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Shades of Autumn (Nov. 25, 1998)

I’ve been away from my home in Anderson Valley for almost two months now, staying in a suburb northwest of Chicago, so far a distance from the city that half of this town remains farmland while the other half is devoted to the burgeoning development of clusters of grotesque, great-lawned yuppie manses, as local old-timers refer to the new mansions. Built out in plain sight on postage-stamp sized half-acre lots, the monster houses are a far cry from the grand old mansions which remain hidden away at the end of gated long-winding roads.

I am fortunate to have watched the passing of nature’s autumnal passions from the vantage point of a graceful old farmhouse, complete with four-story barn, two silos, and a corn crib not yet (read never) converted into a condo. There are about 2.5 acres of lawn, presided over by black walnut and oak trees, surrounded by woodlands Thoreau would have envied.

Midwesterners are lawn-devoteés to an obsessive degree, a tradition begun decades before by farmers; a farm family’s pride of ownership was not worth a pig wallow if their homestead did not crown an expansive, pristinely green lawn.

In what can be considered the autumn of my years, I have returned to the area where I spent (some would say, misspent but I thought it great fun!) my adolescence, to be with friends of long-standing and simply to observe the season of lusty, lustrous, magnificent change.

Coming of age in a community near where I am today, I lived in a tawny brick home on the shores of a lake that resembled Shangri-La, festooned with wildly beautiful, thickly wooded islands and long, slatted swinging or arched Monet-like footbridges, small sloops with sails of brilliant hue, swans and geese, and snapping turtles larger than my cocker spaniel.

Winter on the lake was exquisite and silent, except for the sound of sleigh bells. Drifts of snow muffled the cries of joy from children coming downhill on sleds and toboggans and all but muted the playful laughter and hollering from those out on the ice, skating or playing hockey. It was a universe of holiday light, in and on the homes, on swathes of highly decorated snow-covered lawns, with tiny lights hanging from powdered willows like snow fairies swaying in the wind chill. Moonlight glowed on crystallized branches of black oak, and the moon’s reflection shone in long icicles that necklaced the eves above wreathed windows.

Spring was a delicate matter of pastels, parasols, and garden parties. It was the mid-50s! We had just discovered avocado salads and skyblue Buicks with white convertible tops, which we drove, packed with seven or eight schoolmates, singing songs called “Heart and Soul,” “Til There Was You,” and “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” We had packed away, with the winter, our pearls, cashmere sweaters, and suede skirts. We were on our way to a party, the one we thought would be called “life.”

Summer’s lake had a dreamlike quality, draped as it was in diaphanous mists and towering old weeping willows.

But it was the vibrancy of autumn that most excited us. The flame of reds, oranges and yellows burned out of control on tree-scattered lawns and in surrounding forests crowded with billowing oak, maple and delicate birch trees. Autumn was standing in the bleachers on a cold, brilliantly sunny day, above the football field, watching your friends play the game or lead the cheer, kissing your love (mine played basketball!), amidst the aroma of slightly crushed huge chrysanthemums pinned to the heavy-collared great-coat you wore. Autumn was a constant celebration, culminating in that most autumnal of all days, Thanksgiving.

Staying with my school chum, a widow, as am I, and her family these past two months, I suppose I have subconsciously been summing up, tallying the score of years. Between yesteryear’s lyrics and today’s “September Song” there is much to consider.

I marvel at the continuing accomplishments of friends of my generation. Not that any of us appear old or decrepit! One couple, so very dear to me, just walked 60 miles in three days, sleeping in a small tent roadside at night, thereby raising $5,000 for breast cancer research in memory of their beloved daughter who died of the disease. Most who made the jaunt, no easy feat, one that required months of pre-training, were half the age of my friends.

Another couple, of whom I am also inordinately fond, use their enormous talents, fortitude and dedication to fuel their undaunted efforts and pound out a weekly newspaper of great import and consequence.

Then there is my school chum, another keeper of the flame. She lives in her refurbished farmhouse with her single son and widowed daughter, both in their late 30s, and with two grandsons, ages six and eight. She has just struggled through her husband’s long illness, subsequent death and its aftermath of sorrow, on the heels of a great tragedy in her son’s life. She has a very large hand in raising the two little boys, one of whom has serious behavioral problems. The other is recovering from a recent instance of sexual molestation at the school. She keeps up the house, barn and grounds, cares for three horses, numerous types of pets and has a part-time job. Her family helps, of course, but she carries the lion’s share of work and responsibility.

Reminding her that all work and no play is as harmful as severe self-flagellation to body and spirit, I coax her away from the frenzy of daily living. We drive around the beautiful countryside for hours, days, just as we did long ago. We sit up talking late at night and share our early morning coffee. In  late afternoon, I make popcorn and we sit in front of the fire after a long walk with the children. We go into Chicago as time allows, but I will never get to half the blues and jazz clubs, museums, theatrical and operatic events intended before I leave in December. I really don’t mind! It’s been enough to be with Betty Lee and her family, to watch the flurry of falling leaves and the first snow on leafless limbs, to hear the clarion call of Canadian geese as they fly, in thrilling grandeur, by the hundreds overhead.

It has been a breathtaking autumn, one of the more memorable of my favorite seasons. We look forward to spending Thanksgiving together with the family and a friend or two.

The house will be decorated within an inch of overdone, the old stone fireplace will be ablaze with burning logs, we will drink a nice old burgundy as the three (friend Peter will help) of us bake the turkey, make the dressing and mash the potatoes, then whip fresh cream for the pie. They will keep me laughing incessantly. The pain will ease for all of us, at least for a day.

Happy Thanksgiving! If life hasn’t been a party, at least it’s had its moments.

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