FALLEN LEAVES

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: February 03, 2018

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Submitted: February 03, 2018

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FALLEN LEAVES

The large sycamore tree in the front yard of the farmhouse seemed to be as wide as it was tall. Cover from the tree canopy when the leaves were full during the summer months could keep a small group of people cool within its shade, even beneath a warm sun. No one could accurately estimate the age of the tree since the house was built in 1897 and the tree was there when the Clintons moved in.  Initials of family members were carved along the trunk and into the higher reaches since the lower limbs were near to the ground and made it easy for daring young boys and girls to climb, and even reach the upper elevations, to find a place that would hide their mark from future generations, or maintain a secret tryst. Most of the family had submitted to the carving ritual.  There was one set of initials, though, that was noticeably missing.

My name is Mark Clinton.  Of course, as a member of the family, I knew who hadn’t inscribed their mark on the tree, and though I was curious, didn’t ask why.  “If they want you to know, they will tell you,” my mother would always say.  She was quiet by nature, so when she had something to say, it was worth a listen.

The saga starts in 1949 a few years after the end of World War II.  People of the time led simple lives and were happy to be free from conflict and have a place to live and a job that would cover expenses. Since 1901, three generations of Clintons had lived in the house, located near Olean, New York. The homestead was affectionately referred to as Clintonville.It was not often that the family ventured into the city, choosing to stay close to home and away from “Little Chicago” as it was known.  Rumor had it that members of organized crime would frequent the city, and, as god-fearing Americans with strong Irish roots, being involved with criminals or other deviants was not the Clinton way.

I attended St. Bonaventure University in Olean, not so much because it was nearby, but for its journalism school. From when I was young, I loved to write. It was an escape from the daily happenings that were many and sometimes frantic. It was a therapy when difficulties arose and I had to sort through information surrounding the event to determine the truth. My father called me The Truthseeker. He used to tell me “Some people lie, some tell the truth. You happen to be good at identifying who’s who.” The truth shall set you free.

After graduating from St. Bonaventure, I got a job running copy for the Olean Times Herald. Running copy is like taking notes. I would help the reporters with their assignment by attending a sporting event or going to a press release, writing about what happened, and letting them blue-pencil the copy for final submission to the editor. After a while, the changes became few and far between and it wasn’t long before I was a regular contributor to the newspaper.

Other projects filled my days and nights. I started a novel entitled East of Nowhere that I eventually completed too many years later. It had lost relevance and was waylaid by a project I undertook at the request of my father. 

He approached me one summer day as I sat under the sycamore, comfortably leaning against the large trunk, penciling notes for the novel. “Son, I’ve been thinking,” he began, rubbing his chin with one hand and gesticulating with the other. This usually meant he wanted you to do something and it would be best if you agreed. At twenty-three years old, I realized this and stood by the wisdom of adhering to the principle of obedience. However I approached the task, it would need to meet with his wishes and comply with his guidelines. “You’re quite a writer,” he continued, “a talent a lot of us Clintons don’t have, although as story tellers, we rank right up there. It’s putting the right words on paper that eludes us.” Knowing my dad, he would make his point directly in a round-about way, if such a beast existed.  By the time he finished what he was saying, one was convinced of whatever he was peddling and felt obligated to proceed. 

“For the sake of the family and those that will come in the future, I thought it would be good to have a diary of our existence.”

I tried to clarify what I believe he wanted. “Sort of a chronicle of the family history that could be passed on to the subsequent generations of Clintons.”  He nodded. “When do we start?” was my question.

He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. “How about today?” he asked, or should I say, stated. “June 8, 1949. No better day than the present. I’ll give background on what happened before you arrived on this earth, and you know the rest,” he said with satisfaction. “And what you don’t know, you can either dig it up or make it up. That’s your problem!”

I knew full well that my problem was as much him scrutinizing the effort as it was coming up with material for the diary, as he called it. As a disclaimer, you have to realize that when my father said start today, he meant start today, probably within minutes of stating such.  So, I put aside East of Nowhere and began the chronicle I would appropriately entitle Clintonville.

