Like a lot of people who grow up in New England, I’ve always considered Fall my favorite time of year. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why. Maybe it was the events of Fall, the return of football, the approach of Halloween with its magical creepiness and endless sweets, the clean cold air in my lungs while waiting for the school bus – maybe. I’m just not sure.
The backyard of our house on 24 Plain Street was a place of endless adventure. Glorious kid-sports were played there; chores were accomplished, and epic wars had been fought and won within the confines of a fenced half-acre. It was a place of swing-sets, laughter, and snowball fights. It was where you played catch with your brothers or set off fireworks on the 4th of July. That yard was always full of people – my sister, my brothers, and neighborhood kids – friends and foe alike.
In a lot of ways my backyard was the entire world – at least the entire part of the world that was worth loving.
Then, in the fall of 1979 when I was 14 years old, I found myself alone in the backyard.
One day in early October after getting home from school, I wandered into my backyard. It was one of those perfect autumn days. The sky supernaturally blue, and the sun beaming – allowing me to be comfortable in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. I leaned my back against the chain-link fence and I could see the tops of the oak trees in my front yard. Their leaves, rich and red were desperately clinging to the limbs high above my parents’ roofline. The breeze sounded heavy through the leaves, like a crowd cheering. Months earlier, I’d imagined in my mind’s ear, that same crowd cheering wildly during Wiffle-ball games with my brothers. But today, I didn’t have to imagine the roar of the crowd.
As the wind tore through the trees, large oak leaves would fly over my house into the backyard. The leaves would fly unpredictably – first tumbling then floating then suddenly collapsing to the ground. No two leaves took the same path; each was tossed and turned by the invisible winds until coming to rest on the cold ground.
Without thinking, I found myself running around wildly trying to catch the leaves. It was hard work. I would pick out a leaf as it flew off the highest boughs of an oak and sprint to where it looked like it would fall, only to have the leaf turn dramatically at the last second, avoiding my outstretched hand.
The game was on!
For the next thirty minutes, I was running and shouting “I should have caught that one!” Occasionally, I would make a remarkable catch diving headlong and snagging a leaf between my fingers just before it hit the ground. The crowd would cheer wildly, Mel Allen would roar “How about that!” I would rise to my knees and hold the leaf high above my head.
The game rolled on. I tracked a leaf while running at full speed. It was too far away this time. I’d never make it. But I kept running and dove, sliding on my stomach and snagging the twisting leaf inches from the ground. I sat up waiving the leaf in triumph.
“Did you see that catch? Did ANY of you see the ridiculously impossible catch I just made?” I asked in a booming voice.
But no one did see it. My legs felt damp and cold as I looked around the backyard, still alone.
Weeks earlier that year, my brother had left for college. It was a lousy day for me, the youngest of four kids, because it marked the first time I would be the only kid in the house on 24 Plain Street. I remember crying pretty hard that day. When you’re the youngest of four kids you take a lot of things for granted, like there will always be fun in the backyard.
Instead, in the fall of 1979 everything got pretty quiet. I found myself learning to talk to myself. I don’t mean in a crazy way – just in a comforting, conversational way. In fact, I still talk to myself today which drives my wife and kids a little crazy.
This was the Fall of the great loneliness. I don’t mean in a clichéd, black turtleneck with slumped shoulders kind of a way. I just mean regular old loneliness with no one to play catch with after school or to talk to at night. It was a time where passions were left wanting, because there were no monopoly games to argue over or street hockey games to win.
It was unnerving. Nothing made sense and that was just the way things were. You better get used to it because this is how the world works kid. You spend most of your time talking to yourself and remembering the incredible summer days.
I rolled over on my back. The grass was cold on my neck and I stared at the leaves still flying overhead. I was through with the “catch the falling leaves” game. I was done chasing them. I had worked up a sweat and now felt chilly. I shivered a bit and contemplated going inside to see what Mom had planned for dinner.
On the ground near my head were the brown leaves. Those unlucky leaves that weeks earlier had fallen first. I could smell them – a sort of musty decaying oak leaf smell. The same smell you’d get when you and your brothers would tumble in leaf piles. But today the leaves smelled different – they were cruel-smelling leaves.
I felt uneasy, as a squadron of butterflies did maneuvers in my stomach. That smell – that fallen leaf smell was everywhere around me. As I looked up at the sky, I started thinking about death.
“You know. We’re all gonna die someday.” I said out loud. I’m pretty sure it was the first time in my life I ever said those words.
I laced my fingers together and put my hands behind my head. Tears streamed from the corners of my eyes and ran into my hair.
I snapped out of it. I sat up wiping my eyes with my shirt sleeves. I was embarrassed and I quickly looked around. No one had seen me crying.
Yesterday, I had my dog, a yellow lab named Fenway, out for a walk here in rural New Hampshire. It was a cool August morning that whispered “summer is over” in my ear. As we walked through the woods, I noticed that the first leaves, the unlucky ones, had already started to turn yellow, orange and red.
“Already?” I asked myself.
About an hour into our walk I stopped and gave Fenway a bowl of water. As I stooped near the ground to pour his water – it hit me. The unmistakable fragrance of dead leaves. As he wagged his tail and drank, my mind played tricks on me.
I started looking for leaves to catch. I could hear the sounds of a baseball snapping in a mitt. There was laughter and the shouts of boys yelling good naturedly “Get him! Don’t let him get away!”
And yes, I had tears in my eyes. It happens every fall.
Copyright © 2017 cjcheetham