O. Henry

O. Henry grave 

Fall comes early in Asheville, North Carolina. The air is chilly when I get out of the car at the cemetery to visit the grave. I think of winter coming, of Christmas, of this writer’s most famous work. I take a picture, marveling at the coins spread over the gravestone. As I turn to go, a frigid wind gusts, scuttling leaves over the ground and across the driveway.

Leaves . . . I remember that story.

O. Henry’s headstone is covered in coins, mostly pennies, which usually add up to $1.87 –  the amount of money that Jim and Della had at Christmastime in his famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” This shortage of money is why Jim sold his gold pocket watch to buy combs for Della’s beautiful hair, and why Della cut and sold her hair to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim’s prized watch. Their sacrificial love for one another has made the story an enduring classic.

There is another story of O. Henry’s that I love almost as well.

I remembered it as I planned to write “Oh, Henry,” yesterday’s post about my son’s dog. I should write about O. Henry next, I smiled to myself. A little word play with the titles. How enticing.

That’s when I thought about the fallen leaves blowing over the writer’s grave.

I scrounged up my old paperback copy of O. Henry’s short stories and reread “The Last Leaf.”

In this tale, two young artists live in a three-story Greenwich Village building. One of them becomes sick with pneumonia. She watches the leaves dropping from an ivy vine against the wall just outside of her window, convinced that she will die when the last leaf falls. To her astonishment, the last leaf hangs on through high wind and rain. To make a short story shorter, the leaf remains because an old artist in the building crawled up a ladder in the dark of a raw November night and painted it on the wall with the vine. The girl begins to recover and the old man, Behrman, dies of the pneumonia he catches from being out in the weather while painting that night.

The old artist had always wanted to paint a masterpiece and never pulled it off – but the last lines of the story have the roommate telling the recovering girl about the leaf: “Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Berhman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night the last leaf fell.”

Self-sacrificial love at work again – but there’s more to it.

That leaf symbolized hope, sparking the desire to strive, to overcome. The old artist’s small gesture inspired the young artist to keep living.

This leaves me thinking, in the course of our days as teachers, as writers: Are we not the artists who paint the pictures of possibility, of hope, in the minds of others? Do we spark in others a desire to strive, to reach for what’s beyond their grasp, or to hang on only long enough until this, too, shall pass?

Our masterpieces may never be world-famous; they may be as simple as knowing the right word, the right idea, the right vision, the right story, and sharing it when it is most needed. Inspiration leaps from one heart to another, creating something to hang onto, outlasting high winds and rain. We may never see the full effect of our work, but that’s all right.

We paint the leaves where we can.

I close my old paperback book.

O. Henry, I am so thankful you were here.


slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer





Haunting forevermore

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in … June, 2013.

My older son and I, teachers inspired by a love of The Great Gatsby,  celebrated the arrival of summer vacation by driving from North Carolina to Rockville, Maryland, where we visited the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Having accomplished this mission before nine o’clock in the morning, my son asked: “What do you want to do now?”

“You know,” I grinned, “Baltimore is only forty-five minutes away. Poe is buried there.”

Thus was our Dead Writers Tour born. Off to Baltimore we went.

In contrast to a midnight dreary, the morning sun was blinding at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. The old Gothic-Revival church, the gate, the trees, the headstones, all cast the blackest, sharp-edged shadows, as if intentionally evoking the last lines of  “The Raven”:

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted – nevermore!

And there, to the immediate right of the entrance, was the author’s grave under a large, shadowy monument bearing a plaque with his likeness. One wilting yellow rose and a couple of little rocks rested on the base.

Poe is buried with his wife, who was also his cousin, aged thirteen when he married her and twenty-four when she died, and her mother, his aunt.

“This isn’t the original grave,” my son pointed out. “Poe was first buried somewhere behind the church. He was moved here to to the front later.”

“That figures,” I said. “The man was unsettled for most of his life. He couldn’t even be settled in death.”

Just then a black bird flew by to land on another headstone, where it sat watching us from the stark shadows.

“Is that a raven?” I whispered.

Quoth my son, wide-eyed: “Geez, Mom!”

“No, it can’t be,” I assured him. “Ravens are bigger than that … I think. Let’s go find the first grave.”

This cemetery is old, dating from the late 1700s. The pathway from the entrance to the back is narrow,  leading past massive domed slabs somewhat reminiscent of Quonset huts. Years and weather have left black streaks running down the sides of these burial slabs to form odd swirls and patterns. Ghostly patterns, painted by nature’s fingers.

“Check out this stain,” I said, pausing. “Does it look like a skull to you?”

“Oh, wow – it does!”

Rounding the corner of the church, we came upon a marble table with thick legs and a top so sunken in the middle that it seemed impossible for such a heavy substance. A plaque informed us that this “gravity-defying” monument was mentioned in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! article. A Revolutionary War veteran is buried beneath this oddity.

From there, my son and I could see Poe’s original grave, as the crowned headstone is embossed with a raven. On nearing the cenotaph – the empty tomb – the words arching above the bird become visible: “Quoth the Raven – Nevermore.” The stone informs visitors that Poe rested in this spot from 1849 to 1875.

“Do you remember reading about the mysterious person who showed up every year on Poe’s birthday, wearing a cloak or something, to leave roses at the grave?” I asked my son, a trivia expert extraordinaire.

“Oh, right – the Poe Toaster. He wore a hat and white scarf. He left cognac, too.”

“At this marker or the other?” I wondered.

“This one, I think. He came for decades, until just a couple of years ago. No one ever figured out who the Toaster was.”

“That’s hard to believe, in this day and age.”

“What’s really strange is that just before Poe died, he was found in the streets of Baltimore, out of his mind, wearing someone else’s clothes, and no one ever knew why.”

