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THE SHANK OF THE YEAR

by Julia Sneden

“What is so rare as a day in June?” asked poet James Russell Lowell. Well, Mr. Lowell, try a day at the end of October, when the sun is shining and the air is brisk with a slight breeze to it, and the sky is that deep, lucent blue than which there is nothing bluer in or out of this world.

As I drive down our dead end street, the trees at the bottom of the slope are catching the last of the sunlight, their tops glowing with a riotous mix of yellow and gold and red and orange and mauve. The berries on the dogwoods and the crab apples look like little jewels tucked away along the emerging branches. Leaves on the ground swirl and tumble as I drive through them, and the neighbor’s brilliant fire bush flashes scarlet at me as I turn into my driveway. At least I think it’s my driveway. Under the thick carpet of leaves, driveway and lawn have become one deckled carpet, rolling seamlessly up to my front door. No doubt when I enter, I’ll find a few leaves that have hitchhiked onto the hall rug.

It doesn’t matter. Having to rake or blow leaves all day Saturday doesn’t matter. Having to put up summer’s hoses and fold away the lightweight blankets doesn’t matter, nor does hauling the grill to the basement or pulling up the frozen remnants of a garden. I don’t mind laundering and stowing cottons and short sleeved shirts, or unearthing sweaters and turtlenecks from the back of my closet. Those activities are all small payment for autumn’s glory.

I no longer shop for light, cool meals. Salads, melons, meats-to-grill give way to heartier fare like root vegetables, stew meats, and homemade breads. I put away the little glass tea lights that don’t give off much heat but look charming on my summer table, and haul out my great grandmother’s brass candlesticks that hold sturdy tapers to warm the dining table even as they light it.

Nights are almost as thrilling as days. The sky is clear, clear, clear of summer’s humid mists, and we have stars again. There is Venus, piercingly bright, riding close enough almost to touch the waxing crescent moon. There is Orion, and there the Pleiades and the Little Dipper. I step outside to bid them goodnight before I go to bed, and greet them in the early morning dark when I stumble out for my newspaper. They are like old friends from my childhood, the only constants over the years since I was small. Every earthly thing has grown or died or been altered in some way during those years, but the night sky is unchanging, except for an occasional comet to thrill and remind me that even the sky sometimes holds brief surprises.

My husband brings me an armload of bittersweet and some Japanese Lanterns to put in the celadon Korean vase. Their vivid orange and yellow ought to clash with our living room décor, which is Pompeian red and putty green, but somehow they look just fine sitting on the window seat that looks out into the woods. They don’t quite make up for the beloved, huge tree we had to have taken down last spring, but they have their own beauty.

That tree stood directly outside the bay window. It had a small hole at our eye level, which is about 15 feet off the ground of the slope below our house. Over the years, we watched as the hole became home to birds, squirrels, bees, and even one year, to a small owl. Nearby stands a mockernut hickory, and each fall I watch the lowest of its branches to see how long the nuts will last before the squirrels harvest them. The nuts have never once made it to the ground.

This is the shank of the year, the time I love best. James Russell Lowell can have June and all that goes with it. Give me the weeks from mid-October through Christmas. I love the cool weather. I love bringing in logs for an evening fire. I love the smell of wood smoke from my neighbors’ chimneys, and in the early dark, the sight of their lighted windows which were hidden all summer by the leafy dell that separates our house from theirs.

I love helping my daughter-in-law to plan Thanksgiving dinner, figuring out which of the must-have traditionals each of us will make, and what new excesses we can try. I like thinking about Christmas, and trying to figure out what small, well-chosen present will amuse each of the grandchildren. They do receive big presents, but it’s the little, often silly ones that tickle them.

In fact, one of the best parts of this season may be the planning and anticipation of what lies ahead, because nothing ever turns out quite as expected. The thought of all my family being together delights me, but I know that there will always be glitches in the perfection of our love for one another. Chances are that there will be hurt feelings, and occasional heavy sighs mixed in with all the fun and laughter. We’ll survive them, because that’s what families do.

It is the brevity of this time of year that makes it so precious to me. We probably couldn’t sustain our levels of peace and goodwill for much more than a couple of months. Nothing that is truly special lasts too long, because if it does, it loses its special-ness.

That small truth doesn’t stop me from developing a post-autumnal depression every January. I just hang on and wait for the little boost that starts the morning after Mid-summer’s Eve (in Mr. Lowell’s beloved June), when the daylight again begins its long dwindling. For a couple of months it’s a slow, almost unnoticeable process, but along about the autumnal equinox, my spirits begin to rise for sure, and I move at a brisker pace.

So Mr. Lowell may have his June. We who love autumn are a different breed. Others talk with sorrow of the old year dying, but we speak instead of harvest and of giving thanks. We gather the best that’s left of the old year and hug it to us, a kind of armor against winter’s cold and the unknown year to come.

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