The Last Leaf on the Tree

 

I first came to Vermont in 1983; I was 26, and a schoolteacher in Edinburgh, Scotland. I came because I was chaperoning a group of older high school students from the school I worked in, which was a private boys’ school, and its sister school. There were ten of them and one of me. I can tell you every one of their names today, when I am 62. We came under the auspices of an exchange scheme called Operation Friendship, which had been set up by Wally Shaw, a minister from Indiana who came to Scotland to study, and met his future wife there. They worked for a time in the US, then came to Scotland, and Operation Friendship – or OF as we all called it – was set up when Wally was working with kids in Glenrothes in central Scotland, kids who had never had much of a holiday. He decided to take them to Indiana, to his home town and the rest, as they say, is history. By the time I got involved, Wally was the Chaplain at my school and OF was active in twelve countries and, in alternate years, groups from Europe would visit the States, and then the USA would come to us.

Now, I travelled with OF four times – first to Vermont then, at two yearly intervals to Columbus, Indiana; to Toms River, New Jersey and finally, in 1989, to Scituate, Massachusetts. Every time I stayed in someone’s house and they were good to me. I made plenty of friends, young and old, in these real American towns, people showing me and these four groups of kids their hospitality and kindness, the energy and drive of this huge and varied country. But 36 years later, I remember Vermont most clearly, lodged as it is, not just in my memory, but in my heart.

I didn’t know the first thing about Vermont when I was told we were going there. Truth to tell, I am really a city boy, and, in these pre-Internet days, the pictures I could see made it look like an awful lot of trees, in most cases laced with an awful lot of snow. I knew people skied there, but it would be summer, and, in any case, I had always thought that, if God wanted us to ski, he’d have given us long wooden feet. Still I was young and enthusiastic and tried to gee up the kids, made easier when bits of the program for the trip arrived – lots of camping and swimming, and craft activities and…a number of things to do with maple syrup…and church….my professional skills were a bit pushed on the last one. OF was organised in churches in the USA and schools in Europe, and I could only count one practising Christian among my group – and that was Wally’s son!

It turned out I was to stay with the minister of the church on Craftsbury Common, where the group would be based. Three weeks, I thought, how will this go? The minister, Arnold Brown, and his wife, Judith sent me a letter and photos, and it all looked very pretty but, I thought, I’m a godless gay liberal Scotsman. Will I cope? Will they?

The night we arrived was not auspicious. We flew into Boston, and were greeted by Anne Wilson, who was to drive the minibus of Scots kids around for three weeks, and who is a truly remarkable person – sharp and witty, insightful and kind. In later trips she and I would sing ‘On The Road Again’ till the kids begged us to shut up but for that trip I sat in the front with her, and pretty quickly had to tell her I felt really sick, but that the kids mustn’t know. I won’t go into the grim details – though they involve an encounter with some nuns outside a pizza parlour half way up the road- but it’s a long way from Boston to Craftsbury Common (sounds like a country song) and by the time we got there it was pitch dark, stars shining bright above us, and I was woken from a fractured sleep by a sweet-voiced kid knocking on the window and saying ‘Are you the kids from Scatland?’ The sweet-voiced kid, Steve, will be touching fifty now but I can hear him still.

So I woke up and we moved around Orleans County, dropping off the kids to their hosts until, at last, Anne took me at midnight to the parsonage beside the church on Craftsbury Common, a dim light above its door, and there was Judith Brown and a big sleepy dog. Arnold, it transpired, was doing his other job, as an inspector at Beebe on the Canadian border. Judith made me a cup of milky tea. I do not drink tea, and I don’t like milky drinks, so my efforts in welcoming this first hospitality resulted in a fine emetic effect. After ten minutes chat I retired quickly to throw up again, then went to bed, exhausted, excited, no longer sick.

I woke late the next day, drank some water, ate some food then sat outside on the porch, reading. It was a day of brilliant sunshine, the sky a blue I had never seen before, the air so fresh you wanted to gulp it down. One of the girls in my group rode past on a horse, appearing to my sun-squinty eyes like a vision and stopping only to say hello before she and her new host friend rode away. I remember sitting there I felt tremendously well and at peace, a mood that stayed with me for the three weeks to come.

