“We are saying thank you . . . and waving/dark though it is”

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with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is 
(“Thanks,” W.S. Merwin)

Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 2015
On October 26 2015 I published a blog about a book signing trip from which I had just returned. The location was Grand Rapids, Michigan, and while I was there I took several photographs of the tall ginkgo trees that line many streets in Grand Rapids.  They are a season’s last lights on the streets of many cities, hardy urban trees, and they were among my favorite things about Michigan during the ten years I lived there.

They can grow to a height of eighty feet or more.

Notes from the Road: Second Stop, Grand Rapids Book Signing

In Michigan by October the ginkos’ leaves are nearing their full color and will soon begin to fall, carpeting the ground around them in deep piles of gold.

One of the persistent stories about these ancient trees–the species is over 200 million years old–is that they shed all their leaves in one night. I have never seen this, cannot bear witness to it, but I imagine that to be there when it happens would be magic. For many years, friends have assured me this couldn’t be true, and logic told me they were probably right.

Still, I held onto an idea, an image in my mind, a possibility.

Today, I typed this simple question into a search engine: “Does the ginkgo shed its leaves in one night?” and found, almost hidden among scores of sites offering everything from complex botanical histories to unlikely stories about miraculous healings, a short article in the November 24th 2014 issue of The New Yorker, written by the neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, who died this year.  The title of his piece is “Night of the Ginkgo” and he writes,

“The ginkgo family has been around since before the dinosaurs, and its only remaining member, Ginkgo biloba, is a living fossil, basically unchanged in two hundred million years . . . .

Will it be November 20th, 25th, 30th? Whenever it is, each tree will have its own Night of the Ginkgo. Few people will see this—most of us will be asleep—but in the morning the ground beneath the ginkgo will be carpeted with thousands of heavy, golden, fan-shaped leaves.”

I imagine that to be there when this happens would be magic.

Norfolk, Virginia, Friday 18 November 2016
Today I walked out into my neighborhood to photograph the two ginkgo trees that stand just down the street from my co-op.  It is the 18th of November and the leaves are still mostly green, struggling against the erratic climate of Tidewater Virginia which, just when you think real Fall is here, suddenly turns warm again.For the first time, I notice not just the trees, barely turning, but that they stand in the courtyard of a school.




I have come out to take my pictures just as school is letting out and the street is flooded with students of all shapes and sizes and colors, talking and laughing loudly as children do at that middle school age when they are yearning to be grown but still–awkward, getting taller–slide easily into the comforts of childhood. I stop taking photographs to wait for the crossing guard to wave me over, and we strike up a conversation. How long has he been doing this job? Incredible. Fifteen years.  He must have seen a great many young people cross this street in all that time.  Yes, yes indeed, he has.

Atlanta, Georgia 7 September 2016
In the early morning of the 7th of September of this year of our Lord 2016, my cousin, Edith Grace Bates, died from the cancer she had been fighting since early January.  The place she occupied in this world is a gaping wound, a bottomless emptiness.

How is it that I am supposed to be saying thank you?

And how can I not?



Norfolk, Virginia June 2016
Edie was a twin. In June she and her sister, Colleen, flew from Atlanta to Norfolk to spend three days with me.  It was an act of grace and generosity typical of Edie. She came, she told me, to meet my grandson. We had a glorious three days of foolishness and laughter and some honest tears.photo-on-6-5-16-at-1-05-pm-2fullsizeoutput_1edf

We said goodbye.



In less than a week, through an odd combination of circumstances, my son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and I will be at the Ronald Reagan airport to meet Colleen’s plane. She is coming to spend Thanksgiving with all of us and with my daughter-in-law’s family in Old Town Alexandria.

Colleen and I will be sharing a room at the Hotel Monaco, a five-minute walk from Paige’s mother’s condominium.

It is a remarkable hotel and just the right place for what we both need, just the right place when you don’t know exactly what you need, only that you need it badly.

A week ago I asked Colleen if she thought we would “be alright without Edie.” She said she thought we would.

