Pile high the maple leaves

From the quiet street to the backyard brook our yard on Old Town Road was lined with maple trees. They had been there for decades and stood well above the house. The tallest were in back by the brook. The biggest covered the whole lower yard creating a theater of dappled sunlight along with a steady symphony of the wind in their crowns. My first language was English and I know my second was tree.

I remember there were more than a dozen trees on the quarter acre lot. My father told me he liked the yard that way. He saw no reason to cut them down as most of our neighbors had done for their sunny, expansive lawns. Today I like to think of those trees as unexpressed aspects of my father's personality -- the peace and quiet he longed for and the country life that he and his fellow vets sought in the verdant suburbs in the 1950s.

I listened to those trees outside my bedroom window all year long. I saw their limbs dressed in sleeves of snow and their ridged trunks blackened from steady rains. I watched the winds get inside their crowns and shake them around. I loved their tiny red flowers in spring and the propeller seeds that circled down onto the new grasses. I loved the music the trees made and I loved the woodsy smell of their bark and leaves. But there was nothing to compare with autumn in our yard. It was a time of richness and wonder all during the sunny days of October through to the first hard frost.

First there were the brilliant colors; the cold fire of chemical changes. All the trees were touched with red and gold. They were radiant under the clear blue skies, dazzling in the electric air and almost glowing in the dark. These weren't just pretty colors. They were fluid works of art, hourly suggestions of immortality, palpable proof that the earth was sacred and life was good. The autumn leaves were a storehouse of beauty, the stuff of wonder, the sibilance of the sublime.

And they had to be raked.

Dad had absolutely no interest in yard work but he loved raking leaves. I'm sure those autumn days held some significance for him around simple fun and the love of family. He didn't worry about appearances, and wouldn't do outdoor chores just to please a neighbor's sense of propriety. No, he headed out to do the leaves, rake in hand with an army of children following, because it sparked his imagination. He loved to watch us play in them.

They fell so thickly in the yard that you were up to your ankles the minute you stepped off the porch and onto the shrouded path. I can still hear the slough of the leaves against my shoes. We kicked up flurries of them as we walked, sending them into the air like a covey of birds, scraping our shoes against the sidewalk beneath them. I took handfuls of gold and stuffed them in my pocket, the currency of my boyhood imagination, my Midas touch. I would spend them lavishly for the rest of my life. Who said money doesn't grow on trees?

After a few weeks of wind and rain and even a frosty night or two the whole yard was covered with a blanket of leaves. The colors on the ground were as bright as those on the trees. But it was always the nip in the air, the first hint of winter that called Dad out to the yard for a raking session. We would be dressed in our heavy jackets now and bundled against the cold. Dad wore his green reindeer sweater, the leaping deer almost as bright as his wavy copper hair and his cherry-red nose. Our warm breath floated out before us and then sent smoke signals over our shoulders.

Our motley assortment of rakes were pretty sad specimens; most had missing tines or broken handles. We used metal garden rakes that tore up the lawn, a couple of flat shovels, tin buckets and even our bare hands to throw the leaves into a heaping pile we were making in the backyard. There was a kind of mania among us during leaf gathering. The mound grew into a hill and the hill into a mountain. We brought leaves from everywhere piling higher and higher. The pile grew as tall as a snowman, then as tall as Dad, and then so high we had to hurl our buckets to the top and let everything tumble down. We danced in a ring around the mass of leaves and looked up at the peak in disbelief, raising our own tower of Babel that we thought would reach the sky.

Yet despite its size, it had all the lightness of air, and at Dad's signal we began to run and leap into the leaf pile, diving and flopping and jumping and rolling. Even the smallest child raced towards the pile and dove headfirst into the leafy soufflé, briefly lost from view then emerging spitting out bits of chlorophyll as the rest of us laughed merrily. Raise the roof beam, boys; sing a song of praise to the universe; count the numberless stars; breathe in deeply the intoxicating scent of life; throw caution to the winds.

The weak sun burnt itself out during the course of a day. The afternoon shadows lengthened and the cold came up as a reminder that the highest spirits of life would also be extinguished by the rhythms of nature. We stood back as Dad put a match to the leaf pile. He started the fire in a few places at the base of the mound. The little flickering tongues of flame quickly curled into a devouring blaze. Dad monitored the pile, raking the ground clear around it and reminding us that fire is always dangerous. I have to believe it was the fire of life Dad was referring to as much as our backyard leaf pile. Life hadn't been easy for him. He grew up without his parents and then found himself on a ship in the Pacific in the middle of World War II. All this before he was 20 years old.

Mother stood on the back porch and called us inside to wash up for supper. "Time to come in, boys, and tell your father that means him, too. March right to the sink and put your hands in the soapy water." I hated for those Sunday evenings to end. It meant school again on Monday and the captivity of my heart and soul for another week. I sensed somehow that the real part of my life was in the cold air and the open sky and the leaf pile. They were like a handbook I studied, a text I buried myself in, a dream I couldn't wake from. From inside the house I looked out the window at Dad tending the fire. He, too, seemed lost in a happy trance, a private moment. Finally he stamped out the last of the flames, filled a bucket with water from the brook and doused the smoldering pile. Even then I knew it was child's play to pile high the leaves but a man's work to tend the fire -- and all that was in between I would have to learn from living.