When I was a kid, my mom taught me the importance of catching leaves. I must have been little, and I don’t know where my brothers and sisters were. There were 7 of us kids. I can’t imagine how I had the chance to get out in the fall on a walk with my mom. Alone. There was probably laundry in, dinner cooking, mending to be done, and a dozen other things that needed her attention. But we were on a walk in the fall, just the two of us. Our neighborhood wasn’t that old, but there were some tallish maples and oaks there.
Some leaf came drifting down and my mom caught it before it hit the ground. She handed it to me, as if it were a gift. She told me that you were supposed to catch 10 leaves every fall. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to shake the tree to make leaves drop or to scoop up leaves and toss them into the air and catch them again. No, it had to be leaves whose time was naturally up and fell in their own time. Catching those leaves was like magic; like a talisman. It was something you should do every year.
Now I don’t know if she made that up herself, on the spur of the moment, or if it had been something that her own father had handed down to her. (I’m sure that her mother wouldn’t have wasted the time catching falling leaves.) Although I don’t remember how old I was at the time, I was young enough not to question her authority. If she said it, it was true. My mom loved nature. She could sit and watch sunset after sunset with us at the beach. Not my dad, “If you’ve seen one sunset, you’ve seen them all,” he said on more than one occasion.
When I was in high school and college she spent a few years photographing and cataloging every plant that grew in our area in Northwest Indiana. I still have that photo album. Under each picture she put the scientific name as well as common names. If she didn’t know the names of plants, she would look them up or ask one of the local authorities.
Now every year, I catch leaves. I always shoot for 10. Some years I catch many more than that. I try to catch them on 10 different occasions. It would be too easy to stand under one tree whose time has come on a breezy day and catch all ten practically without moving my feet. While I don’t remember exactly what my mom was telling me with this catch-ten-leaves-lesson, it was probably something about the importance of being outdoors, about fresh air and the beauty of nature.
Because while one is outside catching leaves before they touch the ground, one is NOT inside watching TV or some other sedentary activity. More than likely, if you are in a place to catch falling leaves, you are also playing baseball, or soccer, or kick-the-can, or cream-the-kid-with-the-ball. If you are catching leaves you are riding your bike, hiking around in the woods or catching crickets. If you are in a place to catch falling leaves, you are in the right place to be.
I remember the last time I went to see my mom in western North Carolina when she was still “healthy”. It was October 30. I remember because I went with her to her doctor to get a bone marrow sample, and the people in the doctor’s office were all wearing Halloween costumes and were a little hard to take seriously. I took a day off school to go be with her for her appointment. Her husband Jim had died about 3 months earlier. She sure didn’t need to go through the bone marrow biopsy alone.
That morning, before driving to North Carolina, I was out catching leaves. I probably looked foolish, a 54 year-old man chasing leaves in the breeze – even falling down once. It was when I was still hoping that my mom would be OK, that she would have more time with us. She was even thinking of selling her house and moving near us. I caught about half of my quota of leaves that morning.
I held her hand during the biopsy. It wasn’t easy. It was like the doctor took a corkscrew and jammed it through her skin and muscle into her pelvis. It had to have hurt. A lot. She was pretty stoic throughout. She didn’t even want to take the test. But doctor and I sort of insisted. I cried. But she was strong. The news was bad. She was diagnosed with the disease that would end up taking her life in just a little over two months.
Here it is, 3 years later. This is such a pretty time of year. Heidi and I are ready to take our Sunday morning walk. We have a crazy yellow dog to keep us company. It’s cool so we’ll put on layers. Our noses will be runny by the time we get back. We’ve just turned the heat on yesterday for the first time. We’ll probably have our first fire in the fireplace tonight. The leaves are turning now. We’ve had to fish them out of the pool and blow them off the driveway. For the next month we’ll be raking, and blowing, skimming them off the pool and sweeping them off the porch.
We’re just getting ready to go out for our walk on this pretty Sunday morning.
And I’m going to catch some leaves.