By Lindsay Eckert
Tribune lifestyle editor
She was born on land, but her soul was given life from her love of the sea and the lives it carried. Her journey started simply and ended sentimentally. During the in-between, she was the symbol of home to the hearts of maritime travelers: At night, she was the illumination of guidance. At morn, she was the breeze the sea gently exhaled. For 44 years, she was ingrained with the Savannah River’s sand — just as she was ingrained in the minds who witnessed her waving handkerchief interrupt a sun ray’s storyline. She was the travelers’ light while the sea was enraged with darkness, as she stood through the night with a lantern for those finding their way through the sea’s emotional tides. Most importantly, she was the point of home for the sailors. She was born in 1868 as Florence Martus and — despite her 1943 death — she lives on as The Waving Girl; her story forever encased in a bronze statue with her loyal Collie by her side, waving a cloth to ships.
Our living lives may not have been able to cross paths, but her life was a story I wanted to tell before I even heard it.
Stories aren’t sparse in Savannah or Tybee Island — where my boyfriend’s family has grown from the roots they first planted four generations ago. So, when we visit, our favorite stops are the stories. The Waving Girl is a story that struck me the first time I visited Tybee Island.
The tall tale as to why The Waving Girl — who was the daughter of a sergeant stationed at Fort Pulaski — dedicated her days waving towards the seas was to vigilantly await the love of a believed-to-be-shipwrecked fiancée.
According to Athens-Banner Herald, Martus said it stemmed from the lonely stirring of her soul.
“That’s a nice story. But what got me started — I was young and it was sort of lonely on the island for a girl. At first, I would run out to wave at my friends passing, and I was so tickled when they blew the whistle back at me.”
Ironically, sailors said seeing her happily waving them in from the water’s sometimes-destitute depths was their cure for the ailment of aloneness.
But, Martus had her own lessons in lonesomeness: By age 17, both her parents had died and it was then she dedicated her days and nights to helping her brother tend to the area’s lighthouses. Every wave of her hankie or warm reflection of her lantern healed the hollow hearts of men battling the burden of sea life for too long.
Martus’ kindness was a sight that inspired words in the form of letters, poems and stories. She received hundreds of letters written by the hands that spent their days throwing anchors and manning ships. Lighthouse Digest published a letter from a sailor whose appreciation for Martus was nearly patriotic.
“Dear Waving Girl, I’ve been away from America for many years. After a rough and lonely ride on the Atlantic Ocean it thrilled me to see your fluttering handkerchief. It made me feel like the whole country was welcoming me home. Keep up the good work!”
Martus was more than a lover of the sea, she was the love of all the souls trying to find their way back home to rest their heads and restore faith in their hearts. The man who sculpted Martus’ life into a statue, that sits near River Street, said he altered her signature handkerchief to illustrate the love she radiated.
“It isn’t the waving of the handkerchief that is so significant, but the welcome, which is more forceful — that’s why I show the large handkerchief, which expresses the warmth of her heart,” Felix de Weldon said.
But, her days of symbolizing the final destination ended five years before her death when her brother retired from his job and they left their Elba Island sea cottage for Savannah.
She once told Ernie Pyle, World War II correspondent, she kept record of all the ships for 44 years and destroyed them by the hands of fire before she moved. Pyle was said to be devastated by the lost of history. Martus simply elaborated that holding onto home was too much.
“It’s just like trying to dig up that big oak tree and get it to take root some place else,” Martus stated.
Her body now rests at Laurel Grove Cemetery. But, it’s fascinating to imagine where a soul like hers may have traveled.
But, regardless of where her soul met her heart, her legacy will live on in the hands that raise into the salt water-sprinkled air to say, “Until later” or “Welcome home.”