80 Years of Autumn: A Story
There are grainy photographs, black and white on heavy paper, with faded handwriting on the back. Mary flipped the first one over in her old, spotted hands.
Mary, nine months old.
In the picture she is wearing nothing but a tiny white bow in what little hair she had. The rest of her is hidden in that old washtub, the big round thing that her mother used to do the laundry in every Tuesday. In her chubby hand there is a big handful of autumn leaves. They are everywhere, in fact — the washtub is filled with them. On her face is a big smile — it’s the kind of smile that has no self-consciousness or worries, the kind of smile that only a baby can give.
In the background is that old farmhouse, with the wide eaves and the weathered floorboards. The paint is peeling, and one of the windows has the look of a spiderweb, cracked by something long before Mary was settled down in that washtub for the picture.
Was that old house still standing? She might have to look into that.
Ten years later
Now Mary picks up another photograph, and this one is of her mischievous grin as she holds up a fish. It was her first catch. Her daddy actually pulled it in with the old cane pole, but he is the one behind the camera, letting her have the spotlight. The paint on that old house is peeling terribly now, and the porch is starting to lean a bit on one side.
There is a dog lying there. What was his name? It’s a shame how very important things like that fade with time.
Mary in college
In the next picture, the farmhouse is gone, replaced by that tiny apartment. They are on the balcony, she and Michael. He was her boyfriend, but later he would become her husband. Behind them are the little white twinkling Christmas lights that they strung along the walls, even though it was — what was it?
Mary flipped the picture over. Mary and Mike, October 1954.
Not even close to the time for Christmas lights, but they put them up and called them quaint. What they really were was broke, eating potatoes and beans every night. Those lights were cheaper than a lamp, a yard-sale find for a nickel.
Just beyond the balcony was that huge oak tree, and though this picture was in black and white like the others, Mary knew that the colors of that tree were marvelous. She remembered sitting on the balcony for hours, letting the leaves fall on her, covering her like a quilt. It was one of her most private, cherished memories.
The colors of the ’60s
Mary flipped through the pictures and suddenly — color! So much color! Here was her old favorite dress, the one that almost matched that hideous green couch. There was a picture of her standing in her mother’s kitchen, leaning against the dry sink, smiling at the camera. And then there was the most cherished one of all, the one of her lying exhausted in a hospital bed, kissing the head of her newborn son.
After that the photographs came fast and furious, so many of them that she would never find the time — not then, and not even now — to put them all in order. There were hundreds of photographs, first of her son and then of her lovely daughter. And then another son, and another, outnumbering the women in the household. The pictures somehow kept pace.
“We should have bought stock in Polaroid,” she murmured, smiling down at the boxes.
Then came the grandbabies
The pictures changed again. Now the kids were older, going about their own lives, heading in their own directions. There were still pictures, but Michael wasn’t in them. He was taken from her in the spring of 1983, a sudden heart attack just after that really hard winter. For the first time, autumn had been a time of mourning.
But then there had been the grandchildren. Oh, those babies! She flipped through the pictures, watching the grandchildren change. The things around them changed, too. That hideous green couch was finally gone, replaced with soft leather. The huge television was gone, replaced with a sleek model. The houses changed; no more apartments, but now spacious and well-lit rooms.
But what she truly made note of were the outdoor pictures — almost every single of them was taken in the fall, when the leaves were showing their colors and there was a crisp breeze in the air.
Mary dropped the pictures into the box and sat back in her chair, rocking gently on the front porch. The leaves were falling down, covering everything, leaving a blanket of red and brown and gold. Had it really been eighty years since her first autumn? That old farmhouse was gone, and so was that old washtub. Had that old apartment finally fallen down? Whatever happened to that green couch, anyway?
Today she listened to the sounds of neighborhood children running about, finally free from their busy day at school. She looked up and watched the leaves spiraling down, thought about the good roast she had in the slow cooker, and wondered if the grandkids would stop by this weekend. She would show them all those old pictures, and listen to them laugh at their funny old grandmother.
Then she might talk the oldest into raking up some of those leaves into a pile for somebody to jump into. She would have the camera ready.