Colleen was our hand-waver, the slightly obnoxious one who bounced in her seat, caught up in the throes of enthusiasm. “Me! Me, Miss Hudepohl. Call on me!”
On the other side of the room, shy Valerie dedicated herself to perfecting the role of a disappearing third-grader. Content to remain in the back row, she spent her days sinking lower and lower into her one-armed, wooden desk until she resembled a puddle of Silly Putty, ready to flow away beneath the door, down the hall, and out of our lives forever.
Neither a shrinker nor a hand-waver, I asked for and received a place in the front row of desks. Since our teacher spent most of her time distracted by hand-wavers or trying to draw out the shrinkers, I rarely was called on. When it was my turn, I’d squirm a bit, pretending not to have heard. Sometimes, I’d shake my head and shrug my shoulders in a gesture of casual detachment, as if to say, “No, I don’t have the answer, but you already knew that, so why bother?”
Asked to choose a proper spelling while still at my desk, to add or subtract numbers, or to pick out the verb from a sentence, I froze. Invited to the blackboard, I worked arithmetic problems or wrote out vocabulary words without difficulty. My performance was so erratic, Mrs. Hudepohl began calling on me more often: sometimes telling me to stay in my seat, sometimes asking me to go to the board.
The day she asked me to stay after school, I was terrified. I knew which kids were held after school, and I knew how my parents would react if they found I’d been included in that group. To my great relief, I hadn’t done anything wrong. My teacher only wanted a bit of privacy to ask me a question: “When there’s a problem on the board, and I ask you to give me the answer from your seat, you seem to be guessing. But when you go to the blackboard, you always get it right. Do you know why that is?”
Of course I knew, and she coaxed me into telling my secret. If I held a book a few inches from my nose, I could read it perfectly well. From my desk, the blackboard and its contents were nothing but a blur. Once I’d admitted the truth, she reached for a pen. “Here,” she said. “Take this note home to your parents. Don’t lose it.”
What my teacher had discovered, and what my parents knew once I handed over the note, was that I wasn’t a slow, reluctant learner. I was near-sighted, and I needed glasses.
Unbeknownst to anyone — unbeknownst even to me — I had been living in a world of soft focus and blurred edges. As autumn leaves piled up along the fences and swirled through frost-tinged streets, their details melded into patches of solid color. Every cloud was cottony, every riverbank a smooth, simple ribbon of yellow or red. I had assumed it was that way for everyone. Soon, I would learn otherwise.
My first glasses were an abomination: thick as old-fashioned Coke bottle bottoms and graced with pink plaid frames. I thought they were ugly even then, and can’t imagine that I chose them for myself. But it was the 1950s, and I suppose options were limited.
In any event, they drew a good bit of notice, and more than a few taunts from my classmates. “Four-eyes” was a favorite, along with the less traditional but more creative “fish face,” an insult presumably meant to suggest I resembled a goldfish, staring out at the world from my bowl.
On the other hand, not even the worst teasing could overcome my delight in the changes wrought by a simple pair of glasses. The out-of-focus world I’d grown accustomed to gave way to sharp, vibrant images. I could read the blackboard with ease. Alphabet letters marched around the top of the blackboard with cursive clarity. I no longer strained to see a clock, or squinted to see which classmates were on the playground. Astonishment abounded, particularly when it came to trees.
I’d always loved trees, especially the red and gold residue of autumn that drifted around our yard. I collected every sort of leaf: hickory and oak, maple to press between sheets of waxed paper, elm branches to tuck into bouquets with tall, purple grasses. When easy-going parents raked the fallen bounty into piles, we jumped and tumbled until one last raking gave way to burning. Then, we inhaled the incense of the season like devotees of some great, autumnal god.
Not long after my glasses arrived, I found myelf admiring the season’s shimmering color through new eyes. “Look!” I said. “There are leaves on the trees!”
Of course I knew that leaves grow on trees, but never had I experienced so directly the relationship between the stubborn, golden leaves still clinging to their branches, and those already fallen to the ground. Taking in those “near leaves” and “far leaves” in a single glance, I felt a strange combination of nostalgia and grief, almost a wave of sympathy for the increasingly bare-branched tree, condemned by seasonal turning to endure the falling of its leaves.
Decades later, I wondered. Was that experience a first glimpse of life’s transitory nature, an experience like that distilled into words by poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his sensitive, “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child”?
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
When wholly natural, seasonal sorrow partners with fresh and giddy exultation, when bare-branched trees rejoin their scattered leaves in the ease of a single glance, life changes.
Leaves may fall and winter come, but in memory and imagination spring’s faint, green fringe laces across the sky, spreading into summer’s canopy before tumbling again into autumn’s receptive arms. I would, I thought, see it all: both the turning of the seasons and the tranformations of the grove.
Such was the promise of childhood: a promise essentially fulfilled. And yet, after years of beauty and clarity, after decades of wandering the groves from gold to green to gold again, there comes a hint of a different autumn.
Beneath my feet, uneasy leaves crackle and sigh, their veins still sharp, their edges crisp and well defined. Yet in the distance, I see the trees that bore my leafy carpet blurring, fading, dissolving into darkness before the turning of my own advancing years.
A slow, unhappy diminution of sight has begun to take its toll, an unnatural unleaving of the golden groves that leads to inevitable questions. Will I become again a diminished child, trapped in a world of blurred realities, struggling to make out messages scrawled across the chalkboard of my life? Or will there be another correction, a reprieve, a renewed opportunity to grasp both leaf and tree with the ease of a single glance?
Answers will come, in time. For now, the fall of every leaf serves as a memento mori, a reminder that, however sharp and clear our vision of the world’s beauty, fading is inevitable.
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Just as my own childhood became a time for re-leafing, for knitting together pieces and bits of a world pulled apart by natural infirmity, old age will bring its own experience of infirmity and change. As the golden decades shimmer against the edge of coming night, once again the leaves will fall, and vision fade. “It ever was, and is, and shall be,” says Heraclitus, “ever-living fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”
Always, it is the “going out” that distresses. But to see the world whole and to see its parts, to stitch together and to tear asunder, is to learn the bitter, bracing truth: the great tree of life sheds each of us as naturally as the maple sheds its leaves. It is, as they say, the way of the world.
If we intend to live in this world, should we desire to partake of this world, there is no choice. “Cling to your branch,” comes the whisper of autumn. “Cling with tenacity, and fall in your season with grace, secure in the knowledge that the grove itself will endure, golden in the falling light.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.