The Gesture

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After the terrorist attack on our country last fall, most Americans struggled with sinking spirits. I was no different. Most afternoons I sat beside my mother's bed in a nursing home as her mind sank deeper into dementia—visits that did little to improve my gloomy outlook that death, destruction, and decay seemed life’s final facts.

One particularly glum afternoon, I felt the acute need for at least a breath of fresh air, a single shaft of light, some brightness in the pervading bleakness. As I climbed into my pickup and started the engine, the radio gave the latest body count in the New York wreckage. I backed out and headed home.

On the opposite curb was a familiar sight, a thin young woman with dark hair drawn back symmetrically from an olive forehead. Large dark eyes anxiously watched passing cars. Her head covering and long straight dress brushed the tops of her toes.

She could be a Pakistani—a number live in our small town now—or from India, Afghanistan . . . almost any Middle Eastern country. She waited for a ride, obviously, to take her home from work or local university classes. Her discomfort was plain. Each car that passed was a possible threat. From twenty yards, I could almost feel her wishing the ride would appear soon.

I had taken to smiling and waving every day as I drove past the woman. Her dark eyes seemed uncertain of what a wave meant. Several times I laughed to myself, wondering what she made of the driver in the green pickup gesturing and grinning.

But looking foolish to strangers carries a certain comfort. What did I have to lose? My little ritual greeting seemed to counteract the suspicion and hostility infecting the world. I only knew I did not want her eyes to show such fear. So I persisted.

This day when I raised my hand, waggled it back and forth and smiled broadly, I saw her hesitate, then lift her own hand—not high, just about to her chest. Her fingers moved in a tiny arc. A small smile lit her face.

My heart leapt. Tears rushed to my eyes. I clicked off the radio and sang all the way home. I had not felt such pure joy for many a long, long day.

Since that day, the two of us have continued to wave to one another, each of us grinning at our inside joke. She no longer wears her traditional dress. The first time I saw her in pants, I almost didn't recognize her. I think she caught my startled glance and laughed.

I see her less often now. Her ride may be more punctual, or her schedule is different. But those days when our paths cross, we both are faithful to our tiny thread of connection. I know nothing else about her—not her age, her country, or if she really is a student. All I know is that she accepted my tiny gesture of goodwill and responded. And she will never know how her shy smile and hesitant wave that day reopened my world.

Most of the material on The High Calling is available for reuse under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. Unfortunately, work by Virginia Stem Owens is not available for reuse. If you are interested in reprinting work by Virginia Stem Owens, please contact her directly.

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