The summer sun is fading as the year grows old
And darker days are drawing near…*
Autumn has always been my favorite season. I don’t know when I first decided that I had a favorite season, but I do remember that the first poem I ever wrote was about Halloween, when I was in second grade, and that my grandfather helped me write it, explaining rhyme and meter to me, and helping me discover the puzzle-solving joy of finding the right descriptive word with the correct number of syllables and euphony to fit the need, kind of like linguistic Sudoku.
I’m pretty sure Autumn was Pawpaw’s favorite time of year. Though he had left the farm nearly 50 years prior, the rhythms hadn’t left his life and he enjoyed harvest time, whether it came from the fields or from his own garden that was always so meticulously nurtured. Sure, there was contentment to be found in winter when he could spend time with his beloved books and browse seed catalogs, and sit snug inside knowing he was completely prepared. Springtime brought anticipation and the satisfaction of turning the earth and staking out the future, and summer brought the good, hard work and the challenge of simultaneously working with and against nature to raise and defend his crop as the tomatoes, turnips and radishes overflowed their bins. But it was fall where he reaped the abundance of the season in all its colors, its smells and its sensations. It is the fall that I always seem to remember with him.
Through autumn’s golden gown we used to kick our way
You always loved this time of year.
Aside from my grandfather’s garden there was always a bumper crop of leaves in his yard as oak, maple, walnut, buckeye and birch shook off another year and prepared to sleep. We would work the rakes, or I’d try to push the big canvas lawn-sweeper across the yard with my stubby legs. He’d talk about the smell of the moist earth, and I’d listen to him and to the whisk of the rake, the shoosh of the brush and the shuffle and crush of the leaves as they jumped and tumbled before us into the huge, promising piles so perfect for my jumping and burrowing. And then, the best part, the burning. It was a wistful pleasure, as so many pleasures are; so much had been accomplished which had to, in turn, go away. The piles of leaves were curled and dry though still streaked through with glory, touched with the orange flame and the first wisps of gray smoke and then that wonderful, distinctive aroma. I loved the smell of it on my clothes, in my corduroy cap, the taste that lingered in my mouth, the taste that was so strangely complementary when we’d go inside for rye bread, braunschweiger and cheese, all smeared with sharp mustard.
Later in my life I’d add the memories of the smells of a leather football and of textbooks old and new; the sounds of pads crashing and school buses idling, and the bright yellow, autumnal, flash of new pencils. These were all spells woven around me that still have the power to take me back to those long-ago days, but there is no more powerful talisman for taking me back to my memories of my grandfather than for me to see a black walnut or the pungent, green husk it came out of, or the smooth, chocolatey surface of a buckeye. These happen every year, and every year I go back in time and into my grandfather’s presence. And every year I go somewhere and hear Justin Hayward sing “Forever Autumn” and it somehow pulls all those memories into a bittersweet ball in my center …
I watch the birds fly south across the autumn sky
And one by one they disappear.
I wish that I was flying with them …
as the signature line from the song rakes my heart:
Now you’re not here…
* Justin Hayward, “Forever Autumn”, from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.