These days parenting consists, more than I’d like, of ferrying my boys to and from their various music lessons, activities, and sports. The trips are short, never more than a couple of miles this way or that. Generally they do not allow for meaningful conversation. This, needless to say, is fine with my teenager, who prefers to sit in silence with thoughts I’d consider it disrespectful to try to intuit. Very rarely do I break the silence, but the other night we passed a house familiar to me, a brick two-story with an old, sagging porch painted red, white, and blue. I remembered its owner, and, more to myself than to my son, I mused, “Tom Shade’s house.”
“What?,” came a voice from the back seat. I startled. I’d almost forgotten that my teenager was in the car with me. “Tom Shade lived there until he died, maybe five years ago,” I elaborated. “Do you remember him? He used to stand on his porch and wave to all the cars passing by.” My son shook his head. But he did not retreat back into his seat. He remained pitched towards me, so I continued.
“Tom was an elderly black man who became, over time, the ambassador of our town. He’d walk downtown and wave at everyone he met. Or he’d stand in front of his house and wave at cars. People would wave back, or honk their horns to acknowledge him. It got so that I’d expect to see Mr. Shade when I drove down this stretch of Beaver Avenue, and when I didn’t see him, I found myself disappointed. He had a wide, open smile, a smile that would transform his whole body. Around five years ago, I realized that I hadn’t seen him for some time, and I wondered if he was ill. He had to be eighty or eighty-five years old by that point.”
I paused, remembering. “And then I saw his obituary in the paper. It seemed that his death was all this town could talk about for some months. People were devastated, when they hadn’t even known him. That small gesture of his, his wave, made people feel noticed, even loved. So his loss was felt broadly.”
I stopped to glance at the rearview mirror. My son was still bent forward, rapt. “What did you say his name was?,” he asked. “Shade,” I answered. “Tom Shade. And the year after he died, the mayor renamed an alley after him — Shade Alley.”
“I love that story,” my son breathed. “Tom Shade… That’s perfect.”
“I think so, too,” I confided.
“I wish I remembered him,” he added.
“But, you know, you always waved at him, when you were little,” I reassured. “You’d say, ‘Mama, honk the horn! He’s on his porch!’ And I did honk. Every time.”
My son smiled, and leaned back in his seat, shaking his head. “I love that story,” he repeated.
Teenagers are so tender and raw, as fragile and hopeful in their way as the new skin that forms after a cut or scrape. I must remind myself of this more often, especially when my own teenager lashes out in frustration or rage. He is feeling the world so keenly, learning that it can be terribly disappointing, but that once in a long while, it contains aching, nearly indescribable beauty, the kind that causes a person to inhale sharply with the surprise and wonder of it.
When we arrived at our destination the other night, my son got out of the car, trailing his tae kwon do equipment behind him. But he turned back and stuck his head through the open window. “Mom?,” he asked. “Yep?,” I responded. “Did everyone wave back at Mr. Shade? Because that would be the right thing to do. Do you think that some people didn’t wave back at him?”
“I hope they waved back, ” I said, evenly, swallowing back the rise of tears.
“I do, too,” he said, frowning. “I can’t imagine the person who wouldn’t.”
I nodded, he turned to go, and I pulled away from the curb, thinking, This kid’s going to be just fine.
The next time I drive by Mr. Shade’s house, I think I’m going to wave. You know, just in case.