When my husband and I moved into our little house on our quiet street almost twenty years ago, we were new to the neighborhood. It wasn’t long, however, before Ray, who lived a couple of houses down and across, wheeled his elderly mother over to welcome us. Tiny, snug in her chair, hands neatly folded in her lap, Loretta said nothing but offered beatific smiles and delighted nods. I think her silky white hair was in a bun, but I may be conflating her with my mother. I remember little of what was said that day, but I do remember how buoyant she seemed, even in a wheelchair.
In all the years to come I didn’t encounter her outside again, but I did see her through the big window in their front porch where she sat for most of each day. I couldn’t tell if she spent her day knitting or watching television or masterminding a Ponzi scheme, but I do know that she waved at absolutely everyone who passed by and that waving back to Loretta made us a community. One day her attention must have wandered because a garbage man, accustomed to her cheerful greeting, actually walked right up to her window, empty can in one hand and a wave on the other. I remember thinking how sweet he was: he wanted to make sure she knew she was seen. Now I am not sure my assumption was correct. Did he want to connect her to the world beyond her window, or did he need that connection himself? Perhaps the answer to both is yes. I will confess that on rare days when I hunched my shoulders against the cold and muttered to myself about some negligible problem, waving to Loretta seemed more obligation than pleasure, but for the most part that simple action buoyed me up. It made me feel less at sea in a world that sometimes tosses us about like bottle caps.
One day, however, Loretta wasn’t at her window. The next day she wasn’t there either. Or the next. Then a sign appeared in the big front window. Hand printed, in large letters it read: Mom has gone into the hospital and won’t be coming home. Thanks to all who waved.
That memory still has real power for me. The phrase “all who waved” suggests not single, casual gestures but sustained and defining ones—we were defined in that instance as the people who waved to Loretta. Such humble acts, such simple friendliness, are a tacit acknowledgement that we are ultimately all in the same boat. And it reflects the kind of spirit, the good will, that keeps us afloat, ensures that we are, to evoke but reverse the poet Stevie Smith, not drowning but waving.