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A Fool for Fall

by Julia Sneden

The whole world knows about spring fever, that dreamy, gaze-out-the-window mood that strikes as soon as bright crocuses poke their heads out of the snow and the wintry winds warm to gentler breezes. But is there such a thing as autumn fever? If there is, I surely suffer from it. Brisk gusts out of the north and trees that are beginning to turn affect me even more potently than the advent of a lovely spring.

Actually, both spring and autumn bring me strangely ambivalent urges. In spring, I yaw wildly between lackadaisical sighs, and whirlwinds of closet-organizing, quilt-airing, floor-scrubbing spring cleaning. And in autumn, while I have the urge to take long naps and curl up by the fire with a paperback, at the same time, my love of the outdoors rebounds with a snap from summer's heat, and I take bracing hikes in the cool air, admiring the pumpkins on the neighborhood porches along the way. These ambivalences never hit me in summer or winter, when I more or less just slog along, enduring the heat or cold in various stages of undress or layered-for-warmth.

But in autumn, I am truly torn. Part of me wants to gather and horde against winter's cold, and part of me wants to toss caution literally into the winds, to go off to the mountains for the day and climb up a high peak and do nothing more than admire the view.

I try to celebrate both instincts. I stock up my cupboards and collect leaves to press and put on my window panes, but I also drive myself up to the top of nearby Pilot Mountain, and hike to a point where I can gaze out over the rolling foothills.

There's a lot to be said for a far view, especially on an autumn day. Our overly civilized eyes are altogether too used to focusing close-up, on books or computer screens or cook pots. Just refocusing my eyes and looking a long way off feels good, and it does something for the spirit, too.

But even without the mountain vistas, I can feel autumn's thrill. Today on my walk, I looked up into a leafless persimmon tree and stopped in mid-stride to admire its dark limbs hung with rosy fruit that stood out against a vivid blue November sky, an improbable, utterly lovely sight.

The woods behind our house provide a hypnotic view of leaves drifting steadily down even when there is no wind. The dogwoods have lost all their leaves at this point and the hickories and tulip poplars are beginning to fade, but our huge white oak has just started to turn bronze at the tips of its branches. Last year's drought brought us a bumper crop of acorns, but in this part of the country the past year has been the wettest since records have been kept, and the old oak seems to feel no urgency to reproduce.

There's only an occasional crunch beneath our feet as we walk across the deck. There's a house on the other side of the wooded gully, one we can't see when the leaves are out, but every year at this time I am tempted to hang a big "Hello Again" sign over the deck railing as our neighbor's house reappears a bit at a time. The people who live there own the woods between us, and we dread the day when they or their heirs decide to sell it off. Maybe that sign should say: "please ask us first!"

Asking, of course, isn't having. There was little house that had been in my husband's family since the late 1700's, a beautiful pastoral spot up where New Jersey bumps up against New York, that John and I hankered after (longed for is more like it) for years. It seemed to us that it would be the perfect place for retirement, some years on down the road. So early-on in our marriage, we told his aunt and uncle (who had no children) that we would like the right of first refusal if they were ever going to sell. Back then, no one thought it was worth much although it is within a half hour of New York City. The house was modest in size and very old and creaky, even if it did sit on almost four acres of ground and was surrounded by ancient apple and pear trees.

Sure enough, thirty years later when his uncle's widow decided to sell, we were offered our right of refusal. The asking price was (gulp) nearly a million dollars. We refused with tears in our eyes, and as much grace as we could muster. But we still mourn the loss of what was never ours. (It has since sold twice, for well over that million).

Somehow that house is associated in my mind with autumn, even though I was never there at this time of year. A school teacher's vacations made it possible for us to visit in winter and summer only. But it was a quintessential Over the River and Through the Woods type of place, and to this day, in my mind's eye, I can see myself in the kitchen, cooking up a Thanksgiving turkey for my grandchildren.

Of course if I really think about it, I know that that image of me as an apple-cheeked granny bending over a wood stove is no more realistic than the thought that two school teachers could afford the family homestead, never mind the upkeep. Back in reality, I remind myself that the kitchen I have now is a lot better suited to preparing a large meal, and our own house is bigger and a lot more comfortable, especially when there is a crowd to feed. It's also 500 miles closer to our growing family. I know that what counts deep-down is that our children and grandchildren will all be gathered in one place for Thanksgiving, even if it isn't at Roaring Brook Farm.

But — darn.

Thanksgiving will come altogether too soon, putting an unofficial end to my favorite season of the year. Autumn goes by too fast: starting in mid-October, the days begin to fly, and before I know it, I am doctoring turkey leftovers and dusting off the Advent wreath. I love Christmas, too, but I wish I could slow down autumn's progress.

Come to think of it, maybe its brevity is what makes Fall the best time of the year. Winter may hang around and drop snow all over the emerging daffodils, like an unwanted relative who always stays a few days too long, and summer may creep by in a bog of sweltering days, but autumn always knows when to leave. And like the good guest that she is, she is always welcome to return.



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