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Wave as You Go By

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One month to the day before Christmas, Elizabeth Muir fell across her ironing board and died. Just the week before, she had celebrated her first pension check by taking Malcolm out to The Square, where they toasted her retirement with a gourmet dinner.

Malcolm couldn’t accept her death or believe it, and he wouldn’t forgive himself for having let his wife die alone. He had been so close at the time and yet so far, cutting stove wood in their dooryard not 30 paces from the kitchen window. Who could have predicted such a massive heart attack—or done a thing to stop it? Yet neither his guilt nor his grief would leave him.

Friends stopped by. Neighbors asked if there was anything he needed. People from church dropped off covered dishes and comforting words, but it all passed before him like television without the sound.

Christmas came and went. The kids were home for the holidays, but it wasn’t the same without Grammie. It wasn’t Christmas without the homemaker, though there were signs of her presence and thoughtful preparation everywhere.

When the cold finally snapped, Malcolm went back to the woodpile he hadn’t touched since Elizabeth’s death. As his mind wandered from thought to aimless thought, it struck him, “This is our Two-for-One Day.” The fourteenth, his wife’s birthday, when she received a heart-shaped birthday cake at The Square.

It all came back to him as his eyes brimmed and overflowed. “We’ll see you in February,” he had told the hostess nearly three months earlier. “And make it just one candle from now on . . .”

Mal looked up as the high school bus dusted by his lane. He waved instinctively, as all folks do on the back roads, but his heart wasn’t in it, and neither were the riders’. Five faces looked back at him through hand-wiped portholes, but none acknowledged his wave, not one.

“Wave,” he said as he raised his hand again. “The least you can do is wave.”

Two faces turned to watch him pass away behind them into the trailing dust, but none among the five changed expressions or nodded or lifted as much as a finger in acknowledgment. Their roadside world passed before them like television without the sound.

More than once over that weekend Mal thought about those bus-bound riders whose sloped shoulders and blank stares looked so much like the way he had felt since November. Strange how their collective image had stirred some small desire for life within him. So much so that on Monday he found himself posted there at the woodpile long before the large yellow bus lumbered into view.

He waved again, sooner this time and with animation, arm extended full length, gloved hand outstretched.

The driver looked his way and tooted, and each face turned to see why. But none did more than notice him: no smiles, not a finger raised, no gesture of recognition or kinship. And, notice taken, each rider but one resumed a face-forward silhouette of solitude.

Mal waved again and pointed to the only view left, a small, expressionless countenance barely visible through the grimy back window.

“Wave to me . . . Come on, wave . . . I see you there. Give me a wave!” But the widower couldn’t elicit a response.

“What’s the matter with kids these days?” he muttered as he turned with determination and headed off to his shop in the barn.

What a sign

It was nearly dark when Malcolm Muir finally kicked off his boots in the mudroom and went to the pantry to find something for supper. There was a glint in his eye and a mobility of motion about him that looked much more like the man his Elizabeth had married.

The next day he stood with anticipation by the end of his woodpile. Mal could hardly wait for the bus to show. Propped against the cord stack was a carefully painted full sheet of plywood that read “Wave As You Go By.” Mal tried to look nonchalant, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t wait to see their faces.

Mal heard the bus at Petersons’ farm and knew just about when he’d see it come over the hill into full view. He tried several poses to look just right, and then, almost in surprise, there it was swaying from pothole to pothole down the gravel road.

“Give a wave,” he pleaded.

The driver obliged with a broad grin and a double toot, and Mal saw him turn and say something to his passengers, who, snap! like that, filled the steamy windows with attentive, talkative faces. But only one returned his wave—the one in the back whose faintly visible hand was the only gesture he saw as old Number 7 turned its dirty stern to the widower and went out of view.

“OK!” said Mal as he hop-stepped his way back to the shop. “I got ’em that time . . . wait till tomorrow!”

“Got ’em that time . . . wait till tomorrow,” said Malcolm Muir every school day that week, as each afternoon he paraded out yet another colorful sign to tease those teenagers into acting like kids. There were “Wave, I Dare Ya” and “Give It a Try.” On Friday he added “See Ya Next Week” to his plywood panels.

The kids loved it. They all started waving, politely at first, like crazy by Friday. They were as eager to see Mal’s signs as he was to make them. They even made their own: “Hi, Mr. Muir.” “Take ’R Slow, Bro.” “Way to Go, Picasso.”

It mattered to Malcolm that he have a new sign each day, and he worked at it, sometimes till late at night. “How About a Smile?” asked the board where he stood one afternoon grinning from ear to ear. “See You Later” said a lone sign at the curb on the day he popped out of the bushes by the fence line down the way. And they kept coming: “Hit Those Books!” “Be Nice to Your Seatmate.” “Take a Driver to Dinner.”

The mood in the bus began to match the mood of the man who made the signs. That once ho-hum end-of-the-day trip became an adventure. Kids stayed on past their stop just to see what old Mr. Muir was up to this time.

And they didn’t remain just spectators. One day they worked up a grand-scale appreciation that filled all the windows on one side of the bus. “A Day Without Mal Is Like a Day Without Sunshine,” it said. Two smaller signs, handheld in that familiar back corner, told him even more. On rumpled composition paper was penned “Thank You.” A week later the missive said “I Love You.”

What started out as the first tingle of a life on the mend ended with a sense of community that surprised everyone, even Mal. He had endeared himself not only to the five students who passed his dooryard, but to kids who had never seen him. He was the talk of the school and the talk of the town.

What’s it say?

“Wave As You Go By” caught on with all the students who rode old Number 7, and it spread to other buses as well. Throughout the district students waved greetings as they got on the bus and when they departed. They waved to truckers, passengers, pedestrians, and, of course, other busloads of wavers. And many of the “wavees” along the way became wavers themselves, looking forward to those big yellow welcome wagons at the start and close of the day, and missing them on weekends and holidays.

That June there was a grandfather at graduation who had no family members receiving diplomas. He was there to receive a very special award, donated and decided upon by the students themselves: the first annual Elizabeth Muir Memorial Award, given each year “to the community member who by example and deed has done the most for our school.”

To a thunderous standing ovation (and I mean thunderous), Malcolm slowly made his way to the front of the auditorium. There, encircled by the newly graduated, he proudly accepted this memorial to his beloved wife.

The award—an inscribed, heart-shaped vase—was passed hand to hand among those original five Valentine’s Day riders. The last, Lori Taylor, held him tightly, then kissed his cheek and made the presentation.

The whole audience broke into tears. No one went away unmoved, especially Malcolm Muir, who was overwhelmed and humbled by it all.

Later, in the quiet of his living room, Mal opened the envelope that had accompanied the vase, now perched on his mantel. In it was a parchment describing the memorial award. And there were two other documents—each on well-worn, three-hole composition paper with the signature “Lori” on the back.

One said “Thank You.” The other said “I Love You.” Malcolm knew them well.


This story originally appeared in the July 17, 1993, issue of Insight. Art White wrote from Clementsvale, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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