Over that time we took part in a raft of activities and trips which brought Vermont to life in those days like vivid photographs in our collective memory. We visited the Ethan Allen Furniture Store; we went to Burlington and ate Dove Bars (unknown in Scotland then); we had an out-of-season Thanksgiving dinner; we found out about Barre granite; we went to Shelburne (obviously); we swam at Crystal Lake; we went to church to hear Arnold preach – I have often said in later years that if I had just stayed in Craftsbury and never gone home, I would have joined Arnold’s church just to hear him reading Robert Frost, the ‘Poet Laureate of Vermont’ whose work was a kind of alternate Bible to him: I taught Frost for thirty years afterward, and every time, I talked about Arnold. And indeed, as promised, we did make cookies, butter, snow with maple syrup, Anne whipping that syrup until the creamy butter miraculously appeared. I blame her for my elevated blood sugar – there is Vermont maple syrup in my fridge today. Towards the end of our stay the kids and I did a presentation in the church hall and the community came out in droves. Jimmy talked about Scottish architecture, with a recurrent theme about the distinction between stone and wooden houses and a series of slides which showed a series of identical Edinburgh homes; I read some Burns; Mhairi led the country dancing; we sang ‘Flower of Scotland’ rather half-heartedly, passed out the words, then everyone sang it lustily, as if, in those five minutes every Vermonter became a Scottish Nationalist. Then a farmer came and took us up to see the Northern Lights in the back of his trailer, in the middle of his field – he was just passing and thought we might be interested. It was one of the most beautiful and strange things I have ever seen, the kids hushed by the intense darkness and nature playing some kind of trick on them.

And I met a cast of different characters, sometimes only fleetingly, but they imprinted themselves on my memory, against a beautifully lit set of all this greenery and blue sky and water. Anne, of course, who has been my friend since, and her stalwart husband Warren, she a Peace Corps veteran and staunch Democrat, and Warren…not. Belinda, Arnold and Judith’s daughter, such a staunch vegetarian she wouldn’t let her husband Phil Lovely (yes, that’s actually his name) eat the mincemeat pie at our Thanksgiving dinner. Jeannette who lived across the road and made stained glass – a little flower hangs in my kitchen window; Nan Murdoch, who was very, very old, who rang the church bell, sang in the choir, gave the kids ice cream and beat me solidly at a card game called ‘Russian Bank’ (she let me win the first time, then said, ‘Now, let’s play properly’); Sue Field and her daughter Lori, all smiles; Ralph and Nancy Lewis, second-homers from New York, but respectful of their neighbours;  the Strongs, highly religious neighbours of the Browns, who fed me a meal so fresh it was still alive; and Bert and Gloria, she being the lead organiser of the whole shebang, anxious to make sure everything was just right for these Scots boys and girls. And then, of course, there was Arnold.

On the evening of the first full day I was there, Arnold and I sat on the porch and talked and this became our custom; each day, after the young people had gone their various ways through the woods with their host families, we would sit in the gathering gloaming (I taught him that word) and just talk. No booze was involved, for the Browns did not drink – when I had presented Judith with a bottle of whisky from my dad, who worked in the whisky industry but was (ironically) teetotal she said ‘What a beautiful bottle. We’ll keep it forever.’ After the second night, when I had delayed the talking so I could go for ‘a walk round the Common’ (a euphemism for smoking a cigarette) Judith simply said ‘See these walks. You can smoke on the porch if you like.’ So Arnold and I had plenty time to talk about things. We talked about God and church, though thankfully he was no missionary; we talked about family (the Browns had four children in total, but only one close by); we talked about Scotland; we talked about popular culture (how, Arnold wondered, could it be right to allow a song called ‘Cocaine’ to be broadcast); and we talked about politics. This latter led to the only frisson between us, but it was short-lived. Arnold suggested to me that I thought he was right-wing, and I had to agree, then he told me of his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Convention; he had not met Martin Luther King but had conversed with JFK. He had been in the navy in 1945 as a Chaplain’s Assistant. He was an immigration inspector and a crack shot, though he said he had never, and could never, actually shoot a gun at anyone. We talked forever, and sometimes Arnold recorded our talks to listen to them again. I would like to think he did that. The only break in our conversations came when the Browns had their friend Howard, and his wife, to stay from South Dakota, in the middle of my stay. She was a kind person, very quiet; I realised why when Howard joined us on the porch. Arnold liked to talk, I like to talk but Howard outclassed us every time. I loved everything I did in these three weeks, but I loved most coming home to the parsonage, to Judith’s soothing good sense and Arnold, always up for a talk about more or less anything.

I have been back to Vermont several times in the past 36 years, latterly with my partner, who has come to understand my ties there. As the singer said – who knows where the time goes? Arnold retired from the church, then from the border, and Judith and he went to live on a blueberry farm on a hill high enough they could see the Church on the Common from their new porch. People have passed – Judith is gone; Jeanette is gone; Mrs Strong is gone; Gloria; Nan Murdoch. Anne and Warren are still here, her physical health poor but her humour and love and determination and politics undimmed. Arnold went blind, then deaf, and it is fair to say that his conversation, over the decades, continued to be rich and interesting but increasingly meandered like a Vermont stream.

