SOME CALL IT AUTUMN
by Joelle Steele
Downtown Oakdale had not changed much in the eight years since I had last been home. From the corner of Main and Polk where the Greyhound bus had left me that Sunday afternoon, I could see that most of the storefronts were just as I remembered them. The gas station, the Good Will store, the Oakdale Market, the Book Nook, and Braxton's Pharmacy were monuments to the Oakdale where I grew up in the late 1960s. The Warsaw Bakery had been remodeled and seemed to be doing a thriving business, with coffee drinkers spilled out onto the sidewalk tables. Across the street was Aeolian Music, a one-stop shopping place for instruments, sheet music, and records — now CDs. Next door was Holland Antiques, where I bought a small dropleaf desk with spindly Queen Anne legs when I was still in high school. I hoped to find it still sitting in my old bedroom.
I decided against taking a city bus or a cab to the house. I could walk the mile and half. These days, I was traveling light. It now seemed so very unnecessary to complicate my life any more than I had to, so I arrived with only one small suitcase, and it was on wheels. I towed it behind me down Maplewood Drive. The trees that lined the street were in their full autumn splendor, the leaves fluttering in a crisp breeze that made them sparkle all the more in the light of the late afternoon sun. Puffy pink clouds framed with delicate gold edges were dotted across the clear blue impending twilight. A line from a poem ran through my mind, "some of us call it autumn and others call it God." I tried to recall the name of the poet or the poem, but nothing else came to me. All I knew was that I still called this season "autumn" because, at the moment, I was not so sure about God. Perhaps I should have been reading the Bible rather than so much poetry.
The residential area of Oakdale had not changed much either, at least not on the outside. Most of the houses and yards were still easily recognizable to me. The Hudson's big Victorian on the corner of Maplewood and Freshet was now dove gray with a bright white trim and occasional maroon accents, a significant improvement over the faded and peeling lemon yellow it had once been. I could not help wondering if maybe my family's house had been painted something cheerier than the drab beige and ivory tones my late father had liked so well. Mom always said she wanted to keep it kind of earthy but with a little more excitement.
The sign ahead marked my street, Quincey Lane. I stopped to inhale deeply. My lungs instantly sprang to life with the clean air and the scent of late-blooming flowers and all the pines and other trees that filled the neighborhood landscape. I was home at last, after eight years of vainly trying to heal the hopeless, who lived in the far reaches of the globe where there were no trees, not even a patch of grass, as far as the eye could see. Eight years of feeling the satisfaction of knowing that I was at least trying to do something of value in a world inhabited by so many people who seemed not to care about anything beyond the reach of their own noses. In fact, I had lived my life based on a poem called "Not In Vain." Emily Dickinson was not really one of my favorite poets, but the words of that very short poem always stood out in my mind: "If I can ease one life the aching, or cool one pain ... I shall not live in vain."
Now I was home, by choice, but born out of necessity. I suspected something was wrong with me long before I got the final diagnosis. That was in Nairobi, the nearest big city to where I was living. From there, I was immediately flown stateside to New York City where a complete hysterectomy was performed and chemotherapy was started. I had to return for additional treatment in two weeks. My chances for surviving ovarian cancer that had already spread to the surrounding tissues were not good. But, I am nothing if not optimistic, and I tried to remain hopeful of a remission.
Which brings me back to Oakdale and poetry again. If there was the slightest chance that I might not survive, I had to make things right with my mother. I should have done so anyway, and much sooner. Something else always seemed to take priority. But I was looking at life much differently these days, and reconciliation was now paramount. I was reminded of something Shakespeare wrote. I think it came from The Merchant of Venice. As happens to me so often, I don't recall the exact words, but the reference was something like "mercy twice blest," a blessing to both giver and taker. I hoped that mercy could be twice blest in me and my mother.
On the day that I left home in 1993, my mother was devastated. I had just turned 27, my birthday falling only two days after my father's funeral. Since I was the oldest, my mother expected me to not be lost to her by virtue of my work in a third world country. My father had taken care of every detail for the family, and Mom was lost without him. She wanted me to manage everything in his stead. Why couldn't I do my internship and then open a small medical practice in Oakdale, she wondered. I tried to explain, but my words fell on deaf ears, probably because I was so self-righteous at the time. I wanted to use my newly-acquired medical skills to play God and save the world. Strangers seemed to mean so much more than did my own flesh and blood.