In my room, I procured a spiral notebook from my dresser drawer and began the outline.  My mother walked in and put her arm around my shoulder.  “You know, you’re old enough to say ‘no,’ Mark,” she said in a re-assuring voice.  I knew she had my back if it came down to a confrontation with my father.

I looked at her.  “I want to do this, Mom.  Not just for Dad, but for the whole family and those who come after us,” I said with conviction.  She was a strong person and could sway my father to her perspective. She hugged me, and added “That’s why you’re my favorite.”  Mind you, depending on who she was involved with at the time and the circumstances, any of us could be the favorite.

The title was set.  Initial chapters would involve the details related by my mother and father about the family history, and moving to Clintonville.  The rest would be the story of our family.  My mother, Mary, and father, Vincent; Maggie (the oldest); my big brother Andrew; my sister Eileen; and yours truly would be the stars of the chronicle. Oh, and I couldn’t forget at least a mention of Rusty, the Golden Retriever that had been the family dog for twelve years, or his successor, Blackie, predictably a black Labrador Retriever that had been my dog growing up.Putting the outline together would be the easy part. Prying the stories about the family from my mother and father would require no encouragement. The difficulty would be eliciting the cooperative efforts of my siblings.

 

2

 

My father was generous with his time in relating the stories about his ancestors and the family doings before I could remember. He provided enough to create a memoir in itself! In the draft stage, I broke down the chronicle into the early days; family stories once we reached the homestead at Clintonville; and personal insights into family members, as well as current status. In order to achieve this perspective, I needed to call a gathering of my siblings. My father was a wealth of information and my mother as well.  A formal get-together with my brother and sisters would be the only chance I would get to extract personal history from each of them. My plan was simple. Tell them what I was going to write about them and they could either nix the idea, provide a story of their own, or agree to both. Of course, whatever my father chose to add or delete about anyone was going into the chronicle regardless, and I didn’t have to make that known to any of them.

I had about thirty pages prepared for the first draft when I decided it was time to bring the troops together. Everyone was within reach, although Maggie and her husband, Ewan MacBriar, had moved to Ellicottville, a town about twenty miles from the homestead. However, they told me to just let them know when the meeting would be and they would make it. Both Eileen and Andrew resided in the house with Dad, Mother, and I.  Andrew helped my dad on the farm while Eileen and my mother did arts and crafts, traveling to shows around the area and fabricating items for local emporiums. The most common items were afghans, sweaters, winter gloves, and scarves, although Eileen became quite adept at making ceramic ashtrays she made in a kiln my mother had purchased and placed in the barn. 

I called for the gathering on the first Sunday in August, not quite during the dog days.  Everyone showed up and we went into the front parlor at the large table where we would have formal meals as opposed to the kitchen where we usually ate. The parlor was cooler and a nice breeze flowed through the room. My mother and father sat on the porch with a pitcher of iced tea, throwing rubber balls for the dog to fetch. 

With the group settled and refreshments available, I started. “OK, there’s a couple items I’d like to achieve today. You all are aware, I’m sure, of the Clintonville chronicle,” I coughed and smiled. “I have most of the background writing done.  Now I need to insert us into the chronicle. Two things I’d like to include for each of us is a noteworthy accomplishment in each of our lives and a dark secret to share with the family and future generations. Agreed?” I looked around the table. Eileen nodded in assent while Maggie agreed with raised eyebrows. Andrew was more sullen and pensive. He was never overly effusive. He kept to himself, although he could be very funny when he wanted to be and had the admirable habit of making genuine eye contact.  Andrew was my big brother. I idolized him growing up and he was always there for me whenever I needed him. We shared a room and, as the years passed, our nightly conversations became more engaging. I looked forward to bedtime and what new discussion would ensue before we fell asleep.

“Ladies first,” I offered for no gallant reason. 

My sisters were far from shy so both started.Eileen deferred to Maggie being the oldest. The two girls related incidents we all remembered that they finally confessed to, especially the loss of Dad’s prize possession, a 1921 Birmingham affectionately known as “Benny.”

“Andrew, you’re up at the plate,” I continued after the ladies had their say.

