Waving to a Stranger

woman wavingStanding in a piazza in Lucca, Italy, dappled sunlight shining down on me, I licked gelato al limone while my husband peeked in storefront windows. Our boys traded licks of their own flavors as they critiqued them with the seriousness of a Food Network expert. I whispered “I’m happy” to no one but me and God, as I often do when the moment comes, to capture it and make it more real.

A small bus inched through the crowd. One forgets these streets are for cars when they are filled with people. The pedestrians seem to have eyes on the backs of their heads as they move easily to the left or right to let vehicles pass.

I peeked into the bus as it crept through the mass. It was filled with young adults strapped into wheelchairs or specialized beds. Two attendants sat near the front, animatedly talking with the driver as he rode the brakes. As the bus moved past, my eyes met with another pair. The sweet face of a man with Down syndrome stared out the window. He looked to be in his late 20s. His face was expressionless with a hint of boredom. Without thinking, I lifted my hand and waved, big and bold. The happiness I had just acknowledged to myself and to God shone in a bright smile stretched across my face. The young man noticed and waved back just as enthusiastically.

As the bus drove out of view, my youngest came up to me, covered in chocolate. As I wiped my son’s face and hands, I thought to myself, how silly I was to wave. I hope I didn’t confuse the young man. He must now be wondering why this strange woman was waving at him. Was I just ridiculous waving with such vigor to someone I didn’t know? I felt embarrassed by my impulsive action. These thoughts stayed with me as I cleaned my oldest son, who had managed to get gelato in his hair.

As I finished my cone, the bus returned. I saw the young man again, this time sitting up straighter than before. His eyes scanned the piazza as his head moved back and forth, and I realized he was looking for me! When he found me, his eyes brightened and he waved, as did I, until the bus turned the corner.

I was glad I had been so impulsive, so silly as to share my joy with a complete stranger. Why am I often so apprehensive to share the joy the Lord has given me? I worry about my appearance. How will it look to those around me? But in this case, as most, my joy doubled, grew, spread outward, and came back to me in such a simple, little action.

“Did you know that man?” my son asked me.

“No, we were both just happy,” I said, giving my son a squeeze.


  1. Shermaiah, a big part of my working years was spent in a big government subsidized organization caring for adults with mental disabilities. I do appreciate your very human and touching sharing and also the many comments shared . One of them whose name is Maria mentioned that the mother whispered “rhank you” for her friendliness. Most relatives of persons with disabilities try to avoid contact with strangers on the streets for different reasons but are very grateful for small acts of friendliness. Beautiful stories from them were shared in our parents meetings. These stories still come to my mind when I start feeling sad reading negative media reports of things happening in this world. Then I remind myself, God cares! And I thank him for his love.

  2. How often do we withhold a smile to a stranger? We were taught from early on not to talk with strangers; how much more a smile?

    One day. in a grocery store, while I was walking the aisle, I saw this little boy with Down syndrome with his mom. He was staring at me from afar and since there was nobody in that aisle t but the three of us, I knew I was the object of that stare. It put me in a very uncomfortable situation. It was as if he knew me. He had this wide grin on his face and as I we got face to face, I couldn’t but return his smile. His mom noticed it too, and she looked at me, whispering ‘thank you.’ I experienced so much joy at that moment!

    It got me into thinking how many times I have been so stingy with my smiles. How, when people smile and you smile back, it can bring wonders to both of you.

    As the saying goes, “Put a smile on your face.”

    It is a gift from God. It costs nothing. It lightens up your and the recipient’s load.

  3. Have you ever smiled at a stranger and not had the smile returned? What a downer and yet it doesn’t stop me from trying again! A smile and a wave can do wonders for you and the recipient.