Alexandria, Virginia, Thanksgiving 2016
The Hotelfullsizeoutput_2575
Traffic and airplanes and cell phones. And somehow we didn’t quite make it to the airport. We  mixed signals, and Colleen took a cab to the wrong Hotel Monaco.  She arrived at the Monaco in D.C.

Plans are foiled. Things go awry. Everything happens on a time schedule not mine.

Colleen Bates Lance, in the most unlikely situation, arrives in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. She looks beautiful.


We unpack and, because we had Edie Bates for sixty-five years, begin our list of problems with the hotel room.


In a career that spanned decades, Edie was an executive with several of the major hotel chains and much of her work was in quality control.  All of us who knew her well have become makers of  unofficial “reports” to be submitted after any hotel stay.  At the Monaco, which is such a marvelous place that I’ve considered what it might be like to live here, the list is short, but there is a list.

We stretch like the cats we both left at home and are pleased.


Alexandria, Virginia Thanksgiving 2016
The family and the Meal
It is difficult to know quite what to say about this unlikely blending of families.  At the end of a long Thanksgiving Day I am content. The table was elegant. The food was delicious and  abundant. The house was full of two generations of adults, one small boy, and one excited dog.

Colleen and I walked back to the hotel after eating, clean-up, and the hanging of ornaments on the Christmas tree. It was dark and the trees in Old Town were draped with light.  A fountain glowed; shop windows were decorated for the coming holy day.  People were bundled against the slight chill; a few still lingered at tables in nearly-empty restaurants.

We didn’t see even one ginkgo.

Friday 25 November 2016 
The Lobby
Black Friday, and the world outside is shopping. I am sitting in the lobby at the Hotel Monaco, writing this blog. Members of the staff are putting up a large Christmas tree. I can smell it from across the room.

I left Colleen still in bed.  We are in no hurry.

We are saying thank you and waving.fullsizeoutput_2576

Happy Thanksgiving, Edith Grace Bates.


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6 Responses to "“We are saying thank you . . . and waving/dark though it is”"
  1. Alison Daniels says:

    This beautiful article made me aware of all those who were not here to share Thanksgiving. A friend told me that at the Thanksgiving feast she attended the ritual is to have a table with photos of all those who could not be there. She brought a photo of her mother now deceased a few years and she still felt the sadness of loss. Even though we always feel the grief I think that at Thanksgiving we feel especially thankful to have had those loved ones in our lives. So many holidays begin to blur in our memories but days spent gathered with family and friends do stand out. We cherish old memories and make new ones for as long as we are all still here. Thank you., Dean, for a lovely thought provoking piece once again,

  2. This is a beautiful meditation, Dean. I was enthralled with the poem and thought you had written it and was about to wax ecstatic about your poetry. And then I realized it had been written by W.S. Merwin. Good choice.
    So glad you were able to spend time with friends and family. I’m sorry that one of your friends won’t be with you in the future. We learn to cherish the fleeting days as they pass ever more quickly.
    I’m still woefully behind in everything. Just had my 80th birthday this month. Two of my three daughters (and three grandchildren) visited and threw me a birthday party, which was wonderful. One of my daughters threatened the dumpster solution if I don’t get my life in order.
    I’m feeling a sort of desperation about finishing all the projects underway – writing, photo organizing, book reading and donations, and treasure sorting, At least I’m not bored. I still owe you a review, and I’ll probably need to reread to make it cogent.

  3. Kat Varn says:

    If there is one prayer that I will ever express towards heaven: Thank you. That is inscribed on the journal dedicated to my late stepdad. Almost as good as the shortest Bible verse: Jesus wept. Tears usually escape as I thank my Creator for those who cross my path. You are one of those.

  4. Ellen Lee Bunton says:

    Very touching. Also love the photos, aren’t those ginkos beautiful? There is something comforting in this busy, and fragile world that something can be around for millions of years and still be going strong.

  5. Ray Cruickshanks says:

    Thank you for sharing these words. The recent pictures of Edie are priceless as I had not seen her in some time. A wonderful life taken much too soon…..

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