The field off of our back yard stretched, to a 6-year-old boy, for what seemed like acres. In the fall — right about this time of the year — we’d sprint across it after school, toward the woods at its edge, ready for all the magic and mystery that lay within. Those woods still hold some of my earliest memories. The shallow swale, filled with leaves, that marked the border of our wilderness playland. The small path along a ridge that snaked back to the railroad tracks. The lower trail where we kept an eye out for intruders and an ear out for Mom calling us to supper. The sounds and the silence.
For years, into young adulthood and even into not-so-young adulthood, I could envision every tree, every rock, every hill that I explored at 6 years old. Nearly asleep in a classroom in Arizona, thousands of miles away from Delaware, I’d relive, step-by-step, my afternoons in those woods. I could almost hear the crinkle of the leaves, smell the dampness of the underbrush. The realness has begun to fade — the place is probably a subdivision now — but the memories of that time, that place, remain.
This season always awakens those thoughts. There’s a whiff of change in the air in the fall, of adventures to be had and chapters to be written. At some point in my older-adulthood, I’ll admit, I began to feel differently. For a lot of years, I’ve resented this particular season, not because of what it was or what it is, but for what it portends. As a boy, I knew that the cold hell was coming. I dreaded it even then. But fall could fool me then. It doesn’t quite as much now.
Still … a couple weekends ago in Milton, which borders our home on the edge of Alpharetta, Mary Jo and I walked down to one of those fall street festivals that are so popular in so many places, big and small. We had just returned from a vacation in New Mexico.
The scene at Crabapple Fest didn’t rival the wide-open skies and sweeping vistas of Abiquiu. But that Saturday in Milton was a perfect October afternoon, warm in the sun and cool in the shade, and it presented itself on what we all hope is the other side of the pandemic. It was a fall afternoon ripe — overripe — for the enjoying.
We wandered, gingerly, past a few of the booths on the crowded street. We had forgotten our masks — we were outside! — so being so close to so many was a little strange. But it didn’t matter. Not much. (We certainly had plenty of company in being maskless. This bit of the Atlanta metro takes its personal liberties very personally.)
I had not eaten lunch, but I wasn’t up for the usual street- and state fair-fare; the elephants ears, the funnel cakes, the deep fried whatevers. Luckily, a local barbecue joint occupied one of the larger tents, so we stood in line to get a pork sandwich and a beer. (OK, we stood in line. The pork and beer were for me.) The woman at ‘Cue told me they were out of buns — the crowd was way bigger than expected — but they had plenty of freshly chopped BBQ, and they had some paper bowls. I happily forked over $12, grabbed my Miller Lite and my bowl of meat, and we wandered over to a stand-up table in the sun.
It was warm enough to wear shorts but cool enough to think about a jacket. I had to hold onto my napkin to keep a wisp of a breeze from snatching it away. The sky was blue, the trees mostly still green. Kids played on the town green while a big-screen TV showed a college football game. (You’re never too far from a college football game on a fall day in the South.) Dogs, of all sizes and shapes (Dawgs, too), walked obediently with their owners. People strolled about, laughing. It was a slice of suburbia that the Chamber of Commerce could hang an entire advertising campaign on, a fall afternoon that made you forget both the heat of the summer and that hell to come.
I try now, in what I guess is a nod to that inescapable winter heading for us all, to recognize and hold onto these moments of sunshine. Two Saturdays ago, we wandered a couple miles to the east to a music festival in downtown Alpharetta. We mis-timed the music — it didn’t start ’til evening, it turns out — but we managed a wonderful stroll around downtown, an area which over the past few years has morphed from a sleepy spot with a single mom-and-pop general store to a thriving city center filled with restaurants and bars, parks and greenspaces, pricey shops and young couples with strollers. The sun was out, it was mid-70s … another perfect October weekend in the South.
A few days ago, Mary Jo hosted a big party for a few dozen of her adopted puppies and their parents. It was on the verge of summer weather here — 82, sunny, hot enough to melt some pre-Halloween candy that someone brought — but, again, at this time of the year, when you know those kind of days are on their way out, no one was complaining. The day went off flawlessly. Everyone, puppies included, had a grand time.
Yesterday, I sat out in our back yard with Brodie while he sniffed the cooling air and guarded our cul de sac. A steady breeze pushed pine needles and leaves into the still-green grass. Soon, I’ll have to break out the rake. Soon after, I’ll put away the lawn mower until spring.
For now, though, for the few days like this that remain in yet another year too full with days that we’d all rather forget, I’ll enjoy this annual whiff of change, the crackle of leaves underfoot, the welcome sun, the break in humidity. I know what’s coming. It’s supposed to be 30 tomorrow night. But for now, I’ll choose to ignore it.