By Enrique Tessieri
There is nothing more devastating than a farewell that implies a long and painful separation. For a people like the Finns, who were once a nomadic tribe that ended up settling this lonely yet magical corner of Europe, the ritual of saying goodbye still forms an important part of our cultural heritage.
Farewells are peppered everywhere in our folklore. Even Väinämöinen, the mythical white-bearded hero of the Kalevala, leaves on a boat to never return again. Even Jean Sibelius composed a concerto called, “Goodnight – Farewell.”
Various types of parting mar Finland’s history. There is the farewell of the migrant who sailed to America in the late-19th and early-20th century, and that of a final goodbye kiss of a young wife and husband — or that of a mother to her beloved son, who will soon die on the battlefront.
Some of these farewells are so powerful that they are remembered and passed on from generation to generation. My mother once told me how my grandmother found out about the death of her son in World War II serving in the US army on the Italian front. Even if it happened over a half a century ago, I was surprised by how clearly I could see the tragic event in my mind.
“Aino was baking in the kitchen,” she said. “It was in the afternoon when she received a telegram from the (US) State Department. She collapsed upon hearing the news of Leo’s death.”
Death, which is nothing more than a final goodbye, is a recurring image found in the farewells of the Finns. French poet Edmond Haraucourt (1856-1941) believed that the image of death normally appears whenever two humans part. He wrote: Partir c’est mourir un peu. C’est mourir a ce qu’on aime (To part is do die a little, to die to what one loves).
The conclusion of World War II did not bring an end to the tradition of painful farewells. On the contrary, hundreds of thousands of Finns began to move to the cities leaving behind their homes in the countryside. In such cities a great sense of emptiness struck. We were filled with nostalgia because we were constantly remembering our homes in the countryside and the farewells that accompanied the final images.
Even today, amid modern and relatively cheap air travel and the internet, we Finns continue to be molded by a sense of constant movement and by past, present and future farewells.
I hope that the technological leaps and strides that humankind will make in this millennium will also include rendering farewells obsolete. Possibly a new form of travel, through a dimension like cyberspace, would enable us to be in many places simultaneously thousands of kilometers away without moving from our room. Under such circumstances, it would not be necessary to say goodbye because we could be with as many loved ones and friends as we’d wish.
For many years, and almost subconsciously, I have stayed clear of farewells that are profound, long and almost final. That is why I do not enjoy going to funerals never mind wishing a person farewell before a long journey.
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote: “Be ahead of all farewells, as if they were behind you, like the winter that is just departing.”
By far the most difficult farewells I had experienced was bidding goodbye to the summer eastern Finnish woods of Savo, where I spent childhood and adolescence with my maternal grandparents. I heard lachrymose tunes of good byes coming at me from the woods as it came time to return back to the concrete, hot asphalt streets of Los Angeles, California.
It is wishful thinking to believe that a farewell to a home is a one-way affair. Such landscapes can easily possess a person without you even knowing it. Because Sub-Arctic forests teem and overflow with magic, the birches, spruces, lichen, lakes and wild grass do everything possible to claim and keep you near them.
Parting in the beginning of the century must have been a much more traumatic experience than today. People, who would never see each other again because of fate and geography, had to disguise farewells with strong doses of hope. They would try to convince themselves that they’d soon meet again, even if they never did.
How many millions of migrants would have left their loved ones if they knew that they’d never see them again? Possibly the history of humankind would have been written differently if we had the ability to know if our farewells were final.