Mom and me, 1971
I don’t remember taking a walk along a lake with my mother on a chilly fall day, but the gentle moment is documented in a faded color photograph. I was no more than a toddler at the time. Looking at it now, I can imagine how fresh and exhilarating the sensation must have been for me, a novice to the cyclical changes of turning seasons. The sharpness of the cool air, the windblown rustle of decaying foliage, and cascading waves of pinwheeling leaves would have captivated me. Autumn must have been a wondrous and beautiful contrast to the vibrant skies and sweltering sun of summer.
Whatever wonder I associated with the season would dissipate within several years, however. My annual return to school became the most memorable event in autumn, and I soon developed a distaste for what I gradually perceived to be a depressing time of year. Summer was a joyous freedom from responsibility, a chance to impulsively indulge every whim, an endless vacation with so many hours of daylight that you could wake up late and still have more time than you ever wanted to ride your bike for blocks with no agenda whatsoever. Fall came to represent the absence of these cherished things, and so it held little charm for me. Deciduous trees aflame with color and crisp strolls through the apple orchard? Who cares? Summer’s over.
Of course, I would eventually adjust to the departure of summer and enjoy the unique pleasures of autumn like any other kid. I was right out there with the rest of the neighborhood children, raking up leaves for the sole purpose of jumping into massive piles of them. Trick-or-treating on Halloween was certainly a highlight, and Thanksgiving was always a treasured holiday. But those were little islands of happiness within a greater sea of anxiety. I didn’t like seeing the cold and empty darkness envelop our street a little earlier each night. Just hearing the droning of Monday Night Football announcers from the living room as I lay sleepless in my room aggravated my apprehension of the perils I might face the next day at school. What if I get in the wrong lunch line again? What if I get called up in front of everybody and have to find a place I’ve never heard of on the big map? What if we do another one of those horrible times table relays? Yeah, I was a neurotic kid.
Though my neuroses ebbed as I matured, my disdain for autumn did not. I was no longer wasting my thoughts worrying about the next day’s potential unpleasantness, but I still regarded the fall as a time to endure rather than enjoy. At least winter brought the gradual lengthening of daylight hours and the possibility of a good snow day or two. Aside from the welcome distraction of its holidays, autumn offered a bleak forecast: things are going to get worse before they get better.
These days I see it all quite differently. Rather than belittle the falling temperatures and longer nights of October and November, I now revere fall as my favorite season. No longer does the revelation of skeletal trees lead me to despair. The deepening chill that forces us to close our windows and turn on the heat cannot cool my enthusiasm. I love autumn, and even the fact that its arrival still signals a certain loss of freedom for me, an elementary school teacher, does not dampen my affection.
What prompted this drastic change? Surely just growing older has been a significant part of it. In a way, it reminds me of how my childhood preference for bright music in major keys was ultimately subverted by a growing appreciation for the bittersweet ache of contrasting minor chords. Whereas I once found sad melodies disturbing, I am now likely to find the very same pieces uplifting and even life-affirming. There is some of that in autumn as well. Leaves are dying, the wind is blowing, and the sun isn’t sticking around like it used to. There is a certain sadness to the season. And yet, here we are living through it, taking the crisp air deep into our lungs, somehow confident that a satisfying coda awaits.
But I know that there is more to it than that. A lifetime of negative autumnal associations evaporated during my college years. It was there that I experienced a different and more rewarding freedom while enjoying the company of new and interesting friends. Most importantly, it was the means by which I came to know the wonderful young woman whom I would later marry. We met early in our freshman year, started spending a lot of time together in the spring, and tearfully said goodbye when we returned to our respective homes for Summer Quarter.
That summer seemed to last forever. We were just a little ahead of our technological time, stuck as we were in that lonely darkness just before the dawn of e-mail and the glorious day of unlimited cell phone calling plans. Our communication was limited to handwritten letters and a 1-hour call every Saturday night at eleven, when the rates were lowest. We were fortunate to enjoy a few cross-state visits, but otherwise our time was spent far away from each other, and we longed for the day when we would be together. For the rest of our undergraduate experience, summer became the season of absence, and every autumn brought a joyous reunion.
Like so many other couples whose meeting was fated by their choice of university, we married after graduation and never left town, finding a home only twenty minutes from campus. Years went by, yet despite our proximity to our alma mater, we rarely walked among its familiar buildings and landmarks. Not literally, anyway. But we would reminisce about our college days now and then, especially each autumn. It’s almost impossible not to when college football is a major focus of the local media, and images of those buildings and landmarks seem to be everywhere come September. Each fall takes me back to a place and time when I became reacquainted with a sense of enchantment that I had not known since I was very young.
Why do I love autumn? Perhaps because I cannot experience it without recalling a dark and rainy late September evening over twenty years ago. I am nineteen again. My parents have helped me move my belongings back into my windowless dorm room. They have treated me to one last good meal out before my return to cafeteria food. Now we wind through the lamp-lit avenues of campus toward another dormitory, our windshield wipers furiously swishing away the swelling rain. As we reach our destination, I hug my parents and promise to call them from time to time.
A slanting rain pelts my face when I emerge from the car. I lean into the wind, my jacket billowing, and trudge toward the door. In my arms I am cradling a dozen red roses, keeping them safely sheltered from the strong gust that is scattering leaves across the pavement. The weather, some might say, is awful. And I have never been happier.