Enigma of Leaves
It is fall here -- time to rake leaves.
This story has a touch of my grandfather ...
TASK OF GOLD
Overnight the few scattered fall leaves had turned into a golden carpet, almost hiding the still lush green lawns. It was too soon to think of raking, of course, since most of the giant cottonwoods still held two-thirds of their treasures. It seemed strange, then, to see old Don out amongst the drifting, spinning leaves; arranging them slowly, but steadily into small piles.
He surely was pushing 90, yet only the ill-fitting clothes betrayed any change to a massive frame. Straight shoulders pulled tightly at the straps of his ancient overalls. Brown forearms thrust contentedly from the rolled up sleeves of his flannel shirt and rippled with lean muscles in tune with the mechanical rhythm of the rake. His full head of snowy, wavy hair was only partially hidden by a billed cap with pull-down earflaps. His gnarled hands gripped the tool handle firmly and did not reveal the creeping arthritis that only now was beginning to give him concern. Were he a carved statue of stone -- see there a testament to a life of hard work, early hours and simple living. But the statue moved, out of place here in the city perhaps, but naturally rooted to the earth wherever he stood. Don whistled loudly a melody none of the passersby recognized. Hurry -- scurry. Tall buildings were distantly faint and masked by the hedgerows. Steadily the piles of leaves settled, calmed, grew. “The kids think I’m losing my grip,” he mumbled out loud.
The old man had moved in with his great-grand daughter, Ann, two years earlier when his beloved Mary had been placed to rest. There was certainly room in the overlarge, restored mansion where he kept his own rooms clean and tidy. Yet he felt out of place, and the neighbors that morning would certainly agree he looked out of place - out of time.
He thought of his wife often, recalling now how much she had loved the fall. How she couldn’t wait to dash in the woods and kick up the leaves, marveling at the rusty rainbow hues and newfound aromas of the harvest. Many times it was still warm enough for a little frolicking in the trees. "What would Paul say if he knew he had been conceived in a pile of leaves?” he mumbled inwardly. Then he caught himself in mid thought. “I hear the word ‘senile’ now from the corners of the room. Isn’t it amazing? They think because I can’t always hear well - that I never hear well. ‘Senile?’ That just means they don’t want to hear what I have to say! Wisdom is wasted on the young.”
Don chuckled for a while and a passing jogger glared haughtily as she ducked to dodge the end of the erratic rake handle. A smallish boy looked wistfully at a golden pile near the walk and thought of kicking through it, then glanced at the figure looming threateningly above him and thought again. This giant only laughed, rested his chin on the tool handle, and nodded. It took little time to gather up the leaves once more. No one saw or shared this brief joining of young and old; but years later the giggling lad, now himself a business giant, would remember, again and again. And the soft golden leaves continued to rain down. Endless! Do leaves bounce, or merely resist the end of a brief, joyful life?
“I wasn’t much bigger than that,” mused the whistling worker, “when Mom jobbed me out to rake up Dr. Samson’s back yard. It looked half the size of a football field, beautiful in its golden spread. Why me? Very intimidating - awed. I remember just standing for a space, trying to decide how to attack this challenge. Obviously the leaves couldn’t just be gathered into one huge pile, and a brief experiment showed that drawing the leaves along for only 5 feet became impossible. It was fun, actually, to try different methods of raking the problem into small piles. Do you stand in the middle and bring the leaves to your feet? Or walk in a circle and rake to the center? Or divide the leaves into small rows first, then sweep them into piles? Oh, how surprised I was when I had attempted every imaginable variation, looked back, and discovered that the job was done!"
Don’s progress had reached to beneath a spreading sycamore where the feather lightness of the slightly darker offerings caused them to fly high in the air. Escape was not possible! The experienced farmer changed his pace and the rhythm of his tune without a conscious thought. But also came a conscious decision to change his grip and reach out with a greater span. Scrape - whisk - step.
A flash of color! “You’ll just have to do it again next week,” panted a mark-time jogger at the corner. Don amusedly watched the parting figure slog across the street.
“If you didn’t live on fast-food and three Martini lunches you wouldn’t have to run that fat ass around the park again next week,” muttered Don to himself. Then he thought, “They complain about my mumbling. What would they say if I spoke out loud? What a ridiculous outfit! Maroon sweatshirt, yellow pants, enormous black and green running shoes. He looks like Granny Goose! No, I will not have to rake these leaves again next week, you fool. I get to come out and rake up new leaves next Sunday.”
His neatly arranged mounds had brought him to the peach tree and the small, slender leaves began to gall the tines of the rake. A small flash of irritation was balance by the memory of the delicious fruit he had enjoyed each morning on his daily “constitutional.”
“Each tree’s leaves are like my children. They look about the same yet their nature is very different. Their effect on me over the years has certainly been different. Oh, that I could have helped arrange their lives in such ordered rows,” he sighed. “But then, I guess it was necessary for them to learn how to solve the golden field problem in their own way.”
“You should get a leaf blower, Don. Be a lot easier,” called Sam as he passed to his home down the block. Trudge-trudge.
Don stared after the pudgy figure and thought, “You would be more of a rake if you used a rake,” then laughed out loud at his own wit. With his head thrown back he noticed the grouping of branches forty feet above in the towering tree. “Boy what a tree house Martin and I could have built up there. In such a fortress from the world I could just dream and plan and write. What of today? What would I create?”
The pace of the flashing tines did not slow, but the whistling ceased as the aging mind flashed back a score of years. The lips moved silently while trying out difficult phrases. He stopped for a while and struck a pose. With a smile, he called out in a sure voice, not caring who he disturbed,
“The tree weeps golden dreams,
together they drift and fall;
each a prayer or song.”
By then he had coursed and coaxed the smaller piles into a great collection in the corner of the yard and leaned back against a trunk to rest. A middle aged man - thick glasses - rumpled suit - paused on his way to the bus stop and unkindly announced, “I hope I never grow old.” Don only smiled inwardly, silently watching the neighbor scurry off to his job as assistant accountant for the great law firm of Groden, Klink & Winkle.
Grandpa Don eyed his completed golden heap for a moment. Then, suddenly, with a short dash he spun about and collapsed in the completed pile. Leaves scattered and pranced across the grass. Again they had a chance to escape! Roll childishly about. Toss golden messages toward the waiting, beaconing sky. Lay still beneath a spinning cloud. Down -- down.
“Heavens,” exclaimed a passing woman. “Did people act this way in your day?”
As Don lay back in the ruined pile to watch new leaves shower golden splendor on the cleanly swept grass, a loud cry erupted. “This is my day, you idiot!” And he laughed, and laughed and laughed.