Many years ago, on a surprisingly sunny day in late fall, in a medium-sized university town in upstate New York, well before streets gave way to highways that accompany urbanization, I drove home from my office enjoying the twinkling lights peeking through the beautiful fluttering palette of blowing late fall leaves. A powdery thin layer of snow covered the sidewalks and dissolved into patches of brown slush on the roadway adding a soft sound to the surroundings as my car moved along.
As I drove down a historic residential boulevard with its spacious lawns and set-back mansions, my thoughts roamed uninterrupted. I had caught the pacing of the green traffic lights, and rode along at an even speed. No sign of life stirred about the huge houses. No one exited or entered through the massive doorways or walked along the sidewalks. Nothing stirred on the streets. The stillness within the car and the steady pace lolled me into random thoughts that melded memories with reality, and illusory meanderings.
Then something happened. I caught a sighting in my peripheral vision. Quickly, I was beyond it. Yet, in an instant, whatever I might have seen became a mystery that commanded my curiosity and demanded to be solved. Why? Who knows; it just did!
I slowly maneuvered the car into the lane next to the sidewalk, then stopped and looked about. Nothing. Then I backed up a bit looking around as I rode in reverse. And there it was – a body lay on the sidewalk sprawled face down on the light snow. I parked, got out of the car, and bent down over the fallen shape.
The figure was small and draped in a light cotton house dress with part of its hem hanging loose; the short legs were covered with heavy cotton beige stockings that fell in ripples down the limbs. The feet were wedged into light blue terry cloth slippers – the cloth serving as the slippers’ soles. With the head face down in the snow – nothing of it could be seen. It was the hair that caught my attention. It was grey peppered with black. The tresses were soft and held back off the hidden face by an exquisite tortoiseshell comb-shaped into an intricately woven filigree lacework design with a diamond embedded in its center. The dichotomy between the beautiful comb and the clothing on the body was jarring. For a moment, I simply stood over the body and stared.
Then a hand was slowly raised off the sidewalk and moved to the head searching through the hair until it discovered the tortoiseshell comb. The fingers then began to slowly caress the shell, tenderly fingering its contours. It was a deeply veined hand, spotted with age blotches. The fingers ended in long untended nails covered with dirt.
As the fingers caressed the comb, they slipped a few stray strands of hair through its teeth. Then the body stirred and began to turn.
I bent down and nervously babbled (that’s what I do whenever confronted with a first-time situation – nervously babble), “don’t move… are you all right?… does anything hurt?… can you hear me?… what’s your name?… where are you going ?… aren’t you cold?… I’ll find a phone and call an ambulance… no I better call the police… they’ll call an ambulance or take you home…”
When my mouth finally stopped opening and closing over the torrent of words, I focused on the once fallen figure now seated erect on the sidewalk, her dress neatly arranged over the out-stretched legs. The woman’s two arms were now stretched upward.
“I’m fine… really… I’m fine. Looks like the snow came early this year and I hadn’t noticed. Would you kindly help me up and take me home, please?”
I bent down and gently helped her to her feet.
“I’m not sure I should be doing this. You might have hurt yourself internally. I still think it would be wise to call the police.”
“You’re very kind, but I only live a few short streets away. If you’d drive me there, we could call the police from there, or my family will do that. Don’t you think it would be better if you stayed with me and brought me home?”
All during the reasoned plea, with head down, her hands moved about her dress, smoothing the skirt about her legs; then they moved up to the grey hair and the grimy fingers removed the tortoise shell comb, ran it through the tresses, and reassembled them into a neat bun which she gently fingered to check for stray strands. Then deftly she anchored the wondrous comb into its mooring place. Finally, the head was lifted, and her eyes locked on me.
She had a pale lined face pock-marked by age spots; the lips held a soft smile as the eyes held me firmly in their view. They were light blue eyes running teary – perhaps from the cold, or the fall, or both.
I yielded to her plea by reaching down, taking the outstretched hands and gently guiding her up into a standing position. Then I slowly assisted her to the car -opened the front passenger door and helped her into a seat. All the while I held a mental debate over what to do next: hospital, or police…or what?”
“I’ll show you where I live; it’s really very close. Shouldn’t take more than two minutes.”
The voice, though soft was directive. It seemed that it never entered her mind that I wouldn’t acquiesce.
She was right. I easily surrendered to her request. What harm could it do to take her home and have whoever was there call a doctor or do whatever needed to be done to ensure that she wasn’t injured, and it seemed that she wasn’t.
“What’s your name?” I casually asked, fearful that she might find the question too intrusive.
