The huge maple tree is finally shedding its red-gold leaves. It’s always the last to let go, proudly blazing against November’s azure sky as as if to mock the skeletal sweet gums, oaks, and the lone persimmon.
Jim found it shortly after we moved here, a scrawny not quite two-foot high sapling that had sprung up in the wrong place. He removed it and planted it in the corner by the creek.
That tree grew along with our boys, ages 7, 10 and 13 when we pulled up our Pennsylvania roots and settled in North Carolina. It was almost as tall as our oldest when he left for college. Now it stands over 30 feet tall, dominating the small landscape that is our back yard.
I watch a leaf begin its descent to the ground, borne on a fickle breeze, and I remember how that landscape has changed. We planted a large garden under its sheltering branches, growing dusky red tomatoes that I tore from the stem and brought inside to eat over the sink, juice running down my chin.
Once a white chicken wandered into the yard. We guessed it had fallen from one of those trucks taking a huddled, silent cargo to the slaughterhouse. We tolerated it until it started eating the tomatoes. Eating isn’t the correct word, it was more like pecking the fruit and then wandering off, clucking crossly to itself as if it had mistaken the tomato for something else, something more pleasing to a chicken’s palate. Still, it kept returning, proving that a chicken has limited ability to remember, so we shouted at it and threw things until it found something more interesting to peck. Usually this was underneath the bird feeders, but we figured a chicken is a bird, so we let it be.
After some weeks it disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived. And after some years, the garden disappeared as well, victim to the impossibility of growing vegetables that could survive the deer that came at night and ate every ripe tomato, pepper, or cucumber–with a great deal more appreciation than the chicken.
The boys are gone, the garden is gone, and the chicken is a distant memory. We still see an occasional deer, no doubt wondering what happened to the bounty of years gone by.
As I watch the leaves spin to the earth below, I imagine I hear the shouts and laughter of three boys playing, of Jim yelling to be careful of the tree, the fragile tree that he has just planted and watered, lest they trample it in their rowdy games.
The laughter fades away as the golden leaves fall, each one carrying with it a memory of summers past. A breeze comes by and they fall faster, tumbling over each other, piling on the ground, until like memories they become a blur and the leaf I watched fall is only one of hundreds, each one a reminder of summers that will never come again.