An elegant black man in his seventies lived a few blocks away from my home in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was tall and thin, with a wrinkled forehead, and always wore a dark suit. I called him the Waving Man because he and I waved at each other almost every day for seven years. I took great comfort in seeing him. To me, he symbolized community—the community I longed for, a relic of the past. Since I had moved from Chicago, the feeling of being an outsider would crop up every once in a while and I would be reminded that this new city was not my hometown.
The Waving Man lived across the street from an old white wooden church. On almost any given day in reasonable weather, he would sit on the front porch of his small Victorian home with the peeling paint and wave from his chair at anyone who drove by. It was important to him, this waving. It was like a calling. You could see it in his eyes.
The road he lived on was a quiet one, so for a long time I thought he waved just at me, but one day I saw him wave to someone in another car. The man he waved to did not wave back. Perhaps he thought that the elderly man was mistaken. Perhaps he had the thought, Why should I wave back at a stranger? My daughter Irene and I did not see it this way. Irene was four years old when we moved to Cincinnati, and she looked for the waving man every day. Most of the time he was there, ready to greet and be greeted. I can still remember her small hand waving back and forth at him well after we had passed his house. I can still see her head turning back to catch his smile even after we had driven around the bend.
When the waving man wasn’t there, Irene worried about him. “Where is that man?” she would ask.
“Maybe he is busy cooking, or reading a book,” I would say, or if it was winter, “Perhaps it’s too cold today.”
Often, the waving man was not alone on his porch. Sometimes an old woman, who I think lived there too, sat with him. Perhaps she was the waving man’s wife, but she never waved. She glared at the passing cars. A young man, perhaps his grandson, would also appear from time to time on the porch. He was more like his grandfather than not. When the waving man waved and we waved back, the young man smiled at us.
One early spring several years after our waving had begun, the waving man disappeared. A month or so went by with no sight of him, and his house seemed so lonely and vacant. The grass grew high. I thought maybe I should knock on the door and find out what happened to him, but I knew I never would. What would I say? “Hi, I’m looking for the man that waved at me for seven years.” I hope he’s not dead, I thought with a feeling of dread. “Perhaps he’s just out of town on an extended visit,” I would say when Irene asked about him. Day after day, I had to tell her that I didn’t know when he might be back.
Then, one day in May, I drove by and saw the glaring woman. She was standing on the porch, looking like she wished her day would just hurry up and come to an end. Given the way she looked, I never expected to see the Waving Man again, but the next day, there he was, back in his chair on the porch. He looked as refined as ever, perhaps a bit thinner. He waved at me and I waved back more times than were necessary. Irene watched me as she waved from the back seat.
“Maybe we will meet that man one day,” she said as I looked at her in the rearview mirror.
“Yes, maybe we will,” I answered, but I didn’t really think so.
But a few months later, after visiting my mother-in-law who lay dying in a Hospice facility, the Waving Man walked in to the Bob Evans restaurant down the street where Irene and I were having lunch.
“Look, Irene,” I said in a whisper, “it’s the waving man.”
We watched the hostess take him to a nearby booth. He sat down and took his napkin and carefully smoothed it on his lap with a graceful motion that reminded me of the kindness in his waves. That’s when I realized why, after all the years of seeing him only on his porch, he had appeared here with us now, as Irene and I were about to lose someone so special to us. He was waving goodbye to Irene’s grandmother, my mother-in-law, Suzette.
Irene and I stood up and walked over to him. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Melissa.” He looked at me, not as a stranger, but as an old friend.
“We’ve been waving at each other for a long time,” I said. He smiled at me and reached for my hand. We held hands for a long time. He smiled at Irene and she smiled at him. He patted her head.
“I’m Irene,” she said.
“It’s good to meet you. I’ve enjoyed waving at you.”
“I hope you all have a good lunch,” this man, one of the first people to make me feel welcome in a new city, said to my daughter and me. “It’s good to know your community.”
“Yes, it is,” I said to the Waving Man, who was lifting our spirits yet again, on a day we needed it more than ever.
Back at our table, Irene sipped her milk in silence for a moment, then said, “We finally met him, Mama!”
“Yes, we did. Yes, we did,” I said. But it seemed to me as if the Waving Man had known us all along.