In early October we were there, in Craftsbury, on one particularly beautiful Saturday, a day so bright and colourful that everybody we met was talking about it, holding the picture of it in their minds against the long winter ahead. We went to the market on the Common, and ate savoury pastries and admired the crafts while someone sang Joni Mitchell pretty well. We visited the Craftsbury Historical Society. We went to the new library and the pottery. We popped into the General Store to buy food for dinner – Anne and Warren and Belinda and Phil were coming for dinner, and my partner Kevin was roasting a cauliflower…still vegetarians!

And all this at the peak of the Vermont fall, which I had never seen before, always before being a summer visitor. I had not seen your leaves when they are sewn into these quilts of colour; as we drove about I gaped as each turn revealed some new miracle of colour – sometimes a single tree, among others, looking as if it were internally lit, or as if some practical joker had got up in the night to paint each leaf. Amid all this, Phil, his son-in-law (now there is a man who is a saint, though I am sure that’s not how he sees himself) took us to see Arnold, in his ‘retirement facility’ in Morrisville. He will be 93 at Thanksgiving .

When we arrived, he was sitting in his wheelchair amid a group of elderly ladies being read to by a charming young woman. The old ladies seemed less than pleased when Phil excused Arnold and wheeled him to his room. There he was: very frail, wholly blind, his hearing impaired but much improved by very powerful aids. He was, in Scottish terms, ‘wandered’ – this means ‘an old person who is rather confused’ but is a much better place to be than being ‘doolally’ (my own father said that if he became doolally he was to be left in winter in Alva Glen; pleasingly this did not have to be done). So, conducted and led by Phil, our conversation wandered, and there were times, truth to tell when it wandered incomprehensibly in time and place. I think he was pleased that we were there, then an extraordinary and moving thing happened.

I was telling a story about our visit in 1983. On one day back then, Arnold took the group to the Canadian border, so they could say they had been in Canada, and get their passports stamped (young people were maybe a bit easier to please in the 80’s). Anyway, he took us to a house at Beebe Crossing which was, he explained, half in the USA and half in Canada. Do you remember, Arnold? He nodded, but I wasn’t sure he did. So, I continued, the old lady showed us her bedroom, and said that, at night, she slept with her feet in Canada and her head in the USA. Arnold nodded.

‘And there was a very clever boy called Graham in our group,’ I said, triumphantly approaching the punchline, ‘and he said….’

‘Where’s your heart?’ Arnold murmured. I fell silent, my mouth probably open.

That was right. This witty teenager asked her where her heart was, and I never forgot. And neither, as it turned out, had old, blind, incapacitated, wandered Arnold. I wanted to hug him, but I was afraid I might break something.

This was just one day in Vermont, the 5th October 2019; Arnold has moved into extreme old age; the trees are fiery red, golden, some still the brightest green, vivid orange. They were just beginning to fall. He sat there smiling, the last leaf clinging on to a most venerable old Vermont maple.

13 Comments

  1. What a beautiful post. I have never been to Vermont and am never likely to but your writing makes me feel as if I have been there.

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  2. This is just beautiful. So emotive. I love the line about the voice you remember still of the boy waking you from the car. And the story of Arnold with the metaphor of the leaf at the end it made me cry. Wonderful writing. It makes me think of all the fragments of our lives that we remember and mean nothing to others. Which is why the connection between you & Arnold at the end is so important and moving..

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  3. So beautifully written. How wonderful to have created these types of friendships. I’ve always wanted to go to Vermont and you’ve created a very compelling picture. Wonderful piece!

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  4. Dear Cameron…your truly wonderful writing is & surely approaches the deep warmth & intimacy of your friendship with Arnold….I can see you two sitting together, talking talking & on & on, creating the memories & pleasures which last lifetimes…including now all of ours with whom you have shared this. How absolutely glorious that you have come back to Craftsbury & Arnold once again…the Old Maple Tree remains, a touchstone of what is Good…& so utterly rare in this world…as is your ‘communion’-like bond with Arnold. Your writing this is truly a gift…thank you.

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  5. Good work Mr W. Reading this from a hammock in South Africa (coincidentally reflecting on the bonds I made here previously) and it’s wetting my appetite for both further travel of the States and further consumption of maple syrup. As my former English teacher, I feel bound to point out that you are missing an ‘us’ between ‘took’ and ‘up’😉. All the best for the season Cameron

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  6. A lovely post, Cameron. Your card to mum put me and Andy on the hunt and we’re just arranging for her to read it on her new tablet (get her!). Wally would’ve been delighted to know how closely you’ve held the Vermont ties all these years. What great people OF brought together. All the very best to you. Fiona and the Shaws

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