A Letter from Blue Grass: Just a Leaf
Rev. Timothy Haut
Deep River Congregational Church
Life goes on in Blue Grass, even though your Uncle Arnold and I are slowing down quite a bit. These old bodies just don't work as well as they used to, and we've learned that taking our time saves us a lot of aggravation in the long run. For example, I just take one step at a time coming down stairs, which means it takes twice as long. But on the other hand, I don't land on my backside that way, and I don't have to yell at Arnold to come and help pick me up, which would be hazardous to his health as well.
But in other ways, life is speeding by way too fast. It doesn't seem possible that summer has come and gone and we've come to another Thanksgiving already. And where has my whole life gone? I look at myself in the mirror and see an old woman, wrinkled and sagging, but inside I'm still that girl with bright dreams for my world. and I still get that little thrill when I remember that I'm married to the man I love. And then he waddles into the kitchen while I'm looking out the window and I turn around and see an old bald man where Arnold used to be. Today he's wearing the same plaid flannel shirt he puts on every morning, the one with the bottom button missing so that I can sometimes catch a glimpse of his cute belly button while he sits at the kitchen table and slurps his morning coffee. It's the quiet part of the day, before we get going on our errands and before most bad news happens. We don't even turn on the TV to listen to the news. It's better to just sit together and smell the coffee brewing, or look out the window and watch the chickadees and cardinals have breakfast with us while we feed scraps of bacon to Omar, our cat, as he rubs back and forth against our legs. It's then that I realize how good my life is, even though I've never become rich or famous or had the exciting and glamorous life I once dreamed about.
Of course Arnold thinks we might be rich. He was out buying batteries at the Eagle Market a few months ago and saw a big jar of red jawbreakers on the counter. He asked the clerk for one of those sour balls, and before he could correct her, she handed him a Power Ball lottery ticket. Arnold is probably one of the most congenitally low risk individuals I've ever met. That's probably why he married me. But something stirred in Arnold's low-interest heart, and rather than correct the cashier, he stuck that lottery ticket in his jacket pocket and brought it home. He showed it to me and laughed and then put it in an envelope and put it under the salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen table. "There's 50 million dollars in there!" he'd say once in a while. The thing of it is, he never opened that envelope. The silly lottery ticket is still in there, hidng in that envelope where we see it every day.
"Arnold," I tell him once in a while, "Why don't we just open the thing and find out if it was a winner?" He just shakes his head and smiles.
"Nope. Not gonna open it and find out I got nothing," he'll say. "I'd rather keep my hopes flying high, and let myself dream every time I walk past it."
So there it stays. And the man doesn't even suspect that I already checked that ticket out long ago, because I'm not nearly as stubborn and a lot more curious than he is. But I'm not saying a word. He is right about one thing, though. Sometimes what we don't see is the most important thing in our lives. That's why we have faith, and it's why love is the most important thing in life even though you can't buy or sell it or hang it on your wall.
I read an article in the paper last week written by a woman who keeps a dry leaf from her maple tree on her bedside table. She says it helps her to remember what the wind always teaches us in autumn: that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Watch the leaves unloose themselves from their branches and deliver themselves to the wind. Watch the wind, which you cannot see, catch and lift the leaves, which you can see. Watch the wind catch them, lift them, drop them and lift them again. Again and again and again.
(from the New York Times, Nov. 11, 2018, "How to Rake Leaves on a Windy Day" by Margaret Renkl)
We've had a lot of practice watching the leaves unloose themselves from our trees. Over the weekend Arnold decided to get out the rake and clean up the back yard, which is not his favorite activity. He usually only wants to do it once, which means waiting till all the leaves have fallen off all the trees. That also means that the pile on the ground waiting for him has usually been through several rainstorms, and maybe even a snowstorm, and so it is often soggy and heavy and hard to move. But fortunately this Saturday was a lovely day in Iowa, one of those perfect late-autumn days where the sun is still warm and golden with a little breeze to dry off the pile. Beyond the fence in the back yard our neighbor's field was dotted with the stubble of this year's cornstalks, and a host of happy crows rose and fell in search of the gleanings from the fallen crop. Arnold spread a tarp on the lawn and planned to drag the dry leaves out to the field to offer them as free compost for the coming year. He seemed to be content with his task for a while. From time to time I glanced out the kitchen window to check on his progress, and I could see that it was warm enough for him to take off his wool jacket and take a rest in the metal lawn chair, and that's when Harold McCullough stopped by for a chat. Harold was out in his yard cleaning up his own leaves, but he had the advantage of gas-powered leaf blower to push his debris beyond the edge of his yard. It would have been nice if Harold had offered to blow our leaves as well, but Arnold would never ask. And besides he was annoyed at Harold for using that noisy contraption to begin with, partly because he was blowing a lot of the debris from his yard into ours, and partly because he preferred the quiet of an Iowa afternoon, where the crackle of leaves underfoot was as loud as any sound should be, with the song of meadowlarks and the distant honking of geese winging their way southward were the perfect sound track for autumn in the Mississippi River valley.
