They walked through the park hand in hand, marvelling at the fall colours, trepidation mixed in equal parts with love in their hearts. The air was crisp and for the most part fresh. There was only a hint of rot, but still no scent of decay. Few leaves had fallen yet, the grasses and bull rushes still glowed gold in the setting sun. They had yet to wither and turn brown.
The couple stopped and sat on a bench, under a large red-leaved maple, facing the canal, which they could just make out through the trees. They spoke of love, of a shared future, some day. Of all the things they would do together. Seeing the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, visiting Niagara Falls, taking the train across the Prairies and over the Rockies. Of children, a family. They did not speak of tomorrow. Of the war. Of the train that would take him away from her the next day.
Later, with the sun down and the fall colours obscured by night, they did not speak. Communication still flowed between them, but by look, gesture and touch. Their language was passion. When it was spent, they slept. In the morning, his leave over, he was gone. She was alone in a small hotel room, overlooking the Rideau Canal, a baby growing in her belly.
Greens, reds and browns, punctuated by flashes of yellow, moved almost rhythmically through the haze that hung heavy over the land. He watched the colours from a distance, unable to see distinct shapes, but picturing them in his mind. He knew what they were. Soon he would join them. It would be his turn to go over the top, into the mud, the slowing, squelchy, foot-rotting, killing mud. He would see the red flag fall to the ground in front of him, see the yellow flame erupt from the gun, hear the shell speed toward him, and watch the red stain spreading over the green cloth covering his chest. He fell face first.
The telegram arrived in November, on a grey, wet day. Bleak skies hung low over naked trees. The only remaining leaves were brown, fallen like her lover, blowing away from her in the cold breeze. She answered the door, one month gone.
James Terence was born in June 1918. He was the apple of his mother’s eye, her special boy. She delighted in him. As he grew, her happiness returned to her. She could feel the joy of fall again. Thrill to the reds, yellows and oranges of the season, feel energized by the crisp, clean air. It was her favourite time of year. She loved nothing more than walking through the arboretum with her first born, marvelling at the trees, the blueness of the sky, holding his hand. Yet even as a child he could sense the disquiet in her, the tinge of grey that surrounded her otherwise bright-hued aura.
Her time alone with Terry diminished as he grew and his four siblings arrived. He was four when Michael was born. Joan and Isabel, the twins, followed a year later. John was last, born in 1925. She loved them all in her way, but none so much as Terry.
In October, when the fall leaves were at their peak, when the colours of fall heralded the dead season to come, she would leave the younger children in her husband’s care and walk with Terry to the bench where she had once sat with her lover. They’d sit on the bench, quiet, each enjoying the colours, the peace of the trees. The season invigorated them somehow. Made them feel more alive, more vibrant. Ready to face the dark nights of winter. The white, stark days. The cold.
Outside her house, even in staid, conservative Ottawa, the world seemed frantic, gone mad. Young people drifted in the wind like the fallen leaves of November, from one place to the next, unable to settle. Yet they clothed themselves in ever more showy garments, flapper dress, the colours of early fall. She found peace in her household, her children, and even her husband, who she grew to love. They were the stable foundation on which she’d built her life.
Years passed. Her children grew, went to school, made friends, had lives outside of the house. She was always there for them, the one who kissed injuries to make them better, bandaged skinned knees, made meals, loved them without question. A friend, a guardian, a mother.
Fall could not come soon enough for her in 1929. There was tension in the air. Her husband seemed worried, preoccupied. Even Terry, just 11, seemed to be affected somehow. He’d talk to her about the things he’d heard at school. About friends saying their families had to move. To sell their homes. Something to do with a stock market. She grew desperate, suddenly, to take him into the arboretum, to the bench, to let the beauty of fall, the crisp air of the season, invigorate them. To feel that all was right with the world again. To feel at peace under the trees.
The leaves had turned brown and fallen in Ottawa by October 29. She’d been strengthened by them, by the light and air of fall, renewed. But few were strong enough to withstand the bleak days of that November unscathed. Not her husband, who drove his car into the canal and died. Not the couple who lived in the house next door to them, who put their home up for sale. But she was. She knew how to overcome darkness, to persist. And she had Terry, as well as Michael, Joan, Isabel and John to watch over and love.
She found a part-time job at the local grocer. With that income, the proceeds of her husband’s life insurance policy, and by cutting back a bit on expenses, they survived. They kept their house. The children stayed in the same school. They had clean clothes to wear, food to eat. Love.
What changed was fall. Her fall tradition. Now she took all the children with her to the arboretum. While she and Terry sat on the bench, the others played in the grass. All of them felt the magic of the season. Year after year they revelled in its colours, its gaiety, its crisp, clean air. They were invigorated, renewed. Ready for winter. To live.
