By Wayne Allensworth
I was taking a walk on a cool morning. Fall had finally arrived after a blistering summer. Live oak limbs made a canopy over the path, and their long shadows trailed across me, with little breaks between the limbs where the smoky autumn sun shined through. And then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a butterfly’s shadow tracing its way through the limbs, and I looked up and there it was, fragile and delicate. The leaves flickered in a whispering wind.
How beautiful butterflies can be. How beautiful the autumn shadows. It occurred to me that people just didn’t get outside enough anymore. And they missed those little reminders of how good life can be on a cool morning in the fall, as summer’s heat had passed, leaves dancing in the wind.
Wistful memories. Autumn dusks of years gone by. Football games under the lights. The school band playing. Homecoming. Hay bales and scarecrows. Pumpkins and candy.
When I got home, I poured a cup of coffee and stood in the front yard, not wanting to go inside.
The leaves rarely turn here. It’s usually too hot in this part of the world, and too dry, and they get brown and die and fall off.
Raking leaves in the fall was once a childhood ritual. Playing in the piles of leaves in boyhood’s forever yard. If we got lucky, we would see some colors, and sometimes we did.
I heard doves cooing. A couple taking their morning walk waved a morning greeting to me, then I’m back in the past again.
I thought of one of my favorite songs. It’s called September Song, written for a Broadway musical back in the 1930s, music by Kurt Weil, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. It became a “standard,” a song recorded many times by many singers. But the version that stuck in my memory was Willie Nelson’s, included on one of his best albums, a 1978 collection of those old standbys named after one of them, Stardust:
Oh, it’s a long, long while
From May to December
But the days grow short
When you reach September
When the autumn weather
Turn leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game
Oh, the days dwindle down
To a precious few
And these few precious days
I’ll spend with you
These precious days
I’ll spend with you
In my native Texas, I seldom think of September Song until sometime in mid or late October, but the song resonates with me when the time is right and the weather changes.
When we lived in Northern Virginia, fall was apple-picking time. We would go to an orchard and our children would help us pick the apples, and their mother would make wonderful apple pies out of them. It was our favorite time of year in those days. The colors, the shadows, the apples.
I was thinking of those days, and of my children now grown, and my grandchildren, and how the past always touched the present and the future. And I wondered whether there was really any chance of helping young people by trying to teach them lessons from your own experience. You can tell them again and again. But like me, they wouldn’t catch on until experience caught up with the lessons. If they are lucky, they can grasp the lessons before it’s too late to learn. Then they might understand the hint of urgency in my voice and why there was the urge to tell those stories.
And remember more September songs.
Willie’s Stardust album ignited an interest in American standards in me I hadn’t felt since Sinatra sang It Was a Very Good Year, and boy-me somehow connected with it. Later on, I bought Sinatra’s 1965 September of My Years album. I recalled that Sinatra had turned 50 that year.
September of My Years, music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Kahn:
One day you turn around, and it’s summer
Next day you turn around, and it’s fall
And the springs and the winters of a life time
Whatever happened to them all
As a man who has always had the wandering ways
Now I’m reaching back for yesterdays
‘Til a long forgotten love appears
And I find that I’m sighing softly as I near September
The warm September of my years
I don’t know that I’ve mellowed as much as I’ve grown tired.
I’m no longer sure what to tell my children. I know that the lives we led in what seems like a distant past nowadays are seen as checkered in some ways. But how we lived! If there is any future for young people, it is in our chronicling the past. It’s the only life map that we have.
So, I live in the past in some ways, and at some times, and at others I feel as though I had never left it. It’s a congenial place, especially in a world that I find to be increasingly disorienting, one without the familiar markers that people have always counted on and observed and checked themselves by. That congenial place of memory helps keep me steady in a wobbly present.
You can’t go home again, so you’ll have to make a new one. In the end of something is always a beginning of something else.
A boy on a bike rides by. With his passing, more memories come to mind.
My mother and her friends were a team. They were our neighborhood, present at every school event, and helping one another with cleaning, and washing, the clothes pinned on thin wires, floating in the breeze, a basket nearby. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were a moveable feast, often shared at a neighbor’s table. Our little houses. They seemed so big to us then. The tiny passages seemed like long vestibules to a great hall. Brothers sleeping together in one bed, the wood floors creaking and popping at night, the ever-present spirits of our house. Every sound echoed in that little space. That was home.
