25 October 2007
Back now to autumn, leaving the ended husk
Of summer that brought them here for Show Saturday
The men with hunters, dog-breeding wool-defined women,
Children all saddle-swank, mugfaced middleaged wives
Glaring at jellies, husbands on leave from the garden
Watchful as weasels, car-tuning curt-haired sons
Back now, all of them, to their local lives....
--Philip Larkin (1922–1986), British poet. “Show Saturday.”
How do I know that the summer has gone?
The humidity in Maryland drops low. Finally, by some time in October, the crisper and golden days of autumn are upon us. Dusk arrives more swiftly, by dinnertime, and the night begins to stretch like a tired worker, yawning and preparing for rest. Pumpkins are ripe for picking and carving. The fields of corn dry into husks and abundant apples, pears, and squashes are juicy flavors for mealtime.
October was my favorite month of the year in the Ohio Valley. As I raked our front yard and sidewalk, I loved piling the richly-colored maple and oak leaves into huge stacks and jumping into them. There would be powerful storm clouds on the horizon as the winds whipped leaves around the playground behind my house. I always loved it when summer came to an end. I greeted the full-on fall with relish. There was delight in the mysteries of shadows and magic of dressing up on Halloween. There was playing outside in the fading sunlight, knowing that winter's frost would soon be draping the sash windows of our Victorian house each morning. I was passionate about burrowing into my covers if I woke up early, in the coldness of dawn. It does not take much for me to be poetic or romantic about this time of year.
And, yet, this misty month of October presents a great quandary for my life today. October is the month where I am scrambling to fulfill my employer's needs in preparation for our largest fund-raiser of the year, which comes every first weekend in November. This is followed by a myriad of autumnal educational programs. I love all of these programs and would enjoy them immensely if it weren't for the sheer weight of days filled with more to do than time to do it.
So for me, summer's end is marked now with frustration, anxiety, and a sense of never completing all of the tasks I need to do within a day. I come home and fall asleep on the couch long before my normal bedtime or arise earlier than I normally must, my brain buzzing like a honeybee. Winter is near, draw in your honey now!
My Celtic ancestors who lived in cold, dark places of the British Isles believed that the beginning of winter was the first of November. For them, the harvest had to be completed by villagers just in time for the cold winds off the North Sea or Irish Sea to set into a permanent chill. The great festivals celebrating the fruits of worker's lives in produce or in craft. As the nights began to extend their reach and shorten the time a person had for her or his day's labor. A new year dawned on November 1st, so on the eve before they celebrated one last time as the sun seemed to leave them and the moon loomed large.
This evening at the end of the old agricultural year, October 31st, has morphed into an important commercial holiday of Halloween. But not too long ago, Halloween was All Hallow's Eve, a night when spirits of the ancestors walked and the doors to the land of the fey opened for mortals. (The Celts believed the fey, fairies, inhabited hollow hillsides). Mysterious and unusual things might happen. The Fey might play tricks. You might carve a turnip with a scary face and leave it on your doorstep to keep the fairies and wicked creatures of the night away from your family. Ancestors, however, were set a place at the dinner table in case they happened to walk by. They were the honored guests of the final feasts of summer. The recently harvested vegetables and fruits and freshly butchered meat was abundant still.
I do think deeply of my ancestors at the end of every October. Lately my grandfather, Walter H. Simpson, has come to my mind often. He passed on to the next world one October day, having already walked this earth ninety years. He was ready to go and had a long, full life behind him. He would probably council me that I work too hard. A hard-working man himself who built successful businesses as a mechanic and electronics repair man, my grandfather knew how to spend time at home doing the things he loved and surrounded by his family.
When he left us, he left me and my cousins and his children parting gifts. My inheritance from his equitably distributed small fortune, bought me out of my graduate school debt, paid for my car loan, funded a dissertation research trip to England, and enabled me to begin a small investment account. I never was able to thank him in life for these gifts of his labor, because I never knew his plan for his estate until a year after he died. So every Summer's End for the last ten since he passed on, I thank him with a candle lit in his honor and a photograph of him standing proudly in front of the gas station he managed on my hearth.
Wally -- which is the name by which I have come to know him through my grandmother's scrapbook -- was a tuba player in a riotous Roaring 'Twenties jazz band in Cincinnati called The Charlestonians. He recalled fondly to me playing "Tiger Rag" at top volume so that the police would not hear the bar fights in the background. (This was during Prohibition, mind you.) He was friendly with the brothers Machnowitz, the Lithuanian Jewish family from down the street. He may have surprised some when he ran off and eloped with an elder Machnowitz daughter. She was Ida, a willowy flapper with a gypsy-gleam in her eyes. A bold act for a pair who were not from the same traditions, at a time when anti-Semitism raged. Their romance of the mid-1920s is documented in her scrapbook, carefully pasted in with that awful acid-laden glue. They are laughing in groups with their friends and her siblings by the poolside or on the street corner. Like all teenagers they have the confidence and swagger of the young, who think they will never grow old. Some of these photos have faded or begun to disappear and pages are torn. Ida and Wally's memories survive, but sooner than me, some of those images will be dust.
These are my thoughts as Summer draws to a close and becomes November, the first month of Winter by Celtic reckoning. Long, cold Winter begins a new year. Ancestors and memories now deepen as shadows. The drawing the darkness around us like a cloak allows us to reflect upon the mysteries of life and of oblivion. Time is fleeting, but it must be faced. Come what may, Summer's end is a time for me to turn and look back over my shoulder to contemplate the long line of time behind me.
We are reformers in spring and summer; in autumn and winter, we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at night.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The Conservative,” Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (1849).