Confessions of a Country Cowgirl: A waver
Yes, I confess: I am a waver.
If you’re blessed to live in a rural area, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, well, you’re missing out.
As a small child I spent plenty of time tagging along in the pickup with my dad, often riding on his lap. Those were, after all, pre-regulatory seatbelt days. I was convinced that the easy lift of his index finger whenever another vehicle approached on the highway or gravel roads was as vital a part of the process of operating the vehicle as turning the key or the steering wheel and pressing the gas pedal and brake. My little brother had a favorite ‘car’ toy complete with steering wheel and horn, and when we played with it we made sure to wave periodically with vigorous ‘finger lifts’ like Daddy’s.
In those ‘good old days,’ nearly everyone we met on the road waved back. Theirs might not have been the same index-finger-lift wave; each individual had a unique style.
There were the finger lifters, the two-finger-lifters, the V, a full palm wave, the ones who touched their cap or lifted its bill, left handers, right handers, and full force, fluttering hand wavers. Some stuck an arm out of the window and waved. Some pointed.
The impression that I got from my dad’s habit stuck with me, to the point that I wave completely on automatic.
I wave to oncoming vehicles when I drive. Sometimes I catch myself waving to the same car twice. I wave to folks on the street. I wave to folks operating tractors, combines and other farm machinery as I pass. I wave in the dark to eye piercing oncoming headlights when no one can even tell that I’m waving. I even wave to roadkill skunks on the shoulder of the road. It’s a habit that has got me—by the finger—and I can’t shake it.
You may be concerned about my mental state—who waves to dead skunks?—But the gesture was as much a part of the cultural ritual of my small hometown farming community—and still is in the ranching community where I live now—as saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the school day, showing up for home ball games, or saying the Lord’s Prayer at funerals.
There’s something profound in that wordless salute. The acknowledgement of brotherhood, kinship, shared experience, shared humanity (though I do not claim kinship to roadkill). The appreciation of seeing and being seen, of one’s existence being noted and valued. The recognition of community. The confession that ‘no man is an island.’
Over the course of my decades of driving, the percentage of people who wave back has diminished drastically. It may be true that the number of vehicles on any given road is inversely proportional to the percentage of those drivers who wave. In other words, the more traffic, the less waving. Thankfully, I live on a road where it is almost unusual to meet another vehicle—so if I do happen to meet someone there is a much greater chance that they will wave back! (This mathematical formula does not take into account the dead skunk on Cemetery hill that I ran over on our way home from the girls’ volleyball game last week.)
Here in rural America, where we are still intimately connected to the cycles of seasons, wind, weather, the planting and the harvest, birth and bloom, sickle and scythe, we have not forgotten that we need each other. We may not gather to pitch bundles on a threshing crew, moving from farm to farm over the course of a harvest season, but we still commiserate over breakdowns when we chat at the parts counter while waiting for a new hydraulic hose or write a check for a new fuel pump. We still trade work at branding time and when it’s time for the fall gather. We may not gather to do laundry together, but we still show up with a casserole or a pan of bars, a hug or a heart-to-heart talk. When crisis comes, social media may be a quick and simple way of keeping family and neighbors informed, but it can never replace a talk at the kitchen table or a hug. ‘Likes’ on social media will never quite carry the same message as a real, honest to goodness person waving at me when we meet on the road.
We have not quite forgotten that when need arises, we depend on each other. When we wave, we confess that for whatever divinely mysterious reason, we were placed on this earth together, and that even though it may not be evident, there is purpose when our paths intersect.
As my children have started driving, they, too, carry on the wave. It may be a temptation for me, as the supervisory adult in the passenger seat (and, I’ll confess, periodically panicking over the prospect of becoming roadkill) to scold them to ‘just drive’—but I have to admit more than a little pride that they automatically and intentionally carry on this tradition. And I share their joy every time they tell me, “Mom, they waved back!”