  4. Terrific story, Shemaiah! True joy is never meant to be contained or it will simply be extinguished.
    I just left Seattle yesterday to return home. Said my good-byes to everyone after wonderful visits, made it through the Seattle gridlock traffic before the snow came to town, and stopped at a coffee shop on the east side to grab a coffee for the road. Happy, grateful, and looking forward to going home, I must have been overly cheerful and talkative to my barista, presumably forgetting myself and the customers around! The barista picked up on my enthusiasm and commented that I made her feel good…and added that it was supposed to be her job to make me feel good! We BOTH benefitted! It made my drive back home all the better! Glad you lost yourself with a spontaneous wave and wrote this inspiring story!

  5. Thank you for sharing. So beautiful. I try saying hello top almost everyone I pass. It’s a 50 percent chance that I get a response, but that doesn’t matter. The smile I receive back from some warm my heart and feeds my joy.

  6. As I read your piece, may be you were the only person who waved to him on that day. People living with down syndrome are lovely and loving. Your waving cost nothing but it meant so much more just like a smile. That was a good example of waving not only to those we know but open our hearts to strangers too just by a simple and honest smile. Thanks for sharing

  7. My favorite thing about writing for Ignatian Spirituality is that people comment. I really get to interact with you and see how the story resonated. Thank you so very much for your responses. So often a writer puts their words out to the void without a response. Your comments deepen my faith.

    • I live in South Carolina & It is common to wave &/or say, “Hey”, to those we encounter. In our community we wave to others as we pass in our cars. Our greeting is a gift that often is returned. I also give them a smile. It has helped me to meet new people Thanks for reminding us to stay engaged with our fellow human beings. It is what God wants of us no doubt. “Hey”

  8. What a heartfelt and special memory and reflection! You are paying attention to the whisper of God inside you (“Go ahead and wave.”) You blessed the young man, and he blessed you back on the return trip. And you noticed it all. God bless you for sharing this. Thanks so much.

  9. I think we have all waved to strangers. I have when I thought someone had waved to me. Or I thought I knew someone and waved and got a stare back at me or a cordial wave in return from a stranger. God bounces among all of us in unanticipated ways.

  10. Absolutely MAGNIFICENT! The gesture of a wave, costing nothing, emanating out of joy, due to gratitude, resulting in an act of simple kindness. And, now today: spreading a message far and wide by the telling of this story! Wow. I shall start waving more….though I really, truly also want to share in that gelato. (BTW: as the mother of three children, now all grown up, hearing you have children – who observed this beautiful wave – and talked to you about it – also made my heart soar! They saw love in action.)

  11. If we all were less self conscious and let God’s presence guide our interactions with each other, there would be a lot more smiles in the world. Thanks for sharing!

  12. The joy you have given me by referring to the ‘man with Down syndrome’ and NOT ‘the Down syndrome man’. The difference it makes in recognizing the humanness of the man first and not his condition or disability. If only everyone had that understanding.

  13. Thank you for this. I come from a close-knit family of 9 children. One of my two younger brothers was killed in a farming accident when he was 23 years of age. He was one of those rare people who had his head, heart and soul in alignment from his earliest years. His habit of waving at perfect strangers was so embarrassing to me, especially during high school; it was so “not cool”. My brother’s death was shattering to us. Still, we took such comfort from the huge number of people who attended the visitation. Some neither we nor my brother even knew, but they came to express their sympathy to my parents and family, noting how he had touched their lives in some way. One of those people was a middle-aged man who daily drove by our farm on the hour-long commute to Montreal. Every morning my brother, en route to the barn, waved at him. The commuter saw the death announcement in the newspaper and recognized him from the photo. He felt that he had to come to the wake, he said; not just to offer sympathy, but to find an outlet for the genuine sorrow he felt, knowing that this daily gesture of joyful good cheer was gone forever. My brother’s 33rd anniversary of death was just last week, but the lessons I learned from him have withstood the test of time. Keep spreading joy, Shemaiah, one small gesture at a time.They are needed in this world. You never know whose lives you will touch. Blessings on your day.

    • Inez thank you for taking the time to share this gorgeous story. I cried reading it. What a beautiful reminder the importance of small gestures. These memories make your brother present all over again. I love getting to know him in this way.


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