Autumn Leaves          


Judith Nakken 


Copyright 2017 by Judith Nakken     


Photo by Richard Loller.

Photo by Richard Loller

Roger Williams’ most impressive piano solo haunted my mid-1950’s days. It was all over the radio and I tortured myself with the 50 cent sheet music at whatever old piano I happened to be near at the time. Rogerette Williams I was never going to be, and it has only recently occurred to me that that piano music might have been the impetus for my obsession with leaves - gold, red, brown leaves. Autumn leaves.

Although, my stepmother was enamored of the much touted New England leaves. Each late October in those years she wheedled and cajoled until Daddy Bud fired up the old ’39 Ford and drove her round trip from D.C. to Vermont or some such place over a weekend. A whole roll of Kodak Brownie film would be devoted to trees, its output forced upon co-workers and apartment neighbors who didn’t escape in time. And me, when I was in residence. I rather liked the pictures, up to a point.

Friends who didn’t want to leave the newly-sober woman alone in Spokane shanghaied me and took me north, to Castlegar, B.C. for a Canadian “do.” I had put the bottle down for the last time only four months before and was just beginning to rejoin the human race. For the first time in my life, I noticed autumn foliage. It was breathtaking! I was particularly taken with the change in the tamarack, which I had always considered a pine tree. Oh, no! It turns yellow or gold or red indiscriminately and doesn’t drop those needles until well into winter.

The teenagers and I bought our first house in 1971. It had no fence, and we planted eight Lombardy poplars across the rear of the property. You know the Lombardy .. the tall, skinny tree with stubby, upturned branches and shiny cottonwood-like leaves? Oh, we were so proud of the house and our trees. That autumn we raked with care their fallen leaves … maybe 30 of them .. and had a ritual bonfire. I remember humming Roger’s Autumn Leaves as the wisp of smoke curled into the Spokane Valley air.

Dale and I found ourselves on a West Virginia (perhaps South Carolina) turnpike one golden autumn day a decade later. Those near-Appalachian graveled toll roads with their hardscrabble bare dirt in places resembled a turnpike in only one way: the quarters or fifty-cent pieces a driver had to cough up every 20 miles or so. And you had to do so, if you wanted to get from point A to point B in this millennium. The rolling hills, prelude to the east coast’s claim to mountainous fame (the Appalachians average about 3000 feet .. a mere pittance to our own Washington State Cascades, not to mention the western United States’ Rockies) lined the ersatz turnpike on each side, and were densely forested.

What a sight! It seemed that each hillside had a different stand of trees, and each stand was a different color. Red, brown, gold, still green, and the combinations of those colors in a glorious patchwork accompanied us on the journey, and abated my anger at the ruts we encountered and the coins we had to spend. To this day I am certain that New England’s foliage could not hold a candle to the beauty we drank in on that trip.

I heard an Al-Anon woman speak. She was grateful for autumn leaves, also, although not for their beauty. It seems that she had kept up appearances in the neighborhood forever, but on this evening the six-foot, drunken husband had passed out on the front lawn and she could not get him into the house. Utilizing a big tarpaulin with hand tools to create air space, she raked up the yard and disguised him as a pile of leaves.

We moved for the last time, onto the Tulalip Indian Reservation north of Seattle. Our home was surrounded by old growth cedars and maples, all over a hundred feet tall. In August, when we got settled, it was amazing how cool the house stayed without air conditioning. The only drawback was being unable to see the mountains beyond and the water below us through the masses of maple leaves.

The first of those leaves fell onto the deck in late September. So beautiful! They were so big they didn’t fit into a regular 8 x 11 manila envelope, and I went to Staples. What for? I sent a leaf to a dozen or so friends around the country in even larger envelopes. “Look!” the accompanying notes said. “Look at the huge, gorgeous trees that surround my new home.”

The wonderful leaves continued to fall. And fall. The words to Roger’s tune echoed in my head … Sep.TEM.ber ….. No.VEM.ber ……

It is November again, 19 years later.

I hate leaves.


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