April 6th, 2020
Closets and drawers have been weeded through and organized. Small repairs have been made here and there as we continue to shelter in place. After years of dreading the task,it was finally time to get out the big box of photos that had been languishing unsorted for decades, probably. On a day when I was feeling the urge to purge, I started going through the massive piles and files of photos, determined to thin out and discard many of the duplicates, the meaningless and the unidentifiable. I wasn’t expecting to come across the book of leaves.
The book of leaves has a history, beginning the first autumn after I graduated from high school. A good friend went off to college on the East Coast, the only one of my circle of friends to leave California. One fall day, I received what I thought would be a letter from this friend. Instead, folded inside a sheet of paper, were several beautiful leaves in shades of red, orange and yellow. No words accompanied the leaves, but the message was clear and it made my heart glad. I kept and treasured those leaves, folded carefully back into the envelope, among the letters from family and friends, tucked inside a box that I carried with me when I moved out of my parents’ house to my first apartment, and the other places I lived up until the fire destroyed our home and our neighborhood in 1991.
In 1995, my daughter and I went to visit a small number of colleges on the East Coast. We hit the peak of the fall colors and marveled at the brilliant display on every side as we drove through Massachusetts and Connecticut. On our visit to Wesleyan, we decided to gather leaves to bring home. “Here’s a pretty one!” we’d call out to each other, oblivious to how this may have looked to any passersby. One by one, we gathered red, orange, yellow and brown leaves to take home; big and little, fancy and plain, colorful and subtle–all came back with us as special mementos of our trip. I found a hardcover journal and pressed the leaves between its pages. The journal sat on a shelf along with the many photo albums we took with us when we evacuated.
The story of sending and receiving autumn leaves continued several years later during my time as a college counselor. When I learned that one of my favorite students had been accepted into Wesleyan, I told him about the high school friend who’d sent me leaves from Vermont, and how my daughter and I had scavenged leaves at what would soon be his new home for the next four years. And that first fall, he sent me an envelope full of colorful leaves to add to my collection and my memories.
I would bring out the book of leaves every year, its contents part of our Thanksgiving table decorations, scattered the way my daughter and I had found them on that autumn day in Connecticut. After the holiday meal ended, after the dishes and platters were washed and put away, I would tuck the leaves back in the journal for next time. And this went on for many years as family and friends gathered around our table.
Traditions change, however. We spent a few Thanksgivings at different places, so did not set our own table every year. The leaves became faded and fragile between the book’s pages. I really don’t remember the last time I took them out to scatter on the tablecloth.
Originally, the leaves represented a connection: to a friend, a student, my daughter. But over the years they came to represent a separation and a distance when she attended college on the other side of the country, and when she eventually settled there to work and raise a family. The leaves reminded me of that separation and distance, and when they crumbled each time I lifted them from the book, I wondered if someday I would have to leave this tradition behind and move on.
And then, on a rainy Saturday during this time of sheltering in place, I took one last look through the book of leaves.
At a time when we are all feeling the impact of separation and distance on a daily basis, the leaves seem to carry a deeper meaning. They now remind me of how many are missing from the family table and how much time has passed since I gathered autumn leaves with joy and anticipation.
The thing is, we do get fall colors in California, and if I care to, when it’s once again permissible to visit the places where trees drop their leaves and we can be close to each other again, I can take a grandchild or two to gather more. I can start over with new leaves we collect together. New memories, old tradition.
But for now, it’s time to take one last picture and let the leaves go.
With thanks to Lew, Caitlin and Ari for the special gift of leaves