Environment/Nature

The colors of change in the time of leavings

Autumn lends itself to metaphors of change because it plays itself out so brilliantly. Here in northwestern Pennsylvania, for instance, the hillsides boil with color. The change metaphor seems so common for this time of year—although it holds true for any season—but I could never reduce autumn to a cliché.

My season of leavings continues, and that’s what makes autumn’s change so apparent this year. Here I sit on the cusp of October, at the height of autumn’s splendor, yet all I can hear through the cacophony of color are the quietly creaking branches of bare trees in late November, glazed by a freezing rain that heralds the onset of winter. The thought leaves me forlorn.

I’ve spent much of the weekend packing more of my grandmother’s things. She and I have shared this house for the past year and a half. At 94, she was unable to be alone. She spent most of her time at my mother’s, or my mother’s sister’s, but some of the time she would spend back here, in the home she lived in for sixty years, and when she did, it was my turn to watch after her.

Just two weeks ago, she made the permanent move to my aunt’s, and so my mother and my aunt and I spent much of the early part of the month making preparations. This weekend, my mother came to town to attend the memorial service for an old family friend, Edna—the woman who gave me my first blankie as an infant (a blankie that still rests on the dresser in my bedroom).

Another of her friends passed away unexpectedly this week, too, her friend Lisa. Lisa introduced my parents to each other, and she was the first of my mother’s friends to find out my mother was pregnant with me. I’ve not seen Lisa in decades and wouldn’t have known her to meet her in the street, but I owe my literal existence to her. It was good enough to know she existed in the world; now she’s become one more part of this season of leaving.

My mother and I have packed up my grandmother’s cookbook collection, an afghan she recently knitted for herself, her portraits of Mary and Jesus, other lifelong treasures valuable only to her. I’ll take those things when I go next month to see my grandmother for her ninety-fifth birthday.

In the course of packing, change has crept through the house like yellow into a stand of birch trees. The living room carpet still bears four dimples where the legs of a chair—now removed—once pressed. Different faces look down from the pictures now hanging on the walls. Bare hangers hang fiddlesticked in empty closets. The stash of canned goods under the stairs—hoarded in the event of the apocalypse, I can only imagine—have finally been sorted (the local food pantry is about to get a lot of cranberry sauce and lima beans).

My job had largely been to hold down the fort, but now that my grandmother has left, I’m able to make the fort more my own. My identity begins to fade into view around the place like an old developing Polaroid, and I am satisfied—but part of me feels like autumn.

The leavings have continued to sweep through life. My former soon-to-be-fianceé, gone to grad school among the calico mountains of New Hampshire, is now my ex-girlfriend, swept in a new direction by the change. At 43, I’m reduced to the level of every college freshman in the world who went off to school, pledged to stay forever with his boyfriend or girlfriend, only to go through a break-up a few weeks into the semester.

Indeed, the same thing happened to my daughter when she went off to college at the start of this year. Her boyfriend back home lasted less than two weeks.

I’m off to see my daughter this evening. I wanted a little father-daughter time, a little infusion of joy. Her own leaving has been less like a dazzling slide through the spectrum than a rough jump to the withered brown of late-fall. With a new roommate now, the transition seems to be smoothing out.

We’ll grab dinner, attend Mass, maybe have a cup of coffee before I head home. It’ll be well after dark by then, but on the way up, I’ll drive through some spectacular fall foliage. After a few days of dreary light drizzle, the sun is trying to elbow its way out today. Should it succeed, the hillside colors will roar.

But amidst the crimsons and auburns and glowing oranges, blue seems to be the predominant shade of my autumn this year. As with all seasons, though, this one too shall pass into the next. The season of leavings will have its own time of leaving, replaced by something different. As forlorn as the thought of winter makes me, I know it can also bring many joys.