and sexy, after every vacation she has at home in Arkansas.

I won't say good-bye to Janet's voice in my head, the most sisterly one I've had until Charlotte arrived, a voice both loving and regulating and sarcastic and funny: "Sara, don't be silly. All your yearbook pictures are terrible, except for this one. You actually look cute!" If ever there is something on my mind, I dawdle in the doorway to Janet's room. "You're dawdling, mopey," she tells me. "Spit it out." And I do. She listens, tells me I'm crazy if I'm being crazy, plays devil's advocate, and is comforting in an enduring, rational way. When the drone of my constant singing interrupts her musings on womanist theology, she tells me to be quiet. Today's yell was, "Will you be quiet?I am trying to understand this movie in Danish!" Janet does not speak Danish. She built me a "box," as we refer to it, a partitioned wall so that my room (intended to be a common space) could have some vague semblance of privacy. The walls shake when the wind blows, and the door opens when I roll over in bed. But these walls were built with love and some help from the captain of the men's lacrosse team, and were meant to last. I'll miss Janet, her accusations that my baking-soda toothpaste tastes like rotten eggs, and the box that she built me.


I'll have to remember to say good-bye to the elegant book-bag-checker at Lamont Library. Every time I walk out, carrying my leather backpack, she announces to the line, "I tell you, leather bags are a sign of class. This is one classy lady." I'll miss the dining-hall bagels that are almost raw in the middle. I'll miss Douglas, the night security guard, who is also a jazz musician. He brings his guitar to play while watching the door. Sophomore year, after a series of dirty phone calls from someone who always asked to speak with me, Douglas didn't mind when I asked him one night to walk upstairs with me to check (under the bed and in the shower) that the caller hadn't decided to pay me a visit. I'll miss the Harvard police officer who gave me a ride home when I flagged him down, after abandoning my inebriated date at the Owl.

I would even miss the inebriated date, if he hadn't asked if I had a sister. Because I do. I have three, and they have beautiful names: Charlotte, Sylvia, and Pearl. Charlotte is here, in Canaday, the riot-proof dorm. I never call her just once: whenever we hang up, I call back immediately and sing a line from the Purim play my parents used to produce at our temple, or just grunt like a pig. She knows who it is before I sing or grunt. "What do you want, fool?" she asks. She brings me Cosmopolitan magazine when I am sad and discusses Mill and Kant with my boyfriend. She knew all the presidents when she was five, and when I am with her I take a step back sometimes and say, "This is how happy and free I should feel with everyone." She is my very best friend, and also corrects me when I mistakenly refer to a "tall" Starbucks Frappuccino as a "small." We occasionally cry on the phone, and forward each other copies of the e-mails that we have sent to boys. We also meet with my father (Peter '67) at 9 a.m. on Sundays (I am always late, she is early) and tell him the stories we can't tell my mother, like the time one of Charlotte's friends was making out with her boyfriend and the downstairs neighbor complained that they were "rearranging the furniture" at three in the morning.

I will miss my boyfriend: the way I search for his bike with the orange handlebars amid the bike racks in the Yard; the promise of seeing him and feeling instantaneously gleeful; the luxury of being distracted by his picture on my desk--he is wearing a tuxedo with a red bow tie--instead of by our post-graduation separation of several thousand miles and a six-hour time difference. I will miss the way he talks about his family, miss his sea-green eyes, miss stumbling through reading No Exit aloud to each other in French. He likes to read my writing, and sends me e-mails in Swedish. I do not speak Swedish, though he has given me a dictionary.

I will miss Helen Vendler's lectures on The Waste Land and Lycidas. I arrived at her office hours after our first lecture freshman year, not with anything specific to talk about, but "just wanting to introduce myself," I explained. She asked me which poets I liked, I listed every poet I knew, and then she asked if there was one I didn't like. "Milton," I promptly replied. "He's bo-oring." She told me she was hoping to write her next book on Milton, and promptly changed the subject to my roommates and Weld Hall. I told her we had cockroaches, and she found me the phone number of Harvard maintenance. "They don't like you having cockroaches any more than you like having cockroaches."

