I loved fall when I was a little girl. It was my almost-favorite time of the year. Of course I loved it because that’s when school started and I adored school. I loved the colors in fall, I loved the sounds, and I loved the smells. My house sat far off the road, on top a hill. Trees grew all around and, of course, we had lots and lots of grass. It was cool as a cucumber in the summer and pretty as a picture in the fall and winter. In the fall, we had tons of leaves, which meant lots and lots of raking. Everybody worked when I was a little girl. The most fun of all is what comes after the work: playing in the leaves, and at long last burning them.
In my yard, we had apple trees and pear trees and a couple of dwarf plum trees. We had willow trees, elm trees, boxelder trees and some pine trees. Mom tried to get a smoke tree growing ’cause she loved the puffs of blossoms that looked like rosy smoke in the summer. For some reason, no matter how much she tried to protect that bush, somebody ran over it with the lawnmower every single summer. In the fall, all those leaves in different shades of green turned beautiful yellows, golds, reds, and oranges. That changed a little after Dutch elm disease. Then a road crew marked every single elm tree with a big yellow X. Weeks later another crew came through and chopped all those trees down. My road looked naked without the elm trees. I started to notice trees everywhere I went marked with those yellow Xs; all marked to be chopped down. Mom said it had to be done to stop the disease from spreading, so every single elm tree in the state got chopped down, even if the tree was healthy. That seemed like curing a disease by killing the patients to me.
Raking leaves was fun at first. Scritch-Shush, scritch-shush. Shush, shush, shush,. All those dry leaves made such a comfortable sound, it could put a baby to sleep. Still, it took day at my house. I got tired of it. Deanna like to rake a big long row and then sweep it down, down, down the hill working back and forth across the row until finally she swept it all into a big fat pile, fresh swept grass appearing behind her as she raked. I tried that; it took me forever to get anywhere. I liked to make little rows, and little piles, then move the piles into bigger and bigger piles. I pretended I could make a village, then a city, then whole country out of those leaf piles.
I liked to bury Julie and Frankie in the leaf pile, or hide in there myself and pop out scaring Bonita half to death. Sure I made more work for myself, ’cause I had to rake all those leaves up again. Still, laying, under those leaves trying to be silent with just my breath making the leaves crinkle all around me, the sharp musty smell filling up my lungs, and the sun shining through all that color, well now, that was one of the best feelings in the whole wide world. Almost as good as the look on Bonita’s face when she got so scared she almost wet her pants. Mom said that was dangerous play. Sometimes kids got run over because nobody sees them under all those leaves. That made no sense at all to me, ’cause nobody in their right mind would drive straight up on the lawn, except maybe Dad when he loaded up the car with all those walnuts we picked every fall. Dad was super-safe driving; he learned that at Ma Bell, how to look out for kids and other people who might be thinking about stuff other than traffic. Anyways, getting run over while playing in leaves seemed pretty darned unlikely to me.
Burning leaves was the last part of the job. That you have to do with no wind, and you have to pay attention all the while so the fire doesn’t get out of hand. Dad was super-cautious about fire, on account of his house burning down when he was a kid. Plus, Grandpa was a fireman, so Mom had all kinds of horror stories about kids being burned alive. I liked fires. I liked to light up a leaf and watch that warm fire spread across the entire pile, then rake a few more leaves on top, to get the fire roaring up as high as I could before Mom or Dad yelled out, “Be careful, there.” Then when the pile was gone, just a black spot on the grass, with white smoke curling up toward a cold sky. Crackley fall leaf burning gives off a scent like no other. Especially if the sky spit out a few snowflakes to boot. That says, “Look out. Winter is on the way.”
It’s interesting how all those warnings Mom and Dad gave to try to impress safety upon my young mind, only worked when I got older. Now ash borers threaten to wipe out another species of trees. I cringe and give a wide berth to leaves piled in the street, half expecting an unwary child to come popping out at me, “Boo!” The acrid smell of burning leaves and smoke curling toward a wintry sky is an outward sign of the pollution that threatens our climate. Ahhh… to be a kid again, just loving fall for the color, the sound and the smell. Shushh, shussh, sushh. I think I’ll go out and see if my leaf pile is in peak performance condition for this weekend and the grandkids. Maybe I can get in there, lie still, and then…scare the pants off G-money. Shhhh….