Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Legends of Fall

The elusive Fall
 “California has three seasons:  fire, earthquake, and awards.” - K.V. Muir

Despite having grown up in a Southern California beach community, I’m not a fan of summer or warm weather.  True, where we lived, it seldom got into the 90s and the evenings were always cool.  But, it was late fall and early spring, on the rare days when the wind kicked up after a rain and there was a bite in the air, when I was in my element.

I remember being in kindergarten and learning about seasons.  At the beginning of each month, we made a calendar and got a lesson on the events of the month as well as the season.  It was a strange thing to learn about leaves changing colors or snow.  My teacher, Mrs. Cook, who had lived in Connecticut, showed us pictures of fall color and snow covered towns.  It was beautiful, but like something on t.v. or a movie.  We painted brown, orange and yellow leaves, made paper snowflakes, watched Frosty the Snowman.  But none of it seemed real.

Autumn was a shape shifting season and not just because of Halloween.  It did get cooler but neither palms nor pines seemed to care.  My mom talked about autumn in Japan, the colors on the mountainsides and buying hot chestnuts to eat and keep her hands warm.  She bought and roasted chestnuts for my sister and I, cursing when she burned her fingers or jabbed under her nails with the shells as she peeled them for us.  We’d go for neighborhood walks, eagerly pointing out red or gold leaves on specimen trees as excited as if they were a Bigfoot sightings.  However, we never got to dive into a pile of leaves nor smell burning leaves (burning is BAD in California).

My dad had lived in the Midwest and the Southeast, before moving to California.  He had nothing to say about fall, except that it was the beginning of football and hunting season, and he had to wear a sweater when he golfed.  When I asked him about winter, he had a canned response.

“It’s goddam cold,” he’d snap.  “Why the hell would you want to go someplace goddam cold?  California’s got the best goddam weather in the world, dammit.  You can play golf just about every day in the year.  Why the hell would you want to live anywhere else?”

He’d say this every time I, or anyone else for that matter, talked about moving out of Southern California.  He never seemed to catch on that numbers of days I could play golf were irrelevant to me since I didn’t play golf and most of my hobbies were done indoors.  For my dad there weren’t seasons.  There was weather and only two kinds of weather:  golf-able or non-golf-able.  His golf bag held sweaters, sun screen, and rain gear. 

Liquid Amber a.k.a. gumball maple tree
When I started high school, my mom pointed out a little park area as we drove by it.  There was a cluster of three liquid amber maple trees.    

“I like those trees,” she said.  “It makes me feel like we have seasons.”

Through the school year, we watched the leaves turn red, gold, then brown.   They dropped from the trees, leaving the branches bare in the winter morning fog.  Then, when spring arrived, we would watch for the little chartreuse buds and the bright green leaves that sprung from them.

At one point, we had birch or aspen trees by our car port.  I remember the white trunks and seeing leaves turn yellow gold and then dropping.  My sister and I liked to strip the ruffled seed pods.  They looked like tiny inverted cat tails made with hundreds of papery layers.  They’d flutter away with the breeze and we’d watch in amazement, wondering why we didn’t have hundreds more birch/aspen trees, since the dandelion seeds we blew created hundreds of dandelions.

I asked my mother why they were cut down.

“Your dad said they were messy,” she said.

When I moved to Louisiana, I expected tropical weather, something along the lines of the Florida Keys.  I wasn’t looking forward to it, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that Louisiana had three seasons: Spring – pleasant temperatures, blooming wisteria and dogwood, and stinging caterpillars; Summer – hot and humid all day AND night with warm late afternoon thunderstorms that dropped inches of rain in an hour, but at night the egrets roosted in the cypress trees like glowing Christmas ornaments; and Winter – frost, occasional snow, and bare Cyprus trees.  But still, no autumn.

My sister moved to Maine to go to school.  Back in the pre-e-mail days, she sent photos snail mail of the gorgeous fall colors.  I had the opportunity to visit her one Thanksgiving, and while I saw snow flurries and 20F degree temperatures, the few leaves that remained on the trees were already brown and desiccated.  My heart sank.

My husband was offered a job in Northern California.  We were originally hoping for something in New York or Pennsylvania.  We even went to Pennsylvania several times so I could experience its seasons, but because of school, we could never go in fall.  Still, the Bay Area was second choice, and realistically more convenient for both of our families.  My husband moved up first so we wouldn’t be “stuck” in case his job didn’t work out.  I visited frequently to explore the area and eventually to look for our future house.  Living in San Francisco was a romantic notion, but the reality of our finances and commute time, the East Bay was more practical.  We were initially looking at larger properties, which brought us further inland.

A swirl of red and gold.
On one of the trips, we were driving down a major street.  It was chilly and the sky was an amazingly bright blue.  The street was lined with walnut trees and every one blazed in yellow and red.

“Wow,” I gasped.

“Looks like fall,” my husband said.

At last.

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