I saw Seamus Heaney once, walking in the rain without an umbrella, hunched instead beneath a soggy newspaper. Ishould have offered my own, but was embarrassed that one of the metal spokes was sticking out, and hurried on, the lines from "Punishment" playing in my head: "I can feel the tug/of the halter at the nape/ of her neck, the wind/on her naked front."

On my astronomy exam, one of my calculations resulted in the astonishing answer that the nearest star was three meters away. I vainly hoped I would get points for the process of using formulas and theorems, but, surprisingly, failed anyway. Instead, for extra credit, I wrote a paper in haiku praising the virtues of the neutrino. I received an A-. I will not miss the math class I dropped, because I cried every time a problem set was due. I opted instead for a class on Spanish romantic literature. I will miss my creative-writing teacher, a self-described "rabbi on a camping trip." I will remember the camping trip I took in June with the First-Year Outdoor Program, and the way we hiked through snow, crashing through its thin icy crust onto a maze of fallen branches below, losing the white blazes of the trail among the piled drifts.

I will tell my grandchildren about the time I heard Nelson Mandela speak and Jessye Norman sing "Amazing Grace," and hum the last refrain. I will also remember convincing my parents to let Charlotte skip school so we could hear Warren Christopher, and being amazed by the cakey makeup on his face, and by the sharpshooters who stood like plastic soldiers on top of Eliot House when Yasir Arafat came to speak. I will miss visiting the bench and tree in Leverett House dedicated to my cousin Laura, who died when she was 22.

I have become familiar with almost all of the faces of the homeless in the Square, and have become familiar with the way the Dunster courtyard and the Yard smell when they put down new cedar mulch, and also the way my room smells like Peking duck sauce or salsa, depending on what they are cooking in the dining hall, because my window is right above a vent.

I will miss seeing Casablanca every time it plays at the Brattle, and the way my father told me that Harvard students used to stand up when they played "La Marseillaise" in the movie. I will miss walking through the Yard with my dad, humming "La Vie en rose," and admiring Widener's glowing hulk and the calm illuminated observatory on the top floor of Weld. I will miss being close to my Bostonian family whenever someone is sick, or my sister is in a play, or my mother runs the Marathon.

I will not miss the superintendent's fees ($150) for pasting and taping up a few pictures on my walls, nor my library fines from the books I forgot to renew in the hustle, bustle, and exhausted haze of my thesis. But I will miss the books, and the walls, and the pictures that went on the walls. My friend Akash said good-bye to Harvard by spending the night alone in Widener. This isn't an option for me; I am afraid of the dark.


How do we say good-bye? Is it just a "See you later," or a pack-the-bags-and-slip- out-the-back-door? Neither, and both. There are some things I am willing to leave behind, am ready, am sick of, and know it's time. Others I'll clutch, because they are the things that one must clutch to stay afloat.

I wrote a paper about one panel of a thirteenth-century triptych that hangs in the first room of the Fogg, on the left wall of the right room as you walk in. Sometimes I stop by the museum just to say "Hi" to this painting of the Madonna and Child, painted on wood and in Byzantine gold. Their fingers are long and jointless, and the Child has the face of an old man. But what I love about this panel is that it is painted in concentric circles, like ripples radiating out from a droplet. Graduating is saying good-bye, but it is not a breaking of the circle but a series of concentric circles, all radiating out from the identity that I arrived with in 1995 and developed until today, when we have 36 days left. I am ready to leave, sad to say good-bye, and steeling myself for the future. How should I go about doing this? I don't know right now, and probably won't until after it is over--but one option is simple and clear: I'll write it. Good-bye.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow Sara Houghteling will be teaching English in Paris next year.

Read more articles by: Sara Houghteling

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