PERHAPS it's because we don't get together often enough and there is a reluctance to part, but lately I have noticed that when a relative attempts to leave one of our family gatherings, he or she cannot get away with a simple goodbye. Taking leave from our home has become a long, elaborate process involving several distinct phases. I guess all parties involved prefer these extended farewells, but I feel that we should become more conscious of the procedure. That way if someone wants to leave here by 3 o'clock, he or she will know to start saying goodbye at 1:30.
Our goodbye process, as it now stands, begins when a relative says, ``Well, we'd better think about hitting the road.'' This has become a cue for me to say, ``Oh, I was meaning to ask you . . . ,'' and to bring up some matter that perhaps we both had intended to discuss but that, somehow, only that note of farewell could bring to the fore. A long conversation ensues, in the course of which we rise slowly from the living room sofa, collect coats, keepsakes, and children, and edge toward the front door. Since these actions take place while in deep discussion, they possess an interesting slow-motion quality -- sort of an underwater ballet effect. On the average, this initial phase might last 20 minutes.
When all are assembled before the front door, the notion of departure becomes more tangible, and hugs are exchanged all around. The parting conversation now revolves around how enjoyable the day was, which leads to a remark on what a fine dinner we had, which evolves into a discussion of how a particular dish was prepared, which leads to the searching out and copying down of a specific recipe, and another 20 minutes pass.
The actual opening of the door reminds our group of its destination, and the recurring theme is voiced: ``Well, we'd better hit the road.'' But the slow stroll through the front yard inspires comment on the shrubbery, and I traditionally point out the crab grass at this point. ``Look how that jacaranda has grown,'' says one of our guests, and the subject of gardening is then discussed at sufficient length to make us all weary from standing. Shifting our weight from foot to foot, it never occurs to us to retreat to the comfort of the living room for this seminar, because we still accept the pretext that we are involved in saying goodbye. We realize we have run out of things to say when, for the second time, it's stated how remarkably the jacaranda has grown. (This observation may have gained fresh significance, the plant having probably added a new inch or two by then.)
At this stage, all parties begin to edge toward the car, spurred on by various physical indications that we've been talking too long (such as the setting of the sun, the appearance of stars, and, in one extreme case I recall, the apparent changing of seasons). There is a finality about the opening of the car door that inspires another round of hugging.
Once the car's engine is started up, I usually lean toward the driver's window and say a parting word or two (3,000 would be a closer number). The object of this phase, as near as I can tell, is to compete with the engine's roar until hoarse. Then the driver shouts, ``WELL, WE'D BETTER HIT THE ROAD,'' and the car pulls away slowly, reluctantly. Showing admirable restraint, we refrain from chasing after the vehicle on foot.
You'd think that the long ritual I've described would suffice and that everyone would next want to recuperate from their goodbyes, but no. A new wrinkle has been added, the omission of which would greatly disappoint the children. Because the road loops around behind our house, we now race through the front door, brush past living room furnishings to the back door, hurdle over lawn chairs, and stop at the back fence in order to exchange shouts of goodbye as they pass.
These long farewells are duly reciprocated when we visit relatives' homes, and I guess we all like them that way. But we must stay mindful of the fact that some visitors are not attuned to this behavior and might exit with a simple, ``See you later.'' When this happens, I must hold back my feeling that this is absurdly abrupt. I must hold back my urge to say, ``You mean we aren't even going to talk about the jacaranda?''