October 1944. Greens, reds and browns, punctuated by flashes of yellow, moved almost rhythmically through the haze that hung heavy over the land. Terry watched the colours from a distance, from the fox hole he was crouched in, unable to see distinct shapes, but picturing them in his mind. He knew what they were. Soon it would be his turn to move through the water and squelching mud into German fire. He would see the yellow flash of the machine gun, see the bullet’s orange tracer speed toward him, and watch the blood stain his green uniform red. He fell face first. The Battle of the Scheldt had begun.
The telegram arrived in November, on a grey, wet day. Bleak skies hung low over naked trees. The only remaining leaves were brown, fallen like her son, blowing away from her in the cold breeze. She answered the door. Her heart was broken.
Years passed. She could no longer walk to the arboretum. Michael wheeled her there each fall. He helped her to the bench. Covered her knees with a blanket. Stood behind her as she let the colours and crisp air of the season renew and strengthen her. As she remembered her lover and Terry.
The phone call came in October 1988. It was a young woman. “Are you Laura?,” she asked. “Jim Duncan’s Laura?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m Jim’s Laura. The Laura he loved.”
“I’ve got something that you might like to see,” the woman said. “It belonged to my parents’.”
Michael was with her at her house when the woman arrived. Jennifer was carrying an old leather suitcase. She lugged it with her through the front door and on to the living room.
“This is what I wanted to show you,” she said, putting the suitcase down flat on the floor and opening it. Laura peered inside the case. There were tarnished sports trophies, faded photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings and an old green wool uniform jacket inside, along with school report cards and a bundle of letters tied with together with a piece of red string.
Laura reached into the case. She picked up the letters first, as if she had a premonition. Treating them with what approached reverence, she untied the string and unfolded the top letter slowly. It was from Jim to his parents, the last they ever received from him, telling them about the wonderful girl he had met in Ottawa. About his plans to marry her and begin a family, and how he would bring her to meet them when he got home. It said he would be in the thick of it soon.
“On the day the telegram arrived at the house informing them that Jim had been killed my grandparents took this suitcase down from the attic and put everything they had of his into it. His uniform jacket and personal affects, including the letter you have in your hand, were added to the suitcase last, after they were sent to my grandparents by the War Office. They looked through it often, to remember him.
“When the suitcase came into my possession a year or so ago, after my aunt died, I looked through the contents. After I read that letter, I decided to try and find you. It wasn’t easy – but here I am.”
Tears streamed down Laura’s face.
She kept the suitcase for a week, touching the uniform, smelling it, holding it close to her. Then she returned the case to Jennifer, asking only if she could keep the photograph of Jim in his uniform and the letter.
The children did not understand, at first. This Jim was not their father.
She asked them to go with her to the arboretum, to the bench, where she told them the story, surrounded by the glorious colours of fall, breathing its crisp air, feeling the peace of the place, remembering. When she had finished speaking, she asked them to read the letter, then the telegram that had come to her in November 1918, which she had kept all those years.
“Terry was Jim’s son,” she said. “Your father knew that, but he loved Terry regardless. I loved your father for that, and for being a wonderful, caring man. But I never stopped loving Jim. Your father knew that too, I think.”
In October 1993, an envelope arrived through her mail slot. She had not been to the arboretum or the bench that fall. Her legs were too weak, her hips too sore. Inside the envelope was another smaller envelope, and a note.
The note said: “I could not bear to go through the pockets when Samuel’s uniform jacket and cap were sent back to us by the war office after he was killed. It was only this year, when fall came, that I felt strong enough to do it. Somehow, as the colours of the season faded, I knew that it was time. I found this envelope, addressed to you, in one of the pockets. It seemed right to send it on to you. Best wishes, Deborah Fienberg.”
She stared at the smaller envelope. It was addressed to her in a hand she knew. Terry’s hand. There was no stamp on the envelope, no postmark. She opened it carefully. Inside there was a photograph of Terry in his uniform and a letter.
“Dear Mum,” it read. “I gave this letter to a friend who is being sent back home to post for me. We’re going into battle tomorrow, I think. It will be a tough one.
“I just wanted to say I love you, and how much I missed not being with you in the arboretum this year. The reds, yellows and oranges of the trees were magnificent here, when the photo was taken, although you can’t see them in the picture. I felt so alive that day, with the wonderful air. The colours. That peaceful feeling. I thought of you.
“The fall colours are fading now. It looks like an early winter…
“All my love. Terry”
The woman got out of bed. She dressed herself with difficulty. Jim’s picture was on her dresser. She put it and the picture of Terry in her purse.
Her scooter was in the garage. It had been a long while since she had been out on it, but it still had power.
At the arboretum, she parked the scooter as close to the bench as she could, then slowly, painfully walked the rest of the way to it, and sat. She put the picture of Terry on her left, Jim’s on her right. The peace of the place and the fall colours washed over her.
She heard Terry’s voice. “It’s so beautiful Mum – I’m so glad Dad could finally be here to share it with us.”
The Police told Michael that his mother had been found on a park bench in the arboretum overlooking the canal. She was smiling.