Fall has moved into central Ohio on little cat feet, stealthily and steadily, until one day recently I looked up and said, "Oh, it's here!"
My walks—to and from downtown or with Patricia in the mornings—have been particularly rich as of late. Patricia and I will be walking the loop at the park, deep in a talk about the things two old friends discuss, and one of us will point, mid-sentence, at a gold crusted maple catching the morning sun. Walking downtown today to meet up with Warren for lunch, I chose my favorite route (Franklin Street) and noted with deep satisfaction the layers of leaves on both sides of the street. It is an old neighborhood, full of tall trees that blanket the sidewalks every fall. Walking the route in reverse after lunch, I purposefully crossed to the west side of the street so I could shuffle through the crackling accumulations. The red and golden leaves had drifted against the stone wall and over the steps of the little red house that sits on a small rise, so perfect that I wanted to wrap my arms around it and carry the scene home in my heart. Even as I write these words sitting in the second floor study, I can swivel around in the desk chair and see a maple, torch red, out on the tree lawn.
Like White's Mr. Trexler, I want the second tree from the corner, just as it stands.
Someone recently asked me whether my boys had liked to jump in leaf piles when they were little. Liked to? That would be an understatement. Our backyard was awash in leaves, mostly from Tom and Pat's towering oak trees next door, and every fall we raked and piled leaves over and over. It seemed a Sisyphean task at times. But the boys loved it. The piles would be so large that they and their friends could disappear into them and only by watching for an extra quivering did you know where this or that boy was hidden. Sam as a toddler would be swallowed up in the piles; with his then reddish hair, he could sink into the leaves and be camouflaged perfectly until his giggles gave him away.
As I walked home today, I thought about those long ago leaf piles and the unadulterated pleasure of playing in them. What is it about leaf piles that sets them apart? Perhaps it is that they engage the five senses: the smell of the leaves, faint with decay but not yet moldy, the sound of a thousand of them crackling and snapping and popping when you land in them, the papery dry feel of them against your skin, the sight of all that gold, all that red, heaped to the skies, the faint tangy taste in the air when you dive in deep. Is that what it is?
Or is it something deeper? Something more elemental?
There is a passage at the very end of Book Five of The Odyssey that has always moved me. Odysseus has barely survived a great storm at sea and has finally made it to land, spent and worn. Making his way into the woods, he rakes together a bed of deep leaves. "As a man will bury his glowing brand in black ashes, off on a lonely farmstead, no neighbor near, to keep a spark alive—no need to kindle fire from somewhere else—so great Odysseus buried himself in leaves and Athena showered sleep upon his eyes." (Robert Fagles translation)
When it comes to Ben and Sam, I have often tucked my memories away deep, their glow buried in the ashes of time to keep the spark alive. Seeing the golden and red trees lighting my path yet again this season, I have no need to kindle my fire from somewhere else. It is already within me.
Fall, 1992: Sam is 2, Ben is almost 7