I had no idea why Dad was so grumpy. They were just leaves–piles of them that he had spent the last hour raking onto a big, blue tarp and hauling off into the woods at the edge of our yard. While my father raked, my brother and I chased each other around the yard, diving, jumping, and rolling around in those same piles like a couple of Collies. You’re welcome, Dad! We tore after each other, laughing, scooping up armfuls of leaves to dump on each other’s heads and shove inside the backs of our jackets. How are you not enjoying this great, fall day, Dad? To us it was pure kid bliss. It was the same attitude that helped us shoulder through every New England season—all six to twelve of them, give or take: every day a blank canvas, already primed for fun.
Decades later, the source of my father’s sourness revealed itself when I had my own yard with just enough deciduous trees to make me beam with joy as the leaves burned scarlet and orange and curse with irritation as the relentless hours of raking set in. The magic of fall superseded by minutia of seasonal chores and upkeep that Judy Blume never bothered to tell us about. She prepared us for expanding bust lines and reproduction, but not adulty things like taxes and dental appointments and winterizing the patio and scheduling gutter cleanings. She didn’t warn us that there would be work seriously getting in the way of our play.
Though, truthfully, for me, fall had become my least favorite season long before I reached the point of homeownership. By the time I was in college, I actively dreaded autumn. It was not only about putting away the beach bag and pulling on jeans and sweatshirts. It signaled the time to pack up and leave. It meant casting off a sense of freedom and ease and returning to what felt like a life on lock down, first as a type-A, overachieving undergrad, and then later as an ambitious graduate student. The autumns of those years in particular were some of the rockiest. I cried as I left what I knew to be home in the rear view mirror or boarded planes, steeling myself for another cycle of semesters where I was habitually stressed and suffocatingly lonely.
Endings. That’s all that fall spoke to me. The last words printed on the last chapter of the last book of the series written just before the author drew her last breath. I had heavy (and dramatic) feelings about fall that I took the liberty to share with anyone within beleaguered (and dramatic) sighing distance. Accepting change has never been high on my list of priorities. I associate it with loss that feels gutting and permanent even though I know it’s a necessary cleaving. The white hot pain of transformation, shedding, and clearing is part of the alchemy of the Universe, it’s the evidence of grace that comes with the privilege of becoming.
Even so, I typically want no part of it, like I have a choice. I do not. Just when I think I’ve successfully lied to myself that I have somehow gamed the Universe, fall busts me. I hold grudges for much less. So it went with me and fall, settling into an uneasy, wary relationship. After many years in transit, I finally got to set down roots, which helped with the feeling of despondency as the September light thinned to the shade of pale honey. I allowed fall a few concessions like cider doughnuts and apple pies. Most autumns I greet with resignation, like that coworker that always approaches you for their kid’s school fundraiser: Well, here we are again already, Ted.
Several weeks ago a violent northeaster rain storm passed through the region. It sent leaves scattering, trees arching, power lines failing, and ushered in a stretch of damp, soggy days. I went for a walk on the bike path not far from my house. Leaves carpeted the pavement, slicked down and trampled upon like confetti following the end of a parade. A bright red maple leaf caught my eye. I leaned down and picked her up. She glowed a nearly obscene cherry red. I held her fragile stem and twirled her a bit, letting the grey light reflect off her wet surface. I looked closely at her veins, tiny highways of life, a design marvel.
I couldn’t remember when I had last held a leaf like this that I wasn’t stuffing into a collection bag. I flashed on an image of myself as a little girl walking around the edges of our yard. My head bowed, I scanned the ground for not just any leaves, but ones I thought were perfect or special, that were particularly bright or comically large. I saw myself picking and discarding with the fussiness of an old woman inspecting each piece of fruit at the market. Serious business. I remember going on this hunt for the purpose of taking them inside and pressing them onto paper to make leaf collages or leaf portraits. It was a silly craft that we did each fall, no doubt partly designed to send us out of the house and out of my mother’s hair for a half hour. But it was one I looked forward to. It was a ritual like so many others that felt so critical at the time, but with distance and perspective seem trivial or embarrassing. At the time there was nothing more natural to do than to fill your arms with every inch of fall.
On the trail that day, I felt like that little girl again–curious, excited, greeting the world like an old friend. It started to drizzle and I just stood there smiling down at that leaf, letting myself remember the pure, kid-joy of autumn, feeling lighter than I had in years even as the world moved into its season of darkness.