Today Cloverdale's citizens paid their last respects to Clara Maple. Gray clouds hung low in the sky providing a canopy to the solemn service. The temperature pushed the gathering into close quarters around the remains of one of Cloverdale's grand ladies. Tears fell as last goodbyes before the coffin was lowered into the ground near one of her trees.
Five years ago Miss Maple was found walking in a storm toward the Confederacy's border crossing with the Other World. She carried her belongings in a heavily worn leather suitcase held closed by two brown belts. She was holding a partially collapsed umbrella over her head in an attempt to shield her from the elements. She staggered in the gusts of wind as she shuffled toward the constables guarding the border. Her hands clutched the staff of the umbrella as she wrestled it from the wind. The constables rushed forward to offer aide. They reached her just as she collapsed to the pavement.
A week later I visited her at St. Elizabeth Hospital. Her room was full of flowers. Get well cards from Cloverdale's children adorned the walls. Her gray eyes sparkled when I introduced myself as the Lord Mayor of this oasis of the odd and bewildered. I told her that news of her journey was the talk of the village. I explained that many of us also came from the Other World so we rejoice when another precious soul made the crossing.
“Do you understand where you are?” I asked her as I sat beside her near a vase of roses.
“Oh, yes,” she said. "The nurses have explained everything. I'm so glad to be here. Thank you for the kindness."
“Tell me about yourself,” I inquired. “I’m always curious about our new friends from out there."
Miss Maple was raised in the Other World. That is the term we use to describe the land outside of the Confederacy of Dunces. It is a place we don't fully understand. Foreign in many ways.
She married early in life and had four children. Her husband passed away after 53 years at her side. His passing left a emptiness in her heart that never healed. After his death she spent her days taking long walks through the city's parks. She loved the trees. Trees were constant, almost untouched by time. They became her friends.
“I talk to trees,” she spoke in a whisper, afraid of my reaction to her confession. "Out there anyone found talking to trees is considered a lunatic. My children began to act like they didn't know who I was anymore."
I took her hand and told her that here in the Confederacy she had a new home filled with people that live life their own way.
“Many of us started in the Other World. Now we are here. This is a sanctuary. You may talk to our trees Miss Maple, but please let me know if they answer back. I’d love to know what they think of us.”
We laughed. There was a pause. Her appearance changed. "My family thought my wanderings were too dangerous. They also felt talking to trees was a sign that advancing age had compromised my reasoning. They placed me in supervised care at a local prison for the elderly. Willowing Acres they called it. Isn't that a pretty name for a concentration camp? The camp guards wouldn’t let me out to walk to the park. I was surrounded by indifference and plastic plants covered in dust. I was fading away from the inside out."
She looked out the window as she spoke. There was a pause as she remembered where she had been and how far she had come. After clearing her throat she continued. “One morning an elderly woman with a kindly face visited the camp. No one had ever seen her before. She wore a multi- colored coat which made her look quite odd. I was sitting in a corner under the blaring TV looking blankly at the wall. She worked her way through the room stopping and talking to society's throw away elderly. She stopped next to me, reached up and turned the TV down. She put one hand on my shoulder and handed me a piece of paper with the other. I opened the paper. There was writing, in crayon funny enough. It said there was a place for me - a Sanctuary. It said to take the train to the end of the tracks and then go north."
Miss Maple pulled the paper out from her purse and showed it to me. I recognized the writing. She continued her story, "She left without saying a word. I kept reading and rereading the note. Around supper time I made the decision. I knew it was crazy but I packed my things and escaped that night. I bought a train ticket to the end of the tracks and did as the note said - I went north. I took a taxi as far as a few dollars would buy and had to rely on my legs for the remainder of the journey. It was storming but I pressed on and here I am. I'm grateful for the kind reception you’ve all given me.” Our conversation went on for another hour. After a few cups of tea I left her to her nurses.
Miss Maple was adopted by the Burrow Family of Daisy Street. She became a grandmother to the children and taught them to love nature and trees. She and the children planted a large garden. Every Autumn they sold the produce in a roadside stand near Lake Park.
Miss Maple found happiness again.
Last year Miss Maple was diagnosed with cancer. She spent her remaining days planting new trees throughout the Confederacy and visiting the trees dearest to her and her adopted grandchildren. Nearly every afternoon she and the children would sit in the shade, feed the ducks, and tell stories about the trees and what they've experienced over their many years. Her story time usually attracted others in the park. People seemed truly interested in what the trees were telling Miss Maple.
And so we say goodnight to Miss Maple. Rest peacefully. Your trees will watch over you.