I turned onto Quincey and immediately saw the house. Mom had indeed had her way with it. The grand old two-story 1915 structure's shingled exterior was now sporting a medium sage green, with ivory trim and deep cocoa accents. The porch, which spanned the entire facade, was now covered with the coral passion flower vines that once covered only the lowest part of the outer porch siding. On the walkway leading to the front door was a pink tricycle with streamers shooting out of the handlebars. My six year old sibling's, I deducted. The initials of my siblings and me that we carved into the cement sidewalk were still visible, although a fine hairline crack ran through each of them. I urged my suitcase up the two small stone steps that led to the walkway to the front door, and then up the seven steps to the porch. The house was quiet, but there were two cars in the driveway and it was the dinner hour, so I was confident that someone was home. I didn't want to barge in after so many years, so I rang the bell and knocked. A child's face appeared briefly at the window and seconds later the child opened the door.
"You must be Jenny," I offered.
"Who are you?" asked the blond cherub in denim overalls and a T-shirt with cartoon characters on it that I did not recognize.
"Jenny," came a voice from inside the house. "Who's at the door?"
Jenny turned in the direction of the voice, then back to me, then back to the voice.
"Mommy," she called out, and broke into a run down the hall towards the kitchen.
I pulled my suitcase up one last step into the foyer and waited, as the sound of someone walking at a hurried pace grew louder as they came closer.
"Oh my God," said my mother, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel and then brushing her hair back from her face. "What a surprise." Her voice was bland and lacked the enthusiasm that such words usually convey. I guess I should have been happy that after not hearing from her for eight years she was alive and allowing me into her house.
"Hi, Mom." I embraced her, and she put her arms on mine, but her body remained stiff, and I could feel the distance between us.
"We're just sitting down to dinner. I'll set another place." She headed back to the kitchen, and Jenny reappeared and hugged the newel post at the base of the stairs as she observed me.
"Hi Jenny," I said. She did not reply. "I'm your sister, Julia. I've been living in Africa for a long time."
"I know," she said softly. "I have a new bike," she added, quickly changing conversational gears as is so common with young children.
"I know," I said. "I saw it outside.
We stood staring at each other as our mother called everyone to dinner. I started to head for the kitchen, because we had always eaten in the kitchen when I lived at home, but Jenny stopped me and led me to the dining room. There were several familiar faces studied me with seeming disinterest, or maybe it was distrust.
My brother Neil, age 20, was no longer a gawky teenager with acne. His ears were still pierced, and one sported a stud and three rings of varying sizes. I could just make out a small tattoo low on his neck. It looked like a lightning bolt. He looked up at me briefly, then returned to reading a political science textbook. Clark, now 27, had put on some weight, filling in what was once a pitifully thin physique. The shoulder-length hair he had vowed never to cut had been reduced to a one-inch long cut overall. For an instant, he broke from his conversation with a man I had never met but was sure was my mother's husband, to look at me, then resumed speaking.
My only sister, 23 year old Irene, shot me a cursory glance and continued tending to the toddler in his high chair beside her. She too had Neil's penchant for piercings, both ears being decorated with studs, rings, and a pair of matching drops that I recognized as moonstones. When I left, her hair was green and she wore heavy black eye make-up. Her hair was now its natural blonde self, and the only color in her face came in the form of the dark purplish circles under her eyes. Seated between Neil and his stepfather was a teenaged girl with brilliant copper hair and black roots, with a pierced eyebrow and black nail polish. She seemed bored and disinterested in the world around her and paid me no attention whatsoever.
"Jenny, take your seat," ordered my mother, as she appeared from the swinging door that led to the pantry and then to the kitchen beyond. She was carrying a large, dark brown, round casserole dish, one I recognized from my earliest childhood years. The aroma of curried turkey filled the room. "You sit over there, Julia," she directed. "This is my husband, Al Cherney."
"I'm happy to meet you, Julia," he said, rising from his seat as I took mine. "I've heard a lot about you." Al Cherney could not have been more than 42 years old, and therefore about ten years younger than my mother. His broad chest and shoulders looked like the result of regular work-outs in a gym. His black hair was receding ever so slightly, and from his temples peaked only a few strands of silver. Aside from that, he had no distinguishing marks, and was in all noticeable ways your everyday, clean cut, Mr. Nice Guy.
"This is my daughter, Natasha," he motioned to the sullen young woman beside him. She nodded to me but said nothing. Al, on the other hand, turned out to be quite chatty. He asked me about my trip, told me about his jewelry store which was being remodeled, mentioned that Clark's dental office was right around the corner from him, asked if I had spent much time in New York City, and if I had a chance to go up the Empire State Building, something he had always wanted to do.
Our friendly discussion was broken suddenly by Clark.
"Do we really have to listen to this?" he interrupted, throwing his napkin on the table and pushing his chair away from the table.
"Clark, please ..." begged our mother.
