I always loved Autumn. Even in junior high school I collected pictures of sweeping Vermont scenes, postcards of orange maples and calendar spreads of leaf-strewn villages, and hung them on the wall or pasted them into scrapbooks. Typical pages included a football game ticket, a pressed red leaf, and one of those liquor ads where the couple is sitting in a pile of raked leaves or cozying up on a plaid blanket.
And in Autumn I read Autumn novels. Praise the Human Season by Don Robertson, the sweeping story of a couple’s long marriage. The Hunter’s Moon by Nathaniel Benchley, with its eerie undercurrent of sexual violence. Home from the Hill, the story of a Texas family by William Humphrey. These books left the taste of Autumn in my mouth, whether sour fear or loss or just the bittersweet reality of lives bravely lived.
In this old house, October meant battening down the hatches. My father would have stacked the cordwood with his disciplined precision. The garden would be left to rot, or turned over and planted in winter rye, the last green tomatoes lined up on the kitchen window sills. Indoors my mother already would be tending the fires, the wood stove and kerosene range, taking the chill off the first frosty mornings. My father would have swapped out the screen doors for their glass counterparts and pulled down the storm windows.
And I would be filling up notebooks, my journal and my five-subject Mead of school notes. Reading those novels and Glamour magazine. Putting together fall outfits of corduroy and flannel. And always the season’s change played on my emotions, Nature once again strumming a beat inside me.
The season always started brilliantly: a “pale gold shimmer on the trees’ tips,” “trees at last … red and pale gold,” against “slate blue folds of the clouds looming over the roof.”
But the first tree to turn in the neighborhood, a maple across the street, started early – in late August – and by October was nearly bare. Too soon came the gales of mid-fall.
In October 1975, I noted “russet elms,” the “dirty blackness of the river,” a “black starless sky,” and “crumpled leaves” the “color of dried blood.” I could “almost feel the yearning of Earth’s breast beneath them.”
In 1976, after a violent rainstorm not unlike the one we just had, I mourned the Indian summer that had been washed away. “Skeletal branches” had begun “to emerge bare,” leaves lying “like cereal flakes on the ground.”
Once after a visit to my grandmother, to the place where my father was raised, I wrote, “I am committed to the land and what it symbolizes.”
And I was. Although only a teenager, I sensed rather than understood my emotional connection to the countryside, the seasons, and what I can only call my inheritance of place. I felt it every time I drove along the dirt road that led to my grandmother’s house in the Tug Hollow section of Richmond. From the bus window, I watched as the leaves exploded into color on Shannock Hill. No matter where I was, I paid attention to the insistent heartbeat of the natural world.
I had read Emerson, but not enough to understand his explanation in “Nature” of the relationship between our exterior and interior worlds, how Nature provides us the raw material to spin the metaphors that allow us to express emotions and ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible. But already I was trying to make that connection, to spin a web out of Autumn’s stimulus. This was what I meant by “commitment to the land and what it symbolizes.”
This week October once again did her turn. After days of gold came her bleak and barren hours. Even before the wind lashed the trees and the rain tumbled down, I felt unsettled. Out of sorts. Depressed. And before I realized it, I was back in those old sad Autumns. Three years ago, tending to my sister, sick and emaciated, right before her cancer diagnosis. Forty-one years ago, adjusting to a strange new place, a college campus where I was missing all the old rituals of home. Memories came tumbling back of Autumn’s ambivalence – the grand show before the final exit.
So I did what my mother would have done. I gathered up the last of the green tomatoes. I picked as many cosmos and zinnias and roses and poppies as my arms could hold, and filled the house with vases of them, tall, short, milk glass, blue glass. I thought about all the loved ones I’ve lost. I remembered my sister in the glory of October, before December took her away from us. I pictured my mother raking up the garden, her hair under a kerchief. I could see my father carrying in an armload of wood or facing the early-morning chill to warm up the car before I drove to school. No matter how the wind blew or the rain pounded, in this old farmhouse they kept us warm and safe and ready for the winter to come. And so, after thinking about that for a while, I felt a little more ready for it now.