“May,” she replied quickly as she began to verbally guide me to her house.
She seemed so intent on her task that I was reluctant to ask for her surname – frankly it seemed like a possible intrusion on some line of privacy she’d established.
At her direction, I turned the car off the avenue, on to the first side street…
That one turn, off the avenue of mansions, brought us to a different neighborhood of tree-lined streets with smaller houses settled on smaller, though well-tended, lots. Each house was encircled by hedges that still held their summer shaping, not a stray piece of trash about, driveways were already shoveled free of the little snow that had fallen, windows sparkled clean in the sunlight. From time to time someone – male or female – with or without a child or two in tow – would emerge from a house and enter a garage – or the action would be reversed with a car returning to its home base.
“Let me see now… let me see…” she began to mumble as I slowly drove down a second street. “I’m so sorry – I’m not used to coming home from the big avenue.”
…The big avenue… didn’t she ever walk those streets to look at the mansions?… we’ve all done that at some time or other… walked among the historic mansions. At times, we’ve all taken in a house tour to loll among opulence and dream about making a grand entrance down towering staircases to greet ball guests or dine in flocked wallpapered banquet halls at exquisitely set tables. Everyone in our town has done that, haven’t they? What could possibly have kept her off the magnificent avenue?
Minutes passed filled with directions.
“Go left here, go down two blocks, we should be there shortly… no this isn’t it… so sorry but I’m certain it’s within a few blocks…” There was no agitation in her voice. It had turned into a monotone that seemed to be seeking a period.
I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable about my decision and determined that two more turns and I would try to find a police station. This had been a big mistake! Two more turns that was the marker!!
After one street, May became strangely silent. There were no directions coming from her. Her hands rested quietly on her lap; her feet planted firmly on the floor, and then her upper body began to tilt forward, an arm lifted, a finger pointed…
“There,” she murmured “it’s there!!!” Her enthusiasm had risen “That’s my house – at the tree. See the tree!!!”
I brought the car to a slow stop in the middle of the street as I stared at the magnificence of it – it’s burnished orange color that dominated everything about it – it’s height taller than the three-storied house it stood before – its spread encompassing the entire front lawn. It owned the place; it awed the observer.
I turned into the driveway and parked the car.
“May, just sit here please while I go in and see if anyone is home.”
I turned off the keys, got out and pocketed them – making it impossible for my passenger to take off.
May sat in silence staring at the tree.
I went up to the front door and rang the bell. In short order, the door was opened.
“Yes, may I help you?” A middle-aged woman stood before me drying her hands on an apron.
“Sorry to bother you, but I have a woman in my car who fell. I picked her up. She appears unhurt though really not dressed for the cold. She asked me to drive her home and directed me here. Do you know her… her name is…”
“May,” the woman interrupted. “Yes, I know May quite well. May Shearing’s her name. I’m Nan Forsythe. Please bring her in.”
After exchanging other pertinent information, I asked Nan Forsythe. “Are you related to May?”
“No, I’m not, but I know her family; they live a few blocks from here. I’ll call them and let them know she’s here. I’m sure they’ll come and get her. They always do.” Nan Forsythe provided other information on how to contact the Shearings to calm my anxiety.
“Are you sure about this? May was so certain that this is her home.” I foolishly insisted.
“I’m sure she is. It was her home for many years, but things change, people die or just leave. The house was sold to us, and May went to live nearby with a niece and her family.”
“I guess May is confused and forgot all of that.”
“Most of it, yes, but never the tree; May never forgot the tree. That’s what always brings her back no matter how many times she runs away or gets lost. May always returns to the tree. She planted it when she first moved in. It’s the one clear memory she has and wouldn’t you? Look at it!”
I turned on command and looked at the grandeur and beauty of May’s flaming red maple tree. I scavenged through my memories for something embedded there that might captivate me by its evocation of moments of exquisite joy. My mind drew a blank.
I envied May now seated in a chair, a blanket around her shoulders; the skirt of her dress with its torn hem hanging beyond the wool blanket that had been draped around her form, her slippers dangling over her crumpled stockings, sipping a cup of tea, staring out of the bay window at her magnificent tree.
If something as wonderous had entered my life, I’d always return to it – at least in memory. It would be etched in my mind untouched by whatever followed
In the years that have followed, whenever my thoughts return to May, I picture her standing under the wondrous red maple tree, looking up at the sky through the burnt orange leaves while her long tapered beautifully manicured fingers play with the wisps of dark hair that have escaped the magnificent tortoise shell comb, as a supplicant might prepare herself to worship her god.