"No, Mom. She just shows up here out of the blue after eight years, and it's all business as usual?" He looked straight at me. "A lot has happened since you left, and a lot happened because you left. We were all doing just fine without you. I think you should go back to Kenya or Zimbabwe or wherever you came from." He rose and quietly but quickly left the room, heading towards the kitchen and the back door, which opened and closed in the distance.
"Clark is just being a jerk. Don't pay attention to him," advised Neil, who until that moment had said nothing to her.
"Maybe I should go find a place to stay," I suggested. "I don't want to cause any problems. I just wanted to try to patch things up between us. I don't have to stay in this house to do that."
"You are always welcome here, Julia," said Al very seriously. "This is and always will be your home."
"Of course," added her mother. "Your room could use a little tidying up, but it is still your room. Irene has kept Tyler in there, but he can just as easily stay in her room while you're here."
Irene looked up after more than a half-hour of silence. "Mom that's Tyler's room now," she whined. "He wouldn't understand it if he couldn't sleep in his own bed."
"Irene, Tyler can manage for just a few days," assured Mom.
"I can stay in the attic room, if no one is using it. I don't mind."
No one debated further, and it was agreed that I would stay in the attic so as not to distrupt anyone's daily routine. The attic had apparently not been used in years. There were two twin beds and a double bed, neither made up, and both covered with protective sheets.
Mom and Irene removed the covers and the three of us made up the double bed. I was too tired from my trip to carry on much more conversation, so I went to sleep early. Even though I was not in my old room, I still felt at home in the house, despite the tension.
It was sunrise when I woke to the sounds of Tyler crying in the room below me. Irene immediately began talking to him, saying words I could not understand through the floor, and he became quiet. I tried unsuccessfully to go back to sleep and decided to get up. The attic was musty and I opened the windows on either end to let some air circulate during the day. I took a quick shower in the main bath on the second floor and, after dressing, I went to the kitchen in search of breakfast.
The house was quiet. I had always loved that about Oakdale. It was so peaceful. You could think clearly here. Rural Africa was like that too. There were sounds of animals, but the people were mostly quiet as they went about their daily routines. I had spent several days in Nairobi before leaving for New York, and then I was in New York for three and a half months. Both cities reminded me of my college days in San Francisco, where I first learned how noisy and distracting city life could be. Despite the stressful reasons for my return to Oakdale, for the most part, I felt calm and relieved in my home town.
After taking my medication and having juice and a piece of toast, I headed for the front door and ran into Irene and Tyler in the foyer. She was struggling to get Tyler into his jacket, and he stood silently as she did so.
"Good morning," I greeted.
"Good morning," she puffed, as she finished adjusting her son's clothing.
"Where are you off too so early?"
"Some of us have real jobs and obligations, Julia. I have to go to work and Tyler has to be dropped off at daycare. So excuse me, but we are in a hurry." She spoke without even looking at me, then rushed Tyler out the door. I caught up with them as they approached her car.
"Irene," I began. "Why are you so angry? And at me? The last time I saw you, you were fifteen years old and we got along quite well, if I remember correctly."
"I was a kid and you were twelve years older. We had nothing in common, so we got along because we hardly saw each other."
"So what's the problem now?"
"The problem is," she said with her jaw hardened and her eyes staring straight into mine. "You were the smart one, the doctor, the humanitarian. All I ever heard was 'why can't you be more like Julia?' and, you know what, I'm not like you at all. I would never have left Mom — us — the way you did." Irene opened the passenger door and installed Tyler in his car seat.
"I can't help it if you were compared to me. I'm not the one who did the comparing, Irene." She did not reply as she walked around to the driver side and opened the door.
"I came back to try and make amends for leaving so abruptly at what was a very difficult time for everybody, including me. Did you ever wonder why I left when I did, or is everything about you?"
"It's all about us, Julia. Us. After you left us, things were not the same."
"You mean after Daddy died," I corrected. "The fact that I left then is just a coincidence. He died and that is what changed things."
"If you had stayed, things would have been different. You were the oldest, you could have helped Mom, helped me. Instead, you just left us." Irene's eyes were welling up and her face was flushing pink. "We almost lost the house, did you know that? Clark had to work a full-time job while he went to college. Neil almost flunked 8th grade. Mom just cried all the time. And me, look at me, Julia. I just wanted out. I dropped out of high school in my senior year and eloped with Luke Dawson. Remember him, Julia. Clark's good buddy Luke. Luke who took to beating on me just a few months before Tyler was born. After a year of abuse I begged Mom to let me and Tyler live here. Imagine how she must have enjoyed having us around when she and our new stepdaddy were busying starting their own life together. And now, sister dear, I have a career waiting tables at Denny's out on the highway, so you'll have to excuse me." She slammed the car door shut and turned the key in the ignition.
