Make A Monumental Difference
On a recent walk with my wife along River Street in the haunting city of Savannah, we came upon a statue facing the river. The bronze figure is of a young girl holding large cloth with both hands and waving it toward the passing ships as they churn toward the docks. Every city has monuments and statues celebrating the lives of those movers and shakers of history such as military heroes, presidents and captains of industry, but this statue bore a name of no one I had ever heard of (in fact, the sculptor, Felix deWeldon, is much more famous as the artist who created the USMC Memorial of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima).
Her name was Florence Martus and she lived from 1868-1943. In that time she never started a political movement or led an uprising or broke social barriers or did anything very dramatic at all, at least not in a sense that you might think of as “monument-worthy.” What she did was simply what the statue depicts; she waved to the ships that passed by. During the daytime she waved a handkerchief, at night, a lantern. Waving? That’s worth a statue? If that’s the standard for commissioned sculptures there should be crowds of bronze forms of school kids at every train crossing and parade route in the country. But here’s the twist: for 44 years between 1887 and 1931, she never missed one vessel.
Such dedication to a small gesture is so hard to understand that legends have grown up around her and are repeated as fact, the most enduring—that she lost her fiancé at sea and greeted each incoming ship in hopes it would be the one to bring back her love—is the plot of a Hallmark Channel movie if ever there was one, but there’s not a shred of evidence to support that story. The truth is likely much simpler and I think more profound. She did it because she could and perhaps because those passing ships, some gone for months at a time, were filled with homesick souls, away too long and they came to count on her simple gesture of kind welcome. And so, daylight or dark, rain or shine, there she was.
When we think of heroism, we tend to think of some life or death struggle against all odds that in some way changes the course of history, and it certainly can be that. After all, that’s what we venerate with monuments to Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the tens of thousands of names inscribed on the black granite of the Vietnam Memorial. But heroism isn’t always about sacrifice that alters history. Sometimes it’s the simplest gesture done with a sacrificial faithfulness. Florence Martus took a piece of cloth and waved it, nothing more. But she did it so faithfully that it became something that almost four and a half decades of weary voyagers longing for home could count on, and to those whose spirits were lifted by that simple kindness, she was a hero.
If you want to be a hero, you really don’t have to look far, you don’t even have to do much. Your smile, your kind words of encouragement, your time, your gratitude, your dedication are all you need. They’re just little things but given faithfully, they can change someone’s world. And that’s, well, monumental.
“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” –Arthur Ashe on how to change the world