Every time Melissa and I walk our dog, we have this habit of waving hello to every car that passes. In the last several years, we’ve gotten to know most of the people who live on the street, mostly due to this practice.
While most people who live on this street now know us, there are still plenty of tourists, construction workers, landscapers, delivery drivers, and sightseers who drive by us and are surprised by our gesture. I often wonder how many of these people think we’re nuts, seeing two strangers waving at them like old friends. You can learn a lot about people simply by witnessing their reaction.
I recently came across an article that I wrote in the 1990s when Melissa and I still lived in Massachusetts. It was published in the Worcester Telegram following an ongoing news story about a hit-and-run accident. Police were pursuing the case for over a week and eventually caught the driver, but the sadness of the story hung in the air like senseless tragedy often does. The woman hit by the car might have lived if the driver had stopped and called an ambulance, but that’s not how this story ended.
The insights I wrote about in this article seem fairly commonplace to me now, but this was all new to thirty-something-year-old Bob living in Massachusetts in the 1990s. Still, coming across this story was a great reminder to me of its message, so I decided share it with you as my message for the New Year. The article was titled…
Thank You Ruth Harper, and Goodbye (©2001 Bob Olson)
~ Beginning of article ~
A recent newspaper article featured a story about a woman who was hit by a car and died. It was a hit-and-run accident that occurred just up the street from our home. Although we didn’t know the seventy-five-year-old woman named Ruth Harper, my wife, Melissa, and I could not help but to feel deeply troubled by the news of her death. Let me explain.
A couple years ago, while I was driving down my street, I saw a woman walking her dog. Her back was to me; but as soon as she heard my car, she turned and waved hello. Hesitantly, I waved back. I anticipated that she would realize I was someone she did not know and think I was weird waving back at her. But in the time that it took for me to think about it, I saw her in my rear-view mirror, still waving.
The next time I saw this woman walking her dog, she again turned at the sound of my car and began waving to me. Not so surprised this time, I waved back with enthusiasm. It felt good to have a new friend in the world with whom to wave hello.
This went on for some time, and I was excited for Melissa to witness this sweet woman’s greeting. So one day when I spotted the woman down the road, I said to Melissa, "Oh, there’s my new friend." As we drove by the woman—she and I waving at one another—Melissa waved along too with a curious look on her face.
In time, this woman became a part of our lives. Melissa and I always enjoyed waving to her as we drove home. And when our schedules changed so we were driving home at a different hour, we didn’t see the nice woman anymore. Melissa would often comment, "I wonder where our friend is today." We felt sadness whenever we drove down the street without seeing her.
The newspaper informed us that the woman’s name is Ruth Harper. The reporter interviewed the man who found her body. The man said he didn’t know the woman, but he normally saw her on his way to breakfast—she always waved to him as he drove by her. This particular morning he didn’t see her. On his return from breakfast, he noticed her body on the side of the snow-covered road. Although he phoned the police immediately from his cellphone, her injuries were fatal. She was pronounced dead at the hospital a couple hours later.
Melissa mentioned to me that she felt compelled to go to the funeral services.
"But we don’t even know her," I said, admitting I felt the same impulse.
"I know," she responded, "I just feel like we had a connection with her." I agreed, of course, and it was then that I discovered a little lesson about life.
I’ll never know why she did it, but Ruth’s simple gesture of waving hello to every car somehow touched people. I know she touched Melissa and me, as well as the man who found her on the side of the road. And I’m sure there were many others.
I drive by many of the same people day after day and feel nothing. Heck, I have worked with people day in and day out and felt less connection with them. Perhaps if they had just returned a smile now and then it would have been different. Instead, sometimes the best part of my day was when a stranger waved to me on my way home.
I’m not suggesting that we begin waving hello to everyone we pass, but I can think of worse habits to start. I’ll bet there are many people who have exchanged derogatory hand signals to strangers a lot more than a friendly wave. Ruth Harper’s story got me wondering why we are so uncomfortable waving hello to people we don’t know.
Have you ever smiled at someone in the hall at work, or on the street, and had them stare blankly at you? Why are we so cold to one another? Especially when it feels so good to exchange...well, I guess I’ll call it an expression of love.
Couldn’t a wave hello be considered a gesture that sends a little love? A smile might fall into the same category, although I think it’s safer to smile at someone than to give them a big wave. So a wave must send more love than a smile, and a hug would be sending even more love. And I guess a kiss would hold a mountain of love.
Ever hug a child? Ever be hugged by a child, one of those great big bear hugs? It feels so good it makes your spine melt. Children don’t hold back their love. That’s why nobody hesitates to wave or smile at a child—we know the child will reciprocate.
Maybe that is our issue; maybe we fear that others won’t reciprocate the love we send. Perhaps the reason we sometimes stare blankly at a person who smiles at us is because we are caught off-guard, even suspicious, of anyone we don’t know who is sending us love.
"What do they want? They must want something from me? Am I being manipulated here? I must beware."
By the time we think it through and realize that there are no strings attached to their smile, the person is gone and the moment is over. Now we have hurt that person. Sure it’s a minor hurt, but we rejected them just the same. When we finally get a second chance to smile at that person at a future date, they’re gun shy and look away. They don’t want to risk being rejected again.
An individual only needs to be rejected a few times before he or she will stop waving and smiling at strangers altogether. Before you know it, nobody’s exchanging love with anyone they don’t know and trust anymore. The result is a world that needs more people who are not afraid to wave and smile at one another. Our world needs more people like that nice woman on my street, whom I now know is named Ruth Harper. Yet, now we have lost her.
With the help of this loving woman who wasn’t afraid to wave hello to everyone passing her on the street, I learned a valuable lesson. Unfortunately, she had to die before I thought about it. I guess, though, it’s not unusual for death to teach us the most important lessons about life. Thanks to this wonderful soul, I have learned a lesson while I am still healthy and alive. For this I say, “Thank you Ruth Harper, and goodbye.”
~ End of article ~
It was a simple article with a simple message, but I received a lot of positive feedback about it. Who knew so many people read the Worcester Telegram? Three of Ruth Harper’s family members read it and called me. Her granddaughter left me a phone message in tears. She had just finished reading the article and said between sniffles, “I never knew that about my grandmother. Thank you so much.”
I had forgotten about that article until recently. But I think of Ruth Harper often. Every time Melissa and I are walking our dog while waving at every car, and a stranger drives by us without waving—likely confused by our gesture, possibly thinking that we have mistaken them for someone else—I think to myself, “Next time they drive by us, they’ll know we were waving at them. And they, too, will feel good to know they have a new friend.”
Or else they’ll just think that we’re nuts. Either way, they’ll be right.
Heartfelt wishes for the New Year.
Warmly, Bob Olson
©2014 Written By Bob Olson