Raking the Leaves; Rekindling the Memories

“Autumn leaves don’t fall, they fly.
They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the fall season is the color of the leaves.  Here in the Northeast, from late September through early November, the hues of the landscape burst with countless shades of oranges, yellows and reds.  It’s a process, as the green of summer lingers through mid to late September, or until the evening temperatures begin to drop into the fifties. Then the transformation begins.  First the sugar maple leaves  turn a brilliant yellow.  They are followed by the oranges, browns and burnt reds of the poplars and oaks.  By the beginning of November they cover everything, including the lawn, deck and driveway. It’s nature’s way of telling me it’s time to blow the leaves, but an odor in the air is taking me back to another time. 

My memories of raking the leaves are vivid.  We lived on a corner property surrounded by trees, so there was no shortage of leaves.  Handheld and backpack leaf blowers had yet to be invented, so the rake was the tool of choice.  And there was a process to be followed; first and most important, was there a morning breeze?  Experience had taught me that raking the leaves into the wind was a frustrating and futile effort.  It was much easier to move the leaves with the wind helping.  Secondly, moving from higher elevation to a lower elevation;  it just seemed easier.  The final component of the process was to move the leaves sequentially, almost following a line; two sweeps of the rake, step right and repeat.  When you get to the end of the row, reverse the process; two sweeps, step left.  Eventually all the leaves on the property found their way to the street.  A leaf perimeter appeared; it would soon go up in smoke. 

Raking the leaves was a Saturday morning family chore that included my mother, father and brothers; for that matter, it was a neighborhood activity that seemed to include all the families on the block. You wore work gloves to rake the leaves, as without them, blisters appeared quickly.   The Armstrong’s were an elderly couple who lived next door, so we raked their lawn too.  Mr. Armstrong always wanted to give us money, but my father would have none of it.  He simply said, “We take care of our neighbors.”  As I got older I learned that what we did for the Armstrong’s was a common courtesy extended to other elderly members of our neighborhood.

The mornings were quiet except for the rhythm of the raking.  The air was crisp and fresh, but as the sun rose in the sky a distinct odor began to fill the neighborhood; that of burning leaves.  It usually started around 10:00.  We smelled the fires from down the street before seeing the gray smoke that slowly enveloped the neighborhood.  When the lawn was clear, my father would light one end of the pile, and the fire would slowly follow the trail of leaves from the beginning to the end.  The fires were mesmerizing; you could see each leaf crinkle just before the flame hit it, then it turned bright orange only to be reduced to ash in a few seconds.  By early afternoon the fires were out, but the odor of burnt leaves would fill the air for the rest of the day, and cement a memory that I would carry forever.

The next morning (Sunday) the alarm would go off at 5:30 AM.  I would dress quickly and be on my bike by 5:45.  It was still dark, but I had ridden this route so many times it was burnt into my memory.  The newspaper drop-off point was a mile down the road, so I was easily there within a few minutes.  Our distribution manager was my father’s age and like him, had fought in WWII.  We were to arrive no later than 6:00; he was always there by 5:30.  I made the mistake once of arriving just at 6:00 AM.  “Wolf, you’re late!”  I got one word out, “But!”  “No buts! “If you’re on time, you’re late!  Always arrive early!  Get your papers ready for inspection”  I spent the next thirty minutes with twenty other twelve to fifteen-year-old paperboys folding, banding and loading forty Sunday papers into my oversized bike basket.  

Two years on this route had enabled me to learn how to balance a bike full of papers and simultaneously use an overhand throw to land the paper square in the middle of the driveway. Sidearm was never as accurate and normally scuffed or tore the front page (something I would hear about come collection time).  But Sundays in the fall provided an added bonus; riding through the ashes of the previous day’s fires.  A plume of dust would follow me up and down the streets.  When I finished I usually rode through them again just for the fun of it.  Arriving back home around 8:00, the bike and I were covered in ash.  I left the bike in the yard to be hosed-down later.  I went around to the porch on the side of the house and followed the edict that my mother had laid down soon after I started riding through the ashes, “You smell like a fire!  Take it all off except your underwear and leave it on the porch.  Get a shower and be ready for church by 8:30.”  I didn’t smell like a fire, I smelled like the fall, like the burning leaves; how cool is that?  I wonder why no one has created an after-shave that smells like burning leaves; opportunity missed!  

Yesterday I blew the leaves from my corner property out to the street; yes, I followed a process.  It’s no longer a family activity in my neighborhood, in fact the only thing I heard after I shut off my blower was the sound of others using a similar yard tool.  I’m now the elderly neighbor, and I noticed the leaves from my trees had filled part of a neighbor’s yard, so I blew the leaves over to my property.  Dad never said how old neighbors need to be.  Tomorrow morning the Sunday paper will be delivered by a retired gentleman who drives a minivan, and sometime next week a township truck, with a vacuum, will suck-up those leaves we used to burn.  I grew up in a simpler time, where the expectations came earlier and the work was physically demanding.  What many called a chore, I remember as fun.  Raking the leaves, smelling the fires that lined the street and riding through the ashes on Sunday mornings are memories of the fall I will always cherish.  What are your fall memories?

Embrace Your Memories
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