So after Harold went home and stashed his blower in the garage, Arnold returned to work. I didn't think any more of it until I looked out the window about three o'clock and saw him on the ground, slumped over. I panicked, and immediately called 911 before racing outside and pouncing on him. I was ready to shake the life back into him. But he wasn 't dead. I wanted to kill him for scaring the living daylights out of me. I plopped down on the ground next to him to calm myself and catch my breath. "What are you doing out here on the ground?" I demanded.
He patted my hand and looked around. "Isn't this a nice day?" he asked. "I just want to pay attention to it, " he added. "I don't know how many of these Novembers I have left in me. This could be the last one. And wouldn't it be a shame to let it go by without noticing it?"
Then he reached into a little space he had cleared nearby, where the green grass sparkled in the long light. He picked up something and held it out to me. "Look," he said, displaying a wooly bear caterpillar in his hand. "It's a beauty, isn't it," he smiled. "And look at the orange band in the middle, as big as you ever see. You know what that means, a mild winter!" He cackled, and handed me the creature.
"And look at this!" He held a bright blue jay feather, white at the tip. "Blue as the sky" he smiled, pointing upward. "Makes me wish I could fly, too! But then I intend to get my wings when it's all said and done. Sure will feel nice to not have to worry about how I'm going to stand up. Just spread those wings and take off. I would like blue ones, I think." He gave it to me with a little kiss on the cheek, and then he reached into the pocket of his overalls.
"And look what else I found. I was just over there, where the vegetable garden used to be, raking in the long grass. I thought I saw something glitter in the dirt where I had been raking, and I bent down and found this! I'll be jiggered if it wasn't the wedding ring that I lost over 40 years ago. " He clutched it tightly as he shined it up on his sleeve. He had lost it long ago, the ring I gave him at our wedding in the little church in New Era, Iowa. He had searched everywhere at the time, and couldn't remember whether he lost it in the yard or over at Herman Baylock's farm where he was helping milk the cows, or when he went out in his brother Emil's rowboat. I was mad as a hen at the time, but eventually we got him another ring, the one he's been wearing to this day. But I remember that I did wonder back then if maybe he had regretted getting married, and somehow he was unconsciously wishing that ring away. I had long forgotten all that. I know my Arnold, and he's my person. Still, there was something sweet about finding that ring, unburied after all those years. He handed it to me and asked me to put it on his finger. Just then the fire department pulled into the driveway, sirens shrieking.
He looked startled, and then I told him the story. The firemen arrived in the back yard just as we were exchanging a very nice kiss. "As long as you guys are here," Arnold said, "you can help us get up." They hoisted us to our feet, and they left after I explained the situation. Arnold and I let the caterpillar go, and we carried the rest of our treasures into the house, including one golden leaf that came fluttering down to us, the last leaf of our maple. I placed them on the kitchen table, on top of the envelope with the mysterious lottery ticket tucked inside. A blue feather, a silver ring, and a golden leaf.
And so, Timothy, we will sit together around our dining table this coming Thursday and eat turkey and mashed potatoes an and cranberry relish. And in the middle of the table I will place that yellow leaf from our maple tree. And as your Uncle Arnold launches into grace, in which he will remind the Lord of all the blessings bestowed upon us through this past year, I will listen for the blue jays chattering outside and wonder how much they know of our human adventures. I will catch a glimpse of that leaf and think about how our seasons come and go, each a sweet moment in the panorama of our tiny world circling in space. One day I will leave it all behind, with regret, but also with gratefulness for having tasted this life I have been given. That leaf will remind me (as if I needed a reminder) that I am now in the autumn of my own life. And I am determined to go out with as much beauty as an Iowa November, grateful for all the invisible treasures I have acquired. That mystery lottery ticket is not one of them, though I'm not telling Arnold. It's enough to know that around our table we are always rich with love, and thankful for every blessed day.
I hope you strike it rich in Connecticut, Timothy. Meanwhile, keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.