Some time ago, when she was four years old, or perhaps four and a half, which is a separate age at that time of life, my youngest protégé, whose name is Julia, observed that not many people seemed to know how to wave properly. At the time she was demonstrating an improved method of holding hands, which required that I let my fingers hang straight down with no tilting, allowing her to grasp my fingers with hers at the right angle, and I could feel in a moment that there were no awkward forces pushing or pulling against us: we could walk together easily and she could skip along as she wished.
She had been right about hand-holding so I hesitated to question her remark about people not knowing how to wave. Julia’s own wave at the time resembled the wave of the Queen of England, a rather chilling twist of the hand. But later I noticed that she had injected a note of brio into her waving, and now that she is five, or more precisely five and nearly three quarters, her wave has grown in stature and she often raises her hand rather grandly above her head, as she did the other day from the back seat of her mother’s car as it pulled away from the curb. I could see that there was nothing uncertain in Julia’s wave now and felt my own wave to be rather tentative, perhaps even hesitant; and as we who were left on the sidewalk waved back to her, I applied myself vigorously and kept waving until Julia was out of sight and then the car was out of sight. Only then did we stop waving, and we let our hands drift above our heads for a moment before finally lowering them. Is there an art of waving? Walter Benjamin seems to propose at least a typology of waving, in a few lines scribbled in a notebook circa 1930; his words may be all we have on the subject from great thinkers: "Waving from the mail coach, to the organic rhythm of the trotting horses. The senseless, desperate, cutting wave from the departing train. Waving has gone astray in the railroad station. On the other hand, the wave to strangers passing by on a moving train. This above all with children, who are waving to angels when they wave to the noiseless, unknown, never-returning people. (Of course, they are also saluting the passing train.)"
Who waves at trains today? Or at ships departing? Is waving at a cruise ship really waving, or are we merely enacting a role as seen in movies? (Are passengers leaving on a cruise ship not already on their way back?) At the airport no one waves; instead we embrace at the departure gate, forced to accept an unhappy substitute in the hug, a brief unprotracted moment, already a memory of parting. Once we watched and waved and watched more as our sight of the beloved diminished in the distance: eventually they were no more to be seen and so we turned back into the present and away from the past, where they had been earlier in the day: we were melancholy, even nostalgic. Let us note here the reduction in status of nostalgia, which for two hundred years, at least until the end of World War II and the onset of commercial air travel, had been an affliction common among students and military personnel; doctors treated nostalgia as they did influenza and other contagious diseases, with lots of bed rest and plenty of fluids. Who today is willing to be diagnosed as nostalgic? Who confesses to that once noble affliction, now reduced to a mere attribute of sentimentalism, a component of kitsch?
Certain species of waving will always be with us, of course: the pope waves, the queen waves, tyrants wave, clowns wave, mayors and prime ministers wave. Blondin waves to the Prince of Wales from his rope across Niagara. Beauty queens wave and so do their maids in waiting and their runners-up. To what extent are we satisfied that their waving is true waving rather than a requirement in a job description? Let us define true waving as a continuum of mutual recognition, of contact soon but not quite yet to be broken or remade (the homecoming), and if broken, to be broken forever: this moment of breaking will never return; we continue to wave for another heartbeat or two with our hands in the air, beckoning, gesturing, making farewell yet always beckoning; then having lost not only eye contact but all visual residue of the departed, we hold our hands still in the air, in mute acknowledgement of a sundering now complete.
And then ships in passing, ferries, cruise ships, yachts: passengers wave to each other across the water. People living in the country wave to each other from their cars and their pickup trucks. Waving lends gravity and duration to the vanishing world, especially in glimpses of private farewells carried out in public spaces such as train stations and bus depots, but only weakly in airports, where the exchange of waves so meaningful in prior ages cannot be known or seen or even remembered by those too young to have known waving as some of us can still recall waving to each other on a darkened snowy evening, perhaps on the wooden platform at Sioux Lookout on a night of blizzard and cutting wind and nothing before us but the certainty of never seeing each other again, never being seen by each other again, although only to be separated for days or weeks at most but who could believe that, and the snow was hurting our faces and the big lamp was glaring and we had mittens on and scarves and the whistle was blowing. We embraced heavily in our awkward clothing; a clanging and the clash of iron and the screech of metal wheels: leaning out from the vestibule between cars, waving into the night and the blizzard for as long as we could, as the train pulled us apart, into the future, into the past. All was equally blank and without you, but was it an escape as well, a species of respite, even hope?
The long and painful wailing of the whistle in the night, a lonely minor chord, D-sharp minor to be precise, on an air horn invented by Robert Swanson, the great whistle maker, at his whistle farm in a distant mountain valley. (Swanson was a composer of farewells: it was he who gave the minor chord to Canadian trains, the major chord to American trains. Might there be a doctrine of farewells?) That was waving then, we want to say: those were the great days of waving, but how certain can we be? (Is this what Benjamin implies when he says that waving went astray in the railroad station?) Not long ago my protégé Julia began slipping into epileptic seizures, which went on for many weeks. During the seizures she would retreat for long moments to a distant place; we could see her leaving us and we would wave to her slowly, and she would wave back slowly, tracing a gesture in the air, and the wave would linger until the seizure had passed and we were together again. Who is it, we want to remember, who waves at angels, when they wave to the noiseless, unknown, never-returning people?
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