The Fall of My Memory

Ah, fall, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as Keats put it before heading off to Rome to cough his life out in a pensione overlooking the Spanish Steps. According to the book I have, his “To Autumn” is the most popular poem in the English language. And here I thought “Casey at the Bat” had that distinction. Well, I'm not a bit surprised: Everyone's a sucker for fall. If you grew up in New England, as I did, this was when you knew you were in the Right Place.

That apple smell, those burning leaves. Those of you younger than I — an ever-growing cohort as I face 50 head-on — won't remember being able to burn those massive piles of leaves that your parents made you rake. The Environment Police put an end to that, on the grounds that that rich, musky smoke would plunge the world into another millennial winter. But while it lasted, it was a glorious smell those smoldering leaves made. I'm reminded of it on sunny days when my 10-year-old sets fire to a single leaf on the patio with a magnifying glass. Like Proust biting on the madeleine, I'm transported back 40 years. Now they don't even use rakes anymore. The delicate scritch-scratch of steely tines combing the grass has been supplanted by eardrum-busting backpack-turbine leaf blowers. The new generations will never know that tranquility or smell.

In fall, ripeness is all, as Lear said. Dr. Bell lived next door to us and had a vegetable garden, and by this time of year, the tomatoes would be red and heavy on their vines. We'd sneak in with salt shakers and gorge. We even ate his corn raw, each kernel exploding with sugar juice. My mother would serve acorn squash puddle with butter and brown sugar, probably the only sensible child delivery system for food called “squash.” The pumpkins had a hollow thunk if you tapped them. Gutting them was never my favorite part, the way the innards clung to the sides. Back then the eyes, noses, and mouths came out quaintly geometrical. Now I buy those templates that make your pumpkin look like it was designed by the special-effects crew of Halloween Part V. What's remained constant is the smell of candle-scorched pumpkin and the delicious pagan feel of the ceremony.

People visiting from other parts of the country would say, “Aren't the trees beautiful.” I'd shrug. The trees were exactly what they were supposed to be this time of year. What was so unusual about them?

We would drive to New Haven for the Yale-Harvard game. This was my inculcation into tribalism, when I first apprehended the natural hierarchy. Those usually sunny days with blue and crimson banners flying seem especially vivid now, as though I'm replaying them on DVD. I think we lost more often than we won, but this was reassuringly pointed to as proof of Harvard's intellectual superiority. During the final down of one close game, I remember my father telling me that it was sad because this moment would be the last time these players would be on a field. Looking back on it, it seems appropriate that my first intimation of mortality should have been imparted to me during the season of natural moribundity.

Thanksgivings we drove to northwestern Connecticut, to my grandmother's house. When we arrived, I would tumble out of the rattly diesel Mercedes and race into the house to make mischief with cousins. Since there were 49 of them, the opportunities were abundant. Later on, when I was older, the ritual became to shoot pheasant on Thanksgiving morning. Not much fun for the pheasant, I admit, but walking through those fields following the tinkle of the dogs' collar bells is one of my happiest memories. Of the Thanksgiving meals, my clearest memory is of the pearled onions in cream, mince pies, and bottles from my dead grandfather's celebrated wine cellar that were brought up and decanted. Some of these had been “maturing” since the First World War. Often, there would be half an inch of purple mud at the bottom of each glass. My aunts and uncles would ooh and aah over these pressings, but noticing a wince and pucker here and there, we at the junior tables had our suspicions.

Then it would be time to part, a wrenching occasion since a full year might pass before we saw each other again. These wistful rituals on the porch, in the early darkening of November afternoons, were, I now understand, rehearsals for the eventual, more final partings that fall presages.