Saturday, July 7, 2012

last leaf on the tree

last leaf on the tree --
beautiful at every age
outside and inside

Esther Jane was born on 2 July 1923 in Little Egypt, the fertile delta between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Her birthday falls on the same day that the Declaration of Independence was signed, though it was not adopted until two days later, on 4 July 1776. John Adams thought Independence Day should be celebrated on 2 July and refused for the rest of his life to attend any celebration held on the Fourth of July.
          We celebrate the Second of July with a family reunion. Many of EJ's family live nearby in Southern Illinois, while some of us journey from Kansas and Iowa to celebrate her 89th birthday. All the leaves have been added to the dining table to make room for the guests and the spread of traditional family dishes: chicken and dumplings (handmade that morning by EJ and her daughter), green beans, corn on the cob, steamed pokeweed, freshly pickled cucumbers, lettuce salad with cherry tomatoes, yellow and white peaches from Rendleman's Orchard, lemonade, tea, homemade vanilla ice cream, blackberry cobbler, apple pie, chocolate cake and Craver's giant chocolate chip cookies.
          It's been too hot all day to sit outside, but In the early evening we move to the brick patio, laid by EJ with Egyptian bricks gathered from streets being replaced with blacktop. After awhile, a light sprinkling of rain cools things off a bit.
          The discussion turns to education and how there used to be so much memorization but now everything is online so no one bothers to memorize. EJ remembers the time when she was in the sixth grade and the teacher required them to memorize and recite a poem. She chose a poem entitled "The Last Leaf," and 78 years later she can still recite it from memory, though she can't recall the name of the poet. Her oldest son googles "the last leaf" on his smartphone and comes up with Oliver Wendell Holmes. 
          The subject of the poem is old age and death, an unusual choice for an eleven-year-old. EJ says, "Maybe I knew something. My two brothers and my sister are gone, so now I'm the last leaf on the tree." Right then and there, we decide to plan for another family reunion next year to celebrate her 90th birthday.

The Last Leaf 
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1895)

I saw him once before,
As he passed by the door,
And again
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o'er the ground
With his cane. 

They say that in his prime,
Ere the pruning-knife of Time
Cut him down,
Not a better man was found
By the Crier on his round
Through the town. 

But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
Sad and wan,
And he shakes his feeble head,
That it seems as if he said,
"They are gone!" 

The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb. 

My grandmamma has said--
Poor old lady, she is dead
Long ago--
That he had a Roman nose,
And his cheek was like a rose
In the snow; 

But now his nose is thin,
And it rests upon his chin
Like a staff,
And a crook is in his back,
And a melancholy crack
In his laugh. 

I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
At him here;
But the old three-cornered hat,
And the breeches, and all that,
Are so queer! 

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.

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