“It’s haunting, but mostly sad,” I pondered aloud. “Something straight out of his own work.”

We turned to leave, walking past a line of eroding tombs and vaults on the far side of the little cemetery. Some stone vaults had iron closures that appeared damaged. My fanciful imagination took flight: Had someone tampered with the doors, trying to get in – or out?

I shuddered despite the brightness of the day, recalling something my grandmother told me when I was a child afraid of the tiny graveyard across from her house in the country: Never fear the dead. Fear the living.

“I don’t think I’d want to be here at night,” I said to my son.

We simultaneously picked up our pace toward the exit.

“Nor would I.”

Back at Poe’s final resting place by the gate, my thoughts turned to his poetry, the glorious rhythm of “The Raven,” which drew me as a child the first time I heard Vincent Price reading it on TV. The poem wields mesmerizing, unique power. It is meant to be read aloud. Once when I was working to help third graders comprehend a text they were reading, we encountered the word raven.

“What’s a raven?” they wanted to know.

“It’s a bird – a black bird,” I told them. “There’s a famous poem about a raven.”

“Read it to us!” demanded the kids.

After a quick Internet search, I read the opening stanzas.

The children listened, spellbound. When I stopped, one of them sighed:

“Oh, Mrs. Haley – that sounds just like music.”

It does, indeed.

Ever after, the kids greeted me with “Hi, Mrs. Haley! Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary!”

Having paid my respects at last to Edgar Allan Poe, I walked back through the gate, just as the church’s bells began striking eleven – as if the word master himself was sending a message:

Keeping time, time, time,

As he knells, knells, knells,

In a happy Runic rhyme,

To the rolling of the the bells —

Of the bells, bells, bells —

To the tolling of the bells,

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells–

To the moaning and groaning of the bells.

It couldn’t be coincidence – could it?

Today is the 167th anniversary of Poe’s death.

Reflect: What written works sing in your head, call to you, haunt you? Why?


So we beat on


In the summer of 2013, my older son and I embarked on what we now call The Dead Writers Tour. The Great Gatsby film, newly released, was creating a resurgence of interest in the novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. My son had just completed his second year teaching high school social studies, his favorite portion of which is the Jazz Age; he had even begun coordinating his history lessons with the English classes’ reading of Gatsby and teaching his students how to dance the Charleston.

Perhaps it was our shared loved of literature and writing, or the joy of the whole summer lying before us, teachers on the loose, that beckoned us like the green light beckoned Jay Gatsby. Perhaps the movie was the impetus for adventure, capturing the zeitgeist and ending, as the novel does,  with my son’s favorite literary quote:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Fitting, indeed, for a young history teacher who was born by a bay (albeit one in Virginia, not New York).

“You know, Mom,” said my son, as we left the cinema, “That quote is on Fitzgerald’s grave.”

“Is it, now,” I mused. “As much as you love it, you ought to go take a picture and put it up in your classroom.”

The light in his eyes was instantaneous. Out came the phone to research the grave’s location: Rockville, Maryland. How far is that from home in North Carolina? A quick check in Apple Maps: Right at four hours.

“That’s a day trip,” I said. “I’ll come with you. It will be our summer celebration kick-off.”

So, on a mid-June morning, we left long before daylight. We ate breakfast while it was still dark, chattering about our teaching accomplishments that year and our dreams about writing, lamenting the constraints of time in the daily grind of making a living. The hours passed quickly, despite the epic traffic snafu of D.C. Once on the other side, however, we sailed right into Rockville.

The cemetery is at a Catholic church in the midst of bustling city streets. After navigating such noise and chaos, I was not expecting utter silence on entering the graveyard. It was like a cosmic mute button was suddenly pressed, or that I had passed through a portal from one world to another. The city receded at once; all I could hear was a faint shivering of tree leaves overhead in the breeze, oddly cool for June, and the occasional flap of little American flags, remnants of Memorial Day, at the graves of veterans.

How incredibly peaceful, I thought.

“There it is,” whispered my son, pointing.

Fitzgerald was easy to find; his grave was the most adorned. As we approached, a brown rabbit hopped out of our path to a more remote patch of sun-dappled grass where it could nibble, undisturbed. At at the foot of his grave a flag commemorated Fitzgerald’s World War I service. On the headstone, the author’s full name signifies an even deeper connection to the flag: his famous cousin wrote the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I reveled in having my own first name in common with these writers and Fitzgerald’s daughter, buried nearby. A pot of daisies had been placed by the headstone, a nod to the love of Jay Gatsby’s life. Most interesting of all is that Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who was at least part of the inspiration for the character of Daisy, is buried with him in the same grave.

Any student of F. Scott Fitzgerald knows his struggles, that he was always teetering on the brink of financial ruin, that he and Zelda lived a frenzied life, that both of their deaths were sudden and tragic, him with a heart attack in his forties and her a few years after, in a fire at the mental hospital where she was a patient. Fitzgerald never knew The Great Gatsby would become the beloved American icon that it is.

We stood there in the stillness, my son and I, drinking in the sight, lost in our own thoughts. After a bit, we took the pictures.

One or the other of us sighed. I am not sure which.

“What do you want to do now?” asked my son.

I looked up at the sky. The day was golden, still young; we had time, perhaps, for another adventure.

“You know,” I grinned, “Baltimore is only forty-five minutes farther. Poe is buried there.”

My son chuckled. He took one last look at the final Gatsby lines etched on the weathered granite slab. “All right, Mom. Let’s go.”

So we beat on.

Reflect: What literary works or quotes strike a deep chord in you? Why?

-Happy Birthday this week, F. Scott Fitzgerald.