Andrew rubbed his chin and had an indecisive look on his face, unusual for him since he always seemed so confident to me. He knew just how to phrase his words so that he would make you feel good about yourself even if he was criticizing you. “It’s more difficult going third since I don’t want to upstage any of my siblings, although I don’t believe that will be a challenge,” he smirked as the others hurled rolled up napkins at him.  As an accomplishment, I am proud of being the first Clinton to graduate from college and receive a degree.” Andrew had attended Rochester Institute of Technology after spending two years in the Army where he fought overseas in World War II and returned with a purple heart and much more life experience than any of us had. He received a degree in architecture and design arts which he planned to use once he had developed the farm, at my father’s request. “The price of an education,” my father would tell Andrew.  “Time to pay back, son.” So, even though the army ordeal could be considered quite an achievement, Andrew felt his education trumped his stint in the armed forces.

I had learned from doing interviews and being a student of human behavior that, when secrets are dark, even people close to us can be unsettled by their reveal.  Often, the secret emerges and travels as rumor.  This causes speculation, argument and, depending on the nature of the secret, disagreement and denial. Why and when such secrets surface is a puzzle and I wondered why Andrew would choose now.  As he cracked his knuckles in nervous anticipation, his words were clear. “My secret?  I’m a homosexual.” A slight smile curled around his lower lip as his eyes toured the table.  The rest believed the smile indicated a prank as they laughed heartily. I knew better. I saw it in his eyes. When he looked at me, he knew I knew.

As the laughter subsided and references to his senior ball and carousing the pubs in Allegheny finished, Andrew confirmed my suspicion. “You can laugh and joke about it, yet once you realize I’m being straight with you,” he laughed at the pun, “then you’ll understand.” He pointed at me. “Ask him.”

I nodded. Without a word, the collective laughter dissipated into silence. Our first reactions were uncomfortable, not wanting to make eye contact with Andrew. This emotion melded into awkward chatter. Naturally, it would be Andrew to the rescue. “OK, you’ve all swallowed your tongues and turned your eyes away from me. It’s time to look back and see that it’s still me sitting here. Your brother. I’m not wearing a dress, and at least I didn’t become a Republican!”

The humor eased the tension and this is still Andrew, no matter what shade of pink you color him. My sentiments were that this would be the easy part.

 

 

3

Before I could speak, Andrew stated “I will tell him. He won’t have to read it in your draft.” Of course, this was a relief and what I expected from Andrew. My father was just as predictable.  He would not take the news well and Andrew would lose stature in the family pecking order.  As odd as it may seem to the ignorant, Andrew was more a man than many I had encountered. No false bravado. No egocentric view of himself or self-important gestures. No testosterone overflow.  He stood up for what he believed and came to the assistance of those who needed his help. What else can anyone expect from a person?

Andrew went directly to the front porch where Mother and Dad were relaxing on the warm, summer day. I purposely didn’t follow for the simple reason that that it should be him telling them, not him telling them with me there. The others had wisely departed, hastily offering their good-byes, which raised suspicion in our parents. 

It was not a pretty sight. My mother was calm and understanding. My father, after his initial bewilderment, raged against Andrew, punched the front door, and began a tirade that included a multitude of slurs and the question as to how the Clinton name would endure. That one naturally offended me, but it was about Andrew and where it left him. My father threw him out of the house and the family. Andrew expected the reaction, as did I. He came to our room and packed his suitcase. On his way out, he grabbed my shoulder and said, “At least I know you understand.  I’ll keep in touch.”

For more than two years, I tried to reach my father regarding Andrew and his situation.  Even Eileen pushed as best as she could, but she didn’t hold the leverage that I did.I kept in touch with Andrew, who seemed to be doing well despite his separation from the family.  Vincent Clinton was a stubborn man, but not a stupid one.  He knew if he wanted Clintonville to become a reality, it would be through me.  My other chip was knowing how much family meant to my mother and father. I was starting to make a dent in dad’s stubborn Irish armor.  In the long run, I was sure that bond would surface and win out.  Unfortunately, the long run was shortened by sad news.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Her death was expected. As with most people of the time, doctors and hospitals were not a part of day-to-day lives so the disease had spread. The prognosis was three months from the date of the diagnosis. She died in thirty days. 