The great pecan trees my parents had planted. The mimosas with those thick limbs. We climbed them and sat on those trunk-like limbs and surveyed what seemed to me a vast domain that was all ours. The fishpond in the backyard that Daddy filled with goldfish. The thick blades of St. Augustine grass.
Our home was also a menagerie of animals—our dogs that roamed the area freely, always coming back like homing pigeons, a tom cat we called “Black Taffy,” rabbits, a pet squirrel my mother dubbed “Sugar.” I remember Sugar’s visits to the house, crawling on Daddy’s shoulder, leaping from couch to easy chair, then slipping out the back door to spend the night in a pen my father had built. We would let her out and watch her jump from tree limb to tree limb, then always she would come back, until one day she didn’t.
I had a pet racoon (“Raccy”) who sat on the axle of an Indie style “race car” (when they were rounded and looked like distended bubbles with wheels) I pedaled as a boy. And he traveled with me, hanging on and watching.
There were open fields to roam in. We built “forts” and dug tunnels in those fields, and wandered far and wide, an expanse that encompassed the world we lived in.
Our street seemed so long. It wasn’t paved at first, it was gravel and shell, but it made for better cycling when it was blacktopped. At one end, our street ended at a muddy stream we called Buttermilk Creek. At the other, it wound into a stretch covered by a canopy of live oaks. Boyhood’s scale made it quite a trek.
I’d ride my bike to a 7/11 store not far from our house. The 7/11 was next door to a washeteria. I’d watch the women carry baskets of clothes inside, piles of them, then they’d come out with the clothes all folded and clean. The 7/11 was a magical place for me, because they kept several racks of comic books there. 12 cents apiece in those days. The Fantastic Four and Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos. And Classics Illustrated, often my first exposure to great books. I first read of Captain Nemo and the Three Musketeers, of Greek heroes and myths in Classics Illustrated, and the wondrous pictures brought it all to life for me, firing my imagination. All at the small cost of a bike ride and twelve cents.
There were stables for horses near our house. We would watch the horsemen ride by us. My first horseback ride ended in me getting thrown. We caught the horse after it took off down our street.
When I was a toddler, Pee Wee, a Boston terrier, accompanied me everywhere, guarding me like the fierce defender that he was, attacking anything, cat or dog, that approached. I have a portrait my mother painted of little Pee Wee in our bedroom. He still watches out for me in his way, lifelike as can be.
“Girl” was a black and gray spotted female who left quite an impression on us—and litters of puppies. A black man who lived over on the other side of Clay Road would come by to take the pick of each litter. It was him, at first, then some of his relatives. He always wanted to know when Girl had puppies.
She was one of many.
Pee Wee was the first dog of ours that I remember. I always thought of him as mine especially. And there was a collie we called “Lady,” and Runt, and Little Bit, and Chief, one of Girl’s pups we tagged with a friend’s nickname (we thought he looked like a cigar store Indian chief when people could still remember them). On and on. The dogs roamed the area unhindered for most of my life there, until the city began encroaching, the road was paved, and Chief kept fighting every dog that trotted down the street. We had to pen him up, as he was simply uncontrollable. We should have given him away, I guess, to someone living further out from the city. I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt for that. One day he died. I don’t know what killed him, maybe loneliness.
We made a graveyard for our dogs in the empty field next door to us.
After the old house was sold and then demolished and Momma had passed on, I would drive Daddy to Houston to visit her. She’s there next to both sets of grandparents, and Wild Bill, my dad, is there with her now, and there are plots for all of us. Daddy and I would sit on a concrete bench after we had done our ritual of passing by the graves. I’d lean down and touch their names.
Afterwards, Daddy would sometimes say he wanted to drive down our street. I resisted for a long time. We won’t recognize it, I’d say, the old house is gone now. What I meant was that it would be too hard to take.
But he persisted. Some years had gone by, and I finally gave in. OK, I said, we’ll go, but I was thinking that I might avert my eyes all the same. The