99: The Burning of the Leaves

99: The Burning of the Leaves

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great

The Burning of the Leaves

Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor,
summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.

~Stanley Horowitz

Papa, my grandfather, loved the fall. Every year, at the end of October, he would gather all the yard’s leaves in neat piles along the curb and begin burning them.

All along the avenue, as far as one could see, leaves would be burning. I used to wonder if it were prearranged, this ritual of disposal. Yet I never heard Papa phone anyone and say, “Well, today is the day. I’ll see you at the curb.” No, it just sort of happened. The fires would start in the late afternoon, when the winds were low, and continue into the early hours of dusk, the dying embers barely discernible by the time we children had to go in.

Leaf burning was a family affair, a part of autumn I looked forward to every year. Adults raked all day, trying to keep the laughing children from running and jumping into the leaves before they got to the curb. At an early age, I delighted in the crackling sounds the flames made, and learned respect for fire, as well.

Neighbors talked and caught up with the latest goings-on. The men said things like, “Seems like there are twice as many as last year.” Nana baked pies and invited folks in for food and company. The visitors lingered long after the embers were cold, and spoke of the coming winter. Papa, though, stayed outside, standing guard lest some stubborn leaf try to reignite and escape.

As a child, I never asked Papa why he seemed to love the burning of the leaves. I just assumed that everyone burned leaves in October and he was just doing what was expected of him. As I grew into adolescence, I found myself sitting at the curb, talking into the evening with him. And I became aware that it was more than a yearly chore for him. He once shared with me the times his dad had burned leaves on their small plot in the Pennsylvania hills. My great-grandfather was a coal miner and had little time to relax with his family. Papa and his ten brothers and sisters all looked forward to spending precious time with their dad during the burning of the leaves.

Papa was a quiet man, not given to a lot of talk. After years of working in open steel pits, he was still in great shape, but he moved slowly and always with a purpose. He and Nana were the anchors in my formative years, always there: same house, same comfortable routines. My parents and I lived a migratory army life. My grandparents rarely traveled. They were a constant I held even more dear as I grew into adulthood.

Then, early one summer, Nana died. That fall, Papa moved in with my parents. With his flowers, his hobbies and his family, he seemed content. But then one weekend when I was home from college, I noticed that Papa was raking the leaves out to the curb. Mom hadn’t told him. I realized that I was going to have to be the one to break the news. I went out and explained that here, in this new town, there was an ordinance against burning leaves. All that smoke wasn’t considered environmentally sound, and the authorities were worried about spreading fires.

Papa never said a word. He walked away, shoulders as low as they had been at Nana’s funeral. He put the rake against the house and went inside. The leaves remained at the curb until late fall winds scattered them back into the yard. A feeling of sadness stirred within me that autumn; I, too, had lost something that could not be replaced. For many autumns after that, Papa pruned, repotted and did other garden chores, but he never again raked leaves.

The year I got pregnant with my second son was also the year we learned Papa had cancer. The doctors didn’t think he would make it to Thanksgiving. Papa was thinner and moved slower than ever, but we all lied to him and to ourselves, saying how good he looked and making plans for joyful, not empty, holidays.

In the middle of October, I took Papa out to the farm my husband and I had just bought. The air was crisp, and Indian summer was at its peak. Papa walked the few acres with Adam, his great-grandson, as if he were patrolling an estate, with a measured step and head held high. I watched from the yard as he delighted in my four-year-old’s exuberance.

When they returned, I told Papa that out here in the country, we wouldn’t get fined for burning leaves. Could he please give me a hand with the task? He smiled widely for the first time in a long time, hugged me and said, “Thank you, I’d be glad to help.” Tears began to fill my eyes, and the closeness between us was cemented for all time to come.

I raked, Adam ran through the leaves and Papa supervised the careful placement of the leaves along the gravel drive. He instructed Adam on the hazards of fire. The lesson was like a favorite bedtime story heard and loved so many times before.

Then Papa lit the match and the first pile began to burn. The colors moved quickly together, swirling around. Leaves tried to escape, only to be brought back in by Papa’s deft control of the iron rake. The pile burned into the early hours of the evening.

The pie and coffee Papa had that night before retiring were, he said, the perfect end to one of the best days he had had in a long time.

He died one week later in his sleep.

A few days afterward, I received a letter from the Department of Sanitation. It had a warning and a copy of the local ordinance against leaf burning. But I hadn’t really lied to Papa; there was no fine.

I shall miss my grandfather always... and the burning of the leaves.

~Edie Cuttler
Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul

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