Andrew returned as soon as he heard the news.  He had planned to come back the following week.  The suddenness of Mom’s passing surprised everyone.

“How is everyone?” he asked somberly as we sat in our room.

“Sad.  Shocked.  Grief-stricken.  All the words that could describe such a loss. Maggie has been great ever since Mother learned about her disease. Dad is lost and Eileen is holding together,” I summarized. “How about you, Andrew?”

“You can add me to the list.  I wasn’t here. I missed her final days. That rips deep into my heart,” he lamented.

I nodded in understanding and added, “I didn’t mean that part. I’m concerned about your personal situation.”

I could see the recognition sift into his eyes as he looked at me. “Mark, it’s foreign to me when I’m with people and their prejudices. I can talk with you and you will be able to have perspective as well as thoughtful feedback.” He started to search for the right words. “When you find another person you love and who loves you, whether it be a man, a woman, a dog, or an alien, there’s a sense of comfort and peace that fills you. No, that fulfills you. It appears as a contented smile on your face when you’re sitting together, or taking a walk down the street.  That person is the part of you that’s been lost, who is necessary to complement you as a total being.” I could see the sensitivity in his eyes and hear it in his voice. “How can I explain that to Dad, especially now?”

It was my turn to search. “When you left, and I continued with the chronicles, Dad said to omit any mention of your sexual preference. I refused. I said that if that’s what you wanted, then it would be a betrayal to not include it. That was my line in the sand and probably the first time I had stood up for myself against him. As you might suspect, it is still in the draft phase.” Andrew smiled and felt validated. “You have been gone for two years. Dad misses you.  I can tell, even though his stubborn Irish lineage won’t allow him to admit it.” I continued, trying to untangle the web that had grown. “As children, we look for care and nurturing from our mothers and approval from our fathers, and these relationships are based on trust. You lost Dad’s trust when you betrayed what he thinks a man should be. He is an intelligent person. He will get past that because he knows deep in his heart you have always been what a son should be.”

I squeezed Andrew’s hand, peering straight into his eyes. As usual he knew what to say. “When did you become such a great philosopher, Mark?” he smiled, holding my hand tight as well and then giving me a hug. “Where is everybody now?”

“They went to make arrangements over at Pierson’s. Maggie has stepped up to fill the female void for us,” I trembled thinking of what that meant.  She moved back to Clintonville for several months to help Dad conquer the domestic side of life that he never had to deal with.

The sound of the pick-up rumbled outside the window, breaking into our conversation.  We could hear truck doors slamming and idle chatter filter into the room. We went downstairs to meet the group. Their faces were somber and it was evident from her tear-streaked cheeks that

Eileen had been sobbing. Maggie and Eileen came in, followed by Dad, his head bowed and back bent, shuffling into the house as if he was carrying the cross to Calvary. As Andrew

hugged the girls and shared in the condolences, my father looked up and began to weep. He stood straight and made his way to Andrew, shaking his hand and then bringing him close in a

warm embrace. He took Andrew’s head in his hand and looked him in the eye. “I’m sorry, son, for being such a fool. I deprived you of your final days with your mother, something I can never forgive myself for. I’m glad to have you home.”

With that, the pair embraced again and Andrew began to cry as well. The drama that unfolded served a cathartic effect and appeared to bolster the family’s sagging spirit. One of the flock had left and returned. The Prodigal Son was home and the son that had remained was happy.

4

 

Andrew returned to Clintonville at Dad’s request. Part of Andrew wanted to help fill a chasm that could never be filled. Another part kept him close to the place where he felt most comfortable.

I had married, moved to Olean, and countered my father’s fears by having children, two being boys that I named James Vincent Clinton and Jonathan Andrew Clinton. I also had one girl, that I named Alison Mary Clinton. We traveled to Clintonville regularly, mostly for Sunday dinner, and to celebrate birthdays and other family occasions. My father had deteriorated over the last few years and ultimately, we had to put him in a nursing home in Olean. Maggie had moved back to Ellicottville with Ewan and their family. Andrew was the straggler trying to keep up the homestead as best he could.

