We are awash in babies here in our little corner of Durham, the bulk of them hovering, for this precious and brief stage, around the pre-walking and just-walking ages of 10 to 12 months or so. Hoisting themselves up by the side of their wagons or with a parent’s extended fingers, bouncy and jovial, taking a halting drunken step or two before plopping down on their diapered tushes.
Working to regain their footing as we come around the corner with our dog at the end of the leash, they stand and point and break into wide grins while uttering little “Uh, ooh, uh-uh-uh” sounds, all bouncedy-bounce, immensely pleased with the sheer fact of living and watching and exploring their ever-expanding world.
Portraits of innocence and pure being, sharing, in some ways, more in common with their peers of other species, be they lamb or kitten, puppy or chimp, than with the elders of their own, nicked and coarsened as those elders can become by the vagaries of experience.
With 2,951 deaths from Covid-19 yesterday, the United States passed another dismal milestone, to a total of 302,848 since the pandemic began at the tail end of last winter. Yesterday’s total works out to an average of 123 people dying every one of the 24 hours that all the rest of us survived.
On the cusp of another winter, I can remember a not-too-distant time in summer when I knew no one personally who had contracted the virus, much less died, and hadn’t even heard of any friends-of-friends who had.
Hardly the case anymore, as the pandemic has advanced closer to most all of us.
The number of dead are now equivalent to sold-out crowds in six 50,000-seat football stadiums —with nearly 3,000 extra to crowd the concession lines. There, we might have offered them “The Parting Glass,” a little cup o’ sumthin’ to help ease them out of this realm as they transition to the world that awaits beyond.
No one knows who wrote the Celtic song, “The Parting Glass.” It therefore qualifies as a “traditional ballad,” with roots in both Scotland and Ireland, various writers and performers having altered and added lyrics over the centuries.
The first printed version appeared in Ireland in 1770, but snippets of it have subsequently been traced to a Scotsman with the surname Armstrong, who patrolled the Scotch-English border in not strictly legal fashion and wound up killing a Scottish nobleman in 1605. His death sentence soon followed.
Portions of his lovely farewell letter were no doubt “borrowed” by later Irish folkies who mixed and matched the core sentiments of melancholy and facing one’s end in an expansive and generous mood, forgiving of oneself as well as the others with whom one has shared the aching and beautiful days of this transient world.
Variations on Armstrong’s final refrain in particular appear somewhere in most every version:
“What I have done through lack of wit,
I never, never can recall,
I hope you’re all my friends as yet;
Good-bye and joy be with you all.”
Who wouldn’t want to give a man of such generous spirit a little liquid spirit to ease his transition?
Many singers have seen fit to give “The Parting Glass” a go, cleaving to core lyrical versions that most always veer off for a line or stanza, as traditional songs are wont to do in the care of different performers over time.
This version immediately below has perhaps a bit too much instrumentation for my tastes, but it helpfully prints the most widely employed lyrics, with minor variations as mentioned above.
Almost every version shares this opening stanza:
Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all
Let’s listen now, and later, we’ll end with an a capella version that perhaps better allows for the song’s haunting undertones, handled adeptly with the voices of youth leading us in and out of the grief that underlies every one of the multiple losses in our lives that we are both privileged and burdened to live beyond.
Among the many tragedies of the Covid pandemic is that survivors have often had to keep a distance from their dying beloveds, unable to cradle them in their arms, stroke their hands, nuzzle their ears with whispered good-byes, or play them favorite tunes that may include just the kind of sentiments offered up by “The Parting Glass.”
All of us have heard or read stories of nurses transmitting messages or notes from family separated from their dying beloveds, or uttering strained good-byes through FaceTime. This is a tragedy for all parties, including the health care workers acting as go-betweens.
There are no good substitutes for the fullness of a lingering good-bye, words spoken, accounts settled, forgiveness proffered and received, gladness and appreciation abiding in nevertheless grief-bound hearts.
But since it fell into my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all
We all wish for our departing beloveds—and for ourselves when the time comes—to feel that sense of completion and acceptance of their fate, however much they might have fought to remain with us among the living.
Spring and a vaccine aren’t far ahead. By then, our halting neighborhood babies with the wobbly gaits will be scurrying around with abandon, their young parents no longer lying languidly about once their offspring begin to move beyond a mostly stationary or vertical realm.
The direction will be forward, as it always is, as it must be, as each generation replaces the last, only to be replaced in turn, in lives that will have gone entirely too fast for them, too, when they reach their reflective years.
If we are of both good purpose and good fortune, we will all leave this sphere ripe and ready, come to rest at a still point of the turning world, glad for what and whom we have known, and softly able to call, “Good night and joy be to you all.”
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
My good buddy Elliott, at 11 months, photo by his mom Kate
Glass by Peter Thoeny, Cupertino, California https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterthoeny/
Lake sunset by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/