This time of year, I walk my dogs on roads and paths and two-track trails that are carpeted with fallen leaves. Usually, the whistling wind or the cars driving through send the mass of leaves to the edges, where they rest among the ferns, briers and grasses that grow there. They settle, sometimes, in mounds on the roadside. My dogs find piles of leaves terribly interesting, and always take the time to dismantle them, registering every scent they find there.
In other areas, where there is no traffic, and the sheltering trees slow the wind’s action, the leaves pile up. Last week, before the fall rains came to Beaver Island turning everything to a dull and sodden mess, we wandered through long pathways of crisp fallen leaves several inches deep.
Sunshine, the smell of autumn in the air, and the sound of leaves crackling underfoot brought me back to my childhood. I let my usually quick pace falter; I deliberately changed to a shuffling walk that kicked up, with every step, crisp leaves in shades of gold, red and orange. I was transported, in my mind, to another fall day more than sixty years ago.
Three tiny children, Brenda, Cindy and Teddy, were making their way, through deep autumn leaves, across their own big front yard to the big front yard of the house next door. That house is where the grandparents lived and, there in the yard, on a white wooden bench, sat their grandfather. The children were going to pay him a visit.
Maybe their Mama had sent them there, after bundling them up against the autumn chill. Or they might have come up with the idea on their own for, as my memory serves, we were allowed to travel freely between the two yards. Whatever the reason, on that fall day, three children set out together through the fallen leaves to sit with their Grandpa Ted.
The leaves were deep! Stately elm trees still thrived in Michigan at that time, and several of them graced the front yard there. They sheltered chipmunks and squirrels that my grandmother coaxed to eat from her hand. They provided shade for the bench where my grandfather often sat at the end of his work day. In the fall, they dropped their leaves in what – to small children – seemed unbelievable depth.
We could tip backward anywhere, and the leaves would cushion our fall. We could dive face-first into a mound of them, and never reach the ground below. We could throw them up in the air just to watch them rain down on us. We could make giant piles of them, with or without a child hidden inside. And we did all of these things, but on this one remembered day, we were intent on our purpose.
With our destination in sight, we made our way through the bright, crackling ground cover. Sometimes we held each other’s hands for support; sometimes not. We pushed through the deep mounds, up to our waists in places. We shuffled through, enjoying the sound and the feel of the leaves. We’d tilt sideways, now and then, to try to take a giant step over the leaves, giggling as we fell.
Finally, we made it to our destination! There was our Grandpa, grinning a wide grin. One-by-one he picked us up, hugged us, nuzzled our neck, and deposited us on the seat beside him. We were all smiling. Brenda, the oldest and most responsible of the children, let out a big sigh, “Grandpa, you should get these leaves raked,” she said.
In just that instant, with the remembered sound of my sister’s five-year-old voice, my memories shifted to a time twenty years ago, when Brenda’s granddaughter, Samantha, used that exact tone of voice to direct her own Grandpa. Then, in the blink of an eye, in this present day, I could hear the same tone reflected in Samantha’s daughter, Kayleigh, as she scolds her great-Grandpa for things left undone.
Then back, in my mind, to that far-away time with my Grandpa Ted, who loved us – the children of his only and much-loved child, Janice – whole-heartedly. I imagine his heart swelling as he watched us, tiny children, teetering and swaying through the deep leaves to visit him. I can almost hear him chuckle. I can feel the joy he felt as he lifted each of us onto the bench. In response to my sister, he smiled. “Yup, sweetie,” he said, “I was just thinking about that!”