When I lived in New Orleans my Mom would send me leaves, perfect red pieces of home sandwiched between two pieces of torn paper towel. I could see her picking them up in the front yard, probably still in her work clothes, at dusk—it would be darker there than it was here, and colder. Some trees changed in the South but not many, not in the riot that they do in the Northwest. In each delicate line of the leaf was, too, the shape of my Mom’s heart, so I could feel in both the long letters she wrote me and the leaves she tucked in the unshakeable faith of my primal source, a love so deep and constant I don’t know a life without it and I never will. Three thousand miles away and those small things, the things of the soul, the recognition of the sweet gentle beauty of dying leaves brought me back to the fold every season. She doesn’t have to send me leaves now because I’m back in the Northwest, a part of the pack, and we see each other enough that now that crush of feeling, the I’m Here, spoken in the mother tongue of language only children understand, comes in different ways.
But on a walk during lunch at work the other day, I picked a leaf up off the sidewalk just to look more closely, as these things warrant. Each one is different in its dying, some red, streaked through with piercing lines of green—life unwilling to let go, I think—some dark, ochre-colored melancholy dotting the sidewalk, some so perfect and golden they should be framed. This one was small, and red, the ends of the leaf ending in delicate points. I found I couldn’t put it down. There was something so dignified in this leaf’s lines, something better, I thought, for being recognized. I couldn’t let this sweet leaf go unnoticed! I couldn’t stand the thought of opening my hand and letting it drift to the ground, to become once again one of the masses. So I held the stem and kept walking, the leaf for company.
In the park I got caught in a pine needle storm, the tamaracks laughing in golden showers, and I saw a heron standing in the water—totally oblivious to the people walking past and a lady on the bench with a bright red lunchbox. I had a handful of leaves by now, of all kinds. A huge one, in the back—still pretty green—a few small red ones, a magnificent yellow creature so bright to seem artificial, a nice selection of coppery browns and tans. I had also picked up three chestnuts, two small pads of moss, and a fig from someone’s tree, hanging over the fence. It was very sticky but I ate it.
My hands were getting a little sweaty from the effort of holding all of them, clutched in one fist. No matter! It was worth it. Leaves were being collected, I had glory in my palms!
It struck me, in a moment, and I understood it—what she must’ve felt, there in her work clothes, on the lawn at dusk. Here I was too, collecting, those tiny pieces of a universe so terrible and cruel, but also so beautiful—fragments of the infinite captured, for a moment, by a leaf in the throes of ending. I am my mother’s daughter. Here is the beauty, she was saying to me, it’s for me, and for you. I got the message, and realized this too—I am the message.