I stood there, confused, watching as her car pulled out of the driveway and headed towards Maplewood. This was all going to be a lot harder than I had expected. I was thinking that my mother would be the greatest obstacle. I didn't even think Neil, Clark, or Irene would have given me a second thought. I had been born a few years before our father left for his first tour in Viet Nam. Eight years later, a year after Dad came home from his second tour, and just a few months before the fall of Saigon, Clark was born. Irene came along three years after that, followed by Neil another three years later. They were still teenagers when I left home.
"What are you doing?"
I turned around to see Neil standing on the lawn behind me. His backpack was slung over his shoulder, and there were spiral notebooks sticking out of an outside pocket.
"Just enjoying the morning air," I lied. "Do you have any bones to pick with me? Irene seems to think you might hold me responsible for almost flunking 8th grade."
"Seventh. I almost flunked seventh." He looked down at his dilapidated, black, hightop sneakers, then looked straight at me. "I don't blame you for my problems in school. But I could never understand why you left so suddenly, especially when it was such a bad time with Dad dying and all."
"I had to leave, Neil. I had to get out. I couldn't go through what I had already experienced with Mom long before you were even born." I paused to gather my thoughts. "I was born before Dad went to Vietnam. When he left for his first tour, I was only five, and I became Mom's sole companion. She hovered over the TV every night, anxious to hear where the troops were and trying to figure out if Dad was likely to be alive. I had to do my homework alone. I played alone. I comforted Mom when the news was grim. She was working during the day, and I came home to an empty house. I had to be a grown up when I was just a small child. When Dad died, Mom was turning to me again. She wanted me to handle the estate matters and help her do this and that, and I just couldn't go through it again." I was rambling, and I knew it, but it just all came out in one long stream of consciousness.
"I didn't know any of that. I mean, I knew Dad was in Vietnam, but I didn't know what it was like for you at home, with Mom." He readjusted his backpack. "I guess Irene must have really laid into you, huh?"
"Yes, she did. But, I'll talk to her later and get it all straightened out somehow."
Neil trudged down the lawn to the driveway and to the sidewalk. He walked off in the direction of Quincy and Middlefield Street, probably to catch the bus. I had forgotten to ask, but I was pretty sure he was attending Oakdale Community College.
The screen door slammed and Jenny came running down the steps, dressed for school with her pink and purple backpack slung over her shoulder. Mom followed shortly, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, and carrying her wallet in one hand and her keys in the other. She caught up with Jenny at the bronze SUV parked in the driveway. I walked up to them.
"I'm taking Jenny to school."
"Mind if I ride along with you."
We dropped Jenny off at the elementary school I had attended as a child. She ran off happily to join her classmates on the playground.
"Can we go somewhere and have coffee, somewhere away from the house?" I asked, as we pulled away from the curb.
"The Warsaw is open."
We drove downtown and found a table at the Warsaw Bakery. The walls had been painted, but aside from that, it was just as I remembered it. We ordered and then sat in silence for a full minute, each uncertain about what to say and waiting for the other to speak. I had made this journey, so I was the one who broke the ice.
"Mom, I'm sorry," I blurted out.
"There is nothing to apologize for." Her words were cold, masking a deep anger or resentment she was harboring inside.
"I know you're still angry with me. I should not have left so abruptly. I want to make it up to you."
"You did what you had to do, and it's all in the past. I don't want to talk about it."
"Mom, we have to clear the air."
"No, we don't. It's all buried in the past. Let's just leave it there."
The waitress brought our coffee and croissants. The silence was deafening as we slowly ate and I remembered that my mother liked to bury things she didn't like to talk about. I guess it's easier for her that way. But not for me. I want to confront my demons. At least, that's what I wanted to do now.
We finished our coffee and pastries and headed right back to the house. I could not keep myself from trying to iron out our problems.
"I know you don't want to talk about the past. So I will talk about it instead."
"I don't ..."
"I know you don't want to hear what I have to say, but I am going to talk anyway. I was scared, Mom. I wanted to leave because I did not want to have to take care of things for you the way I did when I was just a little girl and Daddy was in Vietnam. And I was so in love with the idea of saving the world."
"And I admired you for that," she interrupted, as we turned onto Maplewood. "I really did. I was very proud of you."
"But I left at the wrong time."
"You left at a very bad time," she began. "I was devastated when your father died. He was everything to me. Everything. I didn't know how to survive without him. He was a wonderful man."
