My father always said that his two favorite words in the English language were “no” and “goodbye.” I recall him leaning back in his chair at the dinner table in Hertfordshire and—as he would have put it—bloviating on the topic with a twinkle in his eye: no! goodbye! A professional writer, my father reveled in the image of himself as a misanthropist and social critic. When he died in 2006 of congestive heart failure my sister and I mourned him by sketching out a movie in our heads entitled “No & Goodbye!” We designed a pastiche of scenes, which would bring him to life. Throughout the heightened months after his death, we imagined scene after scene: my father, bobbing in the waves with us and urging us to “predict his future”; opening his arms wide to the sky in a kind of ecstasy at the majesty of the pyramids in Mexico; proclaiming for the umpteenth time on road trips that “we were never going to believe it, but he just had to have a Friendly’s ice cream sundae”; or standing sheepishly with the other fathers at our annual Christmas assembly, booming out the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas,” even though he looked nebbish and Jewish next to all those WASPs in their emerald green blazers. Oddly enough, in scavenging for memories, we could barely find a scene that would validate our title, No and Goodbye. It seemed my father had not acted on those words very often at all.
I think that my father was a “no & goodbye” kind of guy inside his own mind—he felt he had rejected a lot of cant. And although this was true (one of his many legacies to me and my sister was a healthy dose of irreverence and questioning of conventionalities), my experience of him, mostly, was of the “yes & hello” variety. Except for the anguish our family experienced during his leaving and subsequent divorce of my mother, my father pretty much said yes & hello to a broad spectrum of life’s pleasures. He certainly said yes & hello to books—they lined the walls of his studies in New York City and Wareside, England, clustering in piles around his desk and then forming layered rows on his bookshelf, which we had to excavate when looking for a particular title. He also said a hearty yes & hello to cafés, coffeehouses, any establishment at which one could get a good coffee or iced tea and a bit of küchen mit schlag (the son of German Jews from Berlin, he wrote from Germany in 1995: “in a café in Köln, feeling guilty for having indulged in an apfel strudel—ohne zahne!”). He said a happy yes & hello to cashmere scarves, leather satchels, and jackets of all sorts—in fact, he said yes & hello to shopping in general. And he just adored the fax machine, welcoming it into his cottage in England in the early 90s and faxing us almost daily. Finally—let’s face it—he even opened his door to people, saying a buoyant yes & hello to the students who worshipped him, to his English neighbors, and especially to my sister and me. His hugs—sometimes terrifying in their warmth and intensity—communicated the most unambivalent of hellos, and his joy in our visits was apparent in the fried eggs and toast he would cook for us upon our jet-lagged arrival in grey, early-morning England. Certainly he said no & goodbye to many things—“what prevails is imitation of the mediocre,” he wrote despairingly—but reading over his letters now as an adult, I hear the stark yearning and love for us, a longing that was about the biggest YES to our existence that one can imagine—a yes that echoes in my own appetite for life, fueling me.
–Dr. Kabi Hartman is Senior Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA.