Tuesday, October 8, 2013

FALLING LEAVES

I know it’s Fall on The Mountain at Sewanee when I sit on the front porch and hear acorns popping on the roof. Their noise breaks through a dense silence peculiar to cooler days, and I think that if the squirrels took better aim, I’d have a few knots on my head because they throw the gnawed shells from the rooftop, then scurry back into the oaks, turning their backsides and swishing their tails at me.

On cool Fall days, birdsong almost disappears, the hum of insects dies down, and I hear only the squawk of crows piercing the silence. However, some sound carries farther in the still air, and the cries of children playing in the distance reach me, a poignant noise that rises, then dies away, as if they’re at recess and then it’s over and they’re back at their desks. Yellow and brown leaves, like old memories, rustle and fall in the yard, and my thoughts turn away from the world, moving inward as the season begins. Fall time is remembering time…
Every Fall when I hear the sound of children breaking through the stillness on The Mountain, I think of my firstborn, Stephanie, going off to school for the first time. When she was six, back in the 60’s, school commenced in September instead of early August as it does now, and we had a faux Fall on the day I walked her to the small school a few blocks from our home in New Iberia, Louisiana. She was frightened… and I was anxious. I don’t know whose heart raced the fastest, but when she and her best friend, Johnna Kay, a neighbor’s daughter, entered the first grade classroom at the same moment, both girls looked at each other and burst into tears.
“You have to let them go,” Johnna Kay’s mother said, clutching my arm.
I gave Stephanie a wan smile. “I’ll meet you outside at 3,” I told my sad-faced child.” More tears, and the teacher signaled for us to leave our sobbing children to the mercies of the public school system.
It was a cool day, and after lunch I sat on the patio for awhile, listening to the children’s cries in the distance. The shrill voices sounded like separation anxiety to me, and I began writing a poem: “I delight in my child/who presses the small leaf of me/into the branch of her larger perceptions; /I delight in my child/when my false possessions possess/all but one capricious movement/tipping in barefoot daring/through the splinter of my ways./This one with the burnt corn hair,/the first robin song of each morning,/making calculated pecks at my cheek,/urging me to reduce this world/to a tiny merry go round for her hands,/whines the carefully taught noise of my name/in impish assumption of reckoning./I delight in my child/as she presses the small leaf of me/into the branch of her larger trust/and I crackle with the dry anxiety/of mother love.”
At 2, I went indoors to shut out the sound of the children’s voices and called my spouse. “We must buy Stephanie a bicycle,” I said in my no-opposition-allowed voice. “Today. Right now. Before school lets out.”
“What? It isn’t even time for her birthday, and Christmas is almost four months away. I’m at work, you know,” he said.
“I don’t care if a new well is about to blow,” I said. He was a reservoir engineer with a major oil company and had an office job, so the allusion to bringing in a well at a field site was an exaggeration reflecting my agitated state. “She needs something to make her feel better. I left her crying at school. I’ll get a taxi and go after the bike alone if you won’t leave work.” I hung up.
Fifteen minutes later, he arrived and we drove to LaBauve’s Bicycle Shop a few blocks from our neighborhood. Another fifteen minutes passed before we loaded an aqua-colored bicycle with a luggage carrier, a basket and bell on its handlebars, and rolled it into the garage, closing the doors against the curious eyes of the neighbor across the street.
At 3 sharp, I met Stephanie and Johnna Kay in front of the school, and Stephanie ran into my arms. “Do I have to go back?” she asked. “I already know how to color in the lines, can say by heart poems from A Child’s Garden of Verse, and all they do at recess is jump rope and sing something called “Pizza Pizza Polly-ola.”
“Yes,” I said. “You have to go back. You should know a little more than how to color within the lines and how to say nursery rhymes, and every girl should learn how to jump rope. But…” I stopped and smiled at her. “We have a surprise for you.”
She looked at me sullenly and followed me home, dragging her new green backpack on the pavement. I felt anxious, wondering if a bicycle would make up for the hours we’d spend away from each other, but not once had I felt foolish about the impulsive purchase or regretted that I was giving her Christmas in September. When I pulled up the garage door to reveal the surprise, Stephanie’s smile told me that I’d made a good choice – the bicycle was going to ease the pangs of separation.
“Oh!” she said. “I’m glad I went to school.”
The tone of Stephanie’s first week at school got lighter and lighter, and I learned not to sit on the patio where I could hear the children’s voices. Stephanie’s resistance to school lessened, and her adaptation amazed me. However, I knew that she kept the vision of that bicycle in her mind until the bell for school to let out rang and she could race home to ride her bike. That year, we learned to endure the pain of severing the long cord that had held us in a pre-school bond, and I attribute our maturation to an aqua-colored bicycle bought on impulse.
Now, on Fall days when cool weather approaches, and I hear the clear voices of children in the distance, I can’t help wondering if there are first graders among the voices who feel as much separation anxiety as I did on Stephanie’s first day at school. I hope not. 
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