"He cheated on you, Mom. And you let him get away with it. Again and again. Don't elevate him to sainthood now."
"Don't talk that way about your father!"
"I'm sorry, but he was not perfect, and you have since recovered beautifully. You have a loving husband and an adorable new daughter. I may have left at the wrong time, but your life went on without me and you are thriving."
"I suppose I am."
We pulled into the driveway and remained in the car, the morning sun shining on us through the window.
"I'm sorry, Mom. Please forgive me. Please love me again." I turned and faced her and saw that there were tears on her cheek.
"I never stopped loving you. Never." She reached out and embraced me, and it felt so good to hold her again and to know that I was still her little girl.
I took a walk downtown that afternoon and ended up at the Book Nook, where I bought a couple of paperbacks. There was no TV in the attic bedroom, and after living in rural Africa for such a long time, I had grown accustomed to reading before bed at night. Downtown Oakdale on a Monday was a lot busier than it was when I arrived on Sunday afternoon.
There were far more cars than I remembered eight years ago. I recalled that Al had said Clark had his office nearby, so I stopped at a phone booth and looked him up. He was on Polk near Haycroft. I decided to pay him a visit.
Clark's receptionist explained that he was with his last patient. I sat down to wait. It was a half hour before the patient left. The receptionist was next, followed by two other young women in uniforms. Finally, Clark ventured into the waiting area.
"What is it? Nagging toothache? Loose crown?" he asked snidely.
"Why are you so angry?" I asked.
"Hmmmph." He shrugged his shoulders, crossed his arms, and turned his eyes away from me.
"Clark, I am trying to make things right between us, and you are not making it easy."
"I didn't realize I was supposed to."
"That's not what I mean. You are treating me like I am your worst enemy. When I left, you were just starting college and I thought we were okay. What happened?"
He said nothing at first, looking around the room, and then he sat down in one of the chairs across from me.
"Do you know why I have all this?" he held out both arms and motioned at the office around him.
"You became a dentist."
"I became a dentist. I became a dentist after flunking my first year of college because Mom was leaning on me so hard. We had no money, and I had to take a full-time job to help out. If it weren't for Al, I would never have been able to finish school, because I couldn't afford the tuition."
"I'm glad Al was able to help you. But I still don't understand why you're mad at me."
"You were the oldest. You were finished with school You could have stayed, done an internship here, opened a private practice, and helped Mom and us kids. You thought only of yourself, and you were old enough to know better."
"And you're old enough to know better right now, Clark. I took care of Mom when I was just a child and Dad was in Vietnam. I didn't want to be her caretaker again. And, I had plans of my own. I'll admit I was self-centered and probably should not have left so soon after Dad's death. But I did it, and I don't regret it. You had some tough times, and so have I. We both survived. Can't we get past that now?"
"You want us to be friends? We hardly know each other."
"We never did know each other, Clark. There were eight years between us, and you know that seems like the Grand Canyon when you're young. I was hoping that maybe we could start over."
Clark squirmed in his chair, and I felt like I was talking to the awkward nineteen year old he was when I had seen him last.
"I suppose," he conceded. "But don't expect miracles."
"I won't," I agreed. "I'm really very sorry for my part in damaging our relationship. I hope that in time you will find it in your heart to forgive me."
We walked out of the building together, and he offered me a ride home. I was feeling tired, so I accepted. Dinner was on the table when I arrived. Afterwards, I played Chutes & Ladders with Jenny at the kitchen table, and had a brief conversation with Natasha, who actually turned out to be shy and was quite intelligent. And when Irene came home, she was cheerful and talked to me about Tyler, the center of her universe, and rightfully so. Hearing her talk about Tyler was bittersweet for someone like me who, even if I survived my illness, would never give birth to a child.
I read for awhile before my eyes were too tired to continue the adventures of my 18th century heroine, who was trying to find an escape from the dark cellar in which she was locked. I put my book and my glasses on the night stand and turned out the light. The night air was sweet and I left the windows open a crack, opting to put another quilt on my bed for warmth.
Before I dozed off, I reviewed the events of the day. It had not been easy, and there had been far more obstacles than I had expected. But, I could also see that real progress had been made. And I had twelve more days left before I had to return to New York. Twelve days in which I would work hard to rebuild my relationships with my mother and my siblings. Twelve days in which to reacquaint myself with them, and to create new relationships with my nephew, my sister, my stepsister, and my stepfather. And somehow, during those twelve days, I had to find a way to tell them about the battle my body was waging.
I folded my hands and prayed for my family, my friends, and myself. The soft hooting of an owl drifted in on the breeze that rustled the red leaves of the giant maple tree outside my window. Some call it autumn, but I call it God.