Sometimes the oddest small happenings trigger a chain of memories. Not always a long chain, but in this case, potent, despite the seventy years it stretches across. This kind of summer-wondering has led me to a profound question: What ever happened to the wink?
I have learned that I sometimes have a balance problem when I’m carrying a bag of groceries and I have a scar to remind me. So yesterday, groceries slung over an arm and new orthopedic insoles forced me to walk cautiously as I made my way home from Safeway. The sun was shining, and I might have been smiling (or gritting my teeth a little) as I went along. Ahead of me a small grizzled black man stood on one edge of the sidewalk looking my way. He was old, like me. A little humped, but smiling big, he met my eyes. His glance shimmered with good cheer. I smiled big back at him. I couldn’t hear his words as he winked, but I smiled even bigger and was forty years younger, my steps light and sure.
My first wink came in the sixth grade. Innocent in those days, we gained boyfriends through snickering rumors. The latest rumor was that Erwin, who sat two seats in front of me, liked me. “Did he say so?” I asked the friend who had whispered the news. Erwin had never even glanced as me. He was okay, though, except for his Day-Glo socks, and he was never mean on the playground like some of the boys. When our strict teacher relaxed his patrol of the room, looking for something in his closet, Erwin turned around, grinned and winked at me, confirming the rumor. I got the message, but I never did get used to his bright orange socks.
I read that in the Wodabbe tribe in the Niger area, a man who wants to have sex with a girl will wink at her. If the girl continues to look at him, he will slightly move his lip corner, showing the direction to his selected bush. However, Wikipedia adds that in other cultures, a wink can express approval and appreciation. That’s the kind of wink I am referring to. No bushes involved.
Other winks are only twitches in my memory, but I’ll never forget the one in Lucca. I was walking along a street, my husband in language school, I foraging in English for our dinner. Using my fingers I had learned to say eight slices of prosciutto and to point at the melons and I had the prerequisite string bag hanging on my arm. A block or so from the market, three or four old men stood talking and smoking. They seemed to stand a little straighter as I approached. They smiled. I smiled back. When I passed the quieted group, the one closest to me winked and, his voice, low and Italian, whispered “Bella.”
“Bella,” after seventy-two years of aging, bad knees, sun spots. I have taken courage from that wink and that word for almost ten years. And today, a gentle man winked at me and I felt the same surge of joy. If males understood the power of a wink, they’d learn to lower one eyelid, smile, murmur one sweet word. No telling what would happen after that, but I think it would be good.