Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Last Leaf

Last week I was walking through the park; the ground was thick with fallen leaves. Seems the series of recent storms have stripped the trees of all their leaves.

I think that particular day the sky was lead gray and the afternoon had already slipped into twilight. A mist was falling gently around me. Even though I am only 8 miles from the loop the ever-looming skyscrapers were lost in the low clouds. I felt totally alone.

Just me in the park and the soft thump of my feet plowing through piles of soggy leaves.

I remembered a conversation I’d had on the plane coming home from vacation. I sat next to a Chinese gentleman. We had in common daughters in college. He saw I had a book out on my tray-table and our conversation turned to reading. He said this time of year always reminded him of an O’Henry short story: The Last Leaf.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met another human being who has referenced that story besides me.

It is the story of two friends, both artists, trying to get by in NYC. I read the story as an impressionable teenager and I could totally identify with their pursuit and struggle to succeed against all odds. And there were quite a few. They had no health care and very little money for extras. Surprisingly, in recounting this story, it seems contemporary.

The once-popular writer O’Henry has fallen onto hard times, just like many of the characters he wrote about. He isn’t read all that much these days. So I was surprised to hear my seatmate talk about him and this little-known story. To be fair he also said he read a lot of Pearl S. Buck. In China I guess students enjoy reading washed-up American authors, the ones no one cares too much about today. Maybe in 30 or so years they’ll be turning onto Junot Diaz. Maybe just now they are discovering Kurt Vonnegut or Don DeLillo.

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for O’Henry. Call me old fashion, but I still enjoy a story with a twist or a sudden come-uppance (even this word indicates my addiction to archaic aesthetics). When I “grew up” and read more broadly, I was always slightly disappointed at how some stories just simply ended. Okay . . . . . ?

Furthermore (again who uses this word, still?) I’ve always loved the short story The Last Leaf. (Click on link to read) So I was thrilled to discuss it with my new-found literary friend. The ending is—surprise!! —bittersweet, revealing sacrificial love. I revisit that story almost every autumn, just as I re-read The Other Wiseman by Henry Van Dyke every Christmas. I keep it beside my stack of Ideals magazines.

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