The Fall

I originally posted this to my blog ten years ago. Mother’s Day got me thinking about it again.

photo: ©David B. Sutton

Many years ago, in August, I moved from the Midwest to Southern California to go to school.

Immersed as I was in a new college, a new culture, new friends and a new city, August and September sped quickly by. In the first weeks of October, though, I began to notice a vague feeling of something not right, an unanswered anticipation I could not put my finger on. As October wound on, this feeling grew.

One day walking to campus I heard a muffled crash behind me. I looked back to see that a giant palm branch (frond?) had dropped from one of the forty-foot palms that line many of Los Angeles’ streets.

Aha. Fall.

Now I understood. Twenty years in the Midwest had accustomed me to the seasonal turn toward fall in October. My psyche, my personal rhythms — my guts — had all anticipated a change, and it had not come. No color shift on the horizon, nothing rustling around my ankles, no slate grey sky looming overhead. I missed it all.

One evening I described this over the phone to my mom back in Indiana. A week later I received a package in the mail. When I opened it, a vividly colored array of maple leaves tumbled out, each leaf painstakingly dipped in melted paraffin to preserve its color.

I kept those leaves for years, pinned to the wall over my desk.

I enjoy all the seasons, but if I had to choose a favorite, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Autumn.

Such a beautiful word, Autumn, the silent “n” giving it an indistinct ending and hinting at meaning below the surface. Autumnmnmn. The season’s depth and complexity might explain why, unlike Spring, Summer and Winter, we’ve given this season two names.

Autumn. Fall. A time of gathering in, going inward, Autumn inspires reflection. Autumn plays yin to Spring’s yang. While Spring brings us light and promise, Autumn shows us the way to darkness and introspection. I think of entering a forest. As you go deeper the trees begin to thicken overhead, closing off the light. You know that on the forest’s other edge the trees will again thin out, allowing light to return, but your walk through darkness will not be without trepidation.

Last week, on one of Autumn’s very first days, I drove to South Bend, Indiana and spent several hours taking pictures in and around the house where I grew up. As a result I’ve been thinking more than usual about the cycles of the seasons and the cycles of our lives, and how these cycles help give our lives meaning.

My parents bought this new three-bedroom ranch with a full basement in 1961. Ours was a model home in a new development. Six of us moved into that house, and for a couple of years, seven of us lived within its walls.

My mother died two years ago, and my father finally had to move out of the house last July. This once bustling building now provides shelter to no one. What was, in my parents’ time, the newest of the new is now old, worn.

While the undiscerning eye might see an old house filled with junk, I see entire histories. Moving through the basement with my camera I see a wooden toy-box my dad made for my older brother over fifty years ago. In it a handsaw with a letter “s” painted on the handle. I recognize that saw. When I was a teenager, my dad brought this saw home from Western Illinois after he’d helped to empty out his own father’s house.

Looking over the back yard I see a rusting antenna tower, its top section standing on the ground next to its base. When my dad put this tower up, it was the tallest structure in the neighborhood, a silver pillar that enabled us to pull in the Chicago channels. Dad used to climb to the top of that tower every November to affix a lighted star he’d fashioned out of plywood, foil and a broomstick. Cable TV put this once mighty tower out of business years ago. In the garage, a dusty foil-covered star hangs where it has hung for twenty years or more.

As I move through the back yard past the crumbling remains of a wooden privacy fence my father built, I survey the side yard, which once served as our neighborhood football field. An enormous maple tree now shades almost the entire yard. I pause to watch the sunlight play through the tree’s leaves. The leaves have that deep, dark shade of green they take on just before their autumn colors begin to burst forth.

For the first time it dawns on me that this is the tree. Although I’ve been home hundreds of times since I moved to California thirty years ago, I’m only now making the connection, realizing that a handful of leaves from this tree, colored by Autumn’s touch, tossed on October winds, then lovingly gathered by a middle-aged mother of five, once traveled across the country to eventually find their rest in Southern California.

david b sutton, 2007

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