Two things became evident.  He couldn’t continue as the sole inhabitant of Clintonville and his health was becoming an issue. It had been ten years since he made his dramatic proclamation that sent the chronicles into a holding pattern.  Now, even though he maintained his quick wit and ability to finesse situations, his body had waned.  Like his mother, he avoided doctors and hospitals. Finally, he conceded and made an appointment with a physician that I knew working at Olean General.  After going through a battery of tests, the doctor concluded he had contracted pneumocystis pneumonia and the prognosis was difficult to pinpoint. They treated him with a variety of antibiotics, yet, he didn’t seem to be recovering and even seemed to be getting weaker.  The smile was there but it was fading. As sad as it made me feel, I knew he was dying.

One day in late autumn, when I went over to the house to see him, he wanted to take a walk to the sycamore.  I had a sense of why but I figured that he would let me know.

We started the walk that was always so short, yet the tree seemed to loom in the distance.  Leaves had fallen from the branches and, unlike the vibrant colors of fall - the reds, yellows, and oranges - the brown, dead leaves crackled under our feet and moved away from us with the wind as we made our way to the sycamore. “I never carved my initials in the tree,” Andrew said.

“I know,” I responded. “And I always wondered why,” I continued hoping there would be a reason in his response.

He thought for a second as he stopped in front of the tree and peered high to its uppermost limbs. “When I was a boy, I thought it was beyond my reach, that the tree dwarfed my presence and to take away a part of its life would be a scar on its existence. Later, as everyone made a tradition of carving their initials in the tree, I wanted to put mine in as a keepsake, but not alone. I hoped to do so with another set of initials, a set from another person who I cared for. The sycamore holds so many stories and boasts of our family much in the same way Dad wanted the chronicles to represent us and tell a story. Now, it’s time. I’ve put the house up for sale and I will be moving on, hopefully to a life away from Clintonville but more likely to the cemetery.” Andrew put his hands into his pocket as a chill wind whipped through us, scattering more of the fallen leaves. As they rustled away from the base of the tree, a small section came clear. We stood there, and he brought out a knife. “I would be honored if we could put our mark on together.” He handed me the knife and I realized he did not have the strength to do the carving.

I took the knife and held him close. “It’s my honor, Andrew. You know I always idolized you. You were there for me in whatever capacity I needed whenever I needed you.  My big brother.  My best friend.” I stared straight into his eyes and we both smiled that contented smile he had alluded to, and we both felt that sense of fulfillment. I went over to the tree and etched the letters “AC + MC” with “Bros 4 Ever” underneath. I didn’t have to turn to see the smile on Andrew’s face and the feel of his arms around my shoulders was comforting. 

“Very nice, Marky, but, not for nothing, you spelled brothers wrong.” We both laughed as I instinctively buried one of my elbows into his ribs. His sudden gasp for air from a ploy we had both used so many times reminded me of Andrew’s failing health. After admiring the handiwork once more, we left with the memento safe under the protective limbs of the sycamore.

 

 

5

Andrew died a month later without finalizing the sale of the house. With the assistance of Ewan MacBriar, we were able to complete the house sale.  I would eventually finish the chronicles of Clintonville with my father’s approval, even the section he had so vehemently opposed. His love for his family outweighed his prejudices and I believe he died in peace. 

After the family had taken what they wanted from the house, I drove to the property one last time.  I spread Andrew’s ashes around the base of the sycamore and held my hands over the carving, the light skin of our initials having darkened over the weeks since they had been etched into the bark.  I wondered why I hadn’t been keen enough to pick up on Andrew’s secret.  During our many discussions, why hadn’t he said something before?  I had a sense of guilt.  If I learned of the issue earlier, I might have been able to help more.

I walked back to the car. As I drove away, I saw the barren sycamore in my rearview mirror, its limbs like bony fingers scratching at the grey background, stark silhouettes against

the late autumn sky, preparing for the cold winter that it would need to endure before it could blossom once more in the spring.  I thought of the last words of Clintonville.

“New life follows old life.”

 

 

 

 


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