Before the Fall

Left to right: San Francisco, the Golden Gate, Angel Island,  Mt. Tam

 Contrary to what many people believe, we do get fall colors here in California. I took a little field trip today (after the rain stopped) to see if I could take some pictures of places near me where the leaves are changing color. It’s still early, but I did see some signs that real autumn is on the way. Here and there I found the colors I was looking for: reds, oranges, golds.

Today’s theme: leaves.

The year after I graduated from high school, I took a leave from college and worked full time at the telephone company. All my friends planned to go to college; only one or two left  California  or the west coast for school. One  went to tiny Goddard College in Vermont, the longest distance away by far. He was part of the group of counter-culture ne’er-do-wells that I loved so much in high school. I guessed he was a little homesick, so I wrote to him.

 In the late fall, just before my birthday, he sent me a letter. At least, I assumed it was a letter when I saw the envelope. Inside was a single red leaf from a maple tree, tucked inside the folds of a piece of paper. No message, no signature, just a return address in Vermont. I saved the leaf in its envelope and kept it with my other special letters in a pink box.

The gesture spoke volumes to me at the time, and with distance, it says even more. One leaf: worth a thousand words.

When my daughter and I traveled to New England in 1995 to look at colleges, we stopped along campus paths to gather handfuls of the colorful leaves, which I pressed into a book and brought home. What a pair of nerds we were–sorting through the brilliant fallen leaves that covered the ground everywhere we looked. “Here’s a good one!” we’d shout to each other, and I’d add it to the growing collection in my arms. We gathered leaves in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania,

The real deal in Amherst, MA

That year at Thanksgiving, we scattered the leaves on our table– in little piles, just the way we’d found them.

 We  brought out the leaves every year at Thanksgiving, arranging them in clusters around the centerpiece and the wine glasses. Some years, my daughter didn’t make it home, and the leaves took on a special meaning for me. And then she moved away for good, and we traveled to see her and her husband at Thanksgiving, leaving the leaves behind.

After so many years, the colors faded, the tips broke off,  and the leaves grew fragile between the pages of the book. Little by little they crumbled and had to be tossed.

When I was a college counselor, I’d talk to students about the adjustments they’d  have to make if they went away to college. We talked about lots of things, including the weather and the harshness of those East Coast winter months. I’d ask them how they felt about snow. Often they would say they loved snow–they went to Lake Tahoe every year to ski!

 Well, they would have to see for themselves what a dreary, grey February looked like, as my daughter did during her college years.  The mounds of dirty slush would look nothing like the pristine powder they were used to seeing at Tahoe. But spring! The college freshmen always came back talking about the first days of spring with a true sense of wonder. I loved those conversations.

I told one of my favorite students the story of my single leaf, and also about  the leaf-gathering my daughter and I did. I started to think it might be time to retire both the leaves and the story, although I still loved the memories. Maybe I needed to come up with some other story about the glory of fall colors–and how homesickness strikes just about everybody–to tell students as they prepared to leave the moderate seasons of Northern California.  I mentioned the sorry state of my autumn leaf collection to him, but promised myself that it was time to move on. I’d gotten a lot of mileage out of those stories, but enough was enough.

Early one  fall, I received an envelope full of autumn leaves in brilliant colors, gathered by my former student from his college campus in Connecticut.

Was I touched? You bet. Have I saved them for my table? Of course. Did I manage to tell that story one more time just now? Yes, I did.

From the fall collection

3 Responses to Before the Fall

  1. Bruce says:

    Beautiful leaves in Michigan yesterday. Should I bring some home with me?

  2. What a lovely, and totally unexpected gift – the best kind. Plus, it prompted this very sweet story. We are enjoying what will be the last bit of foliage here in the NE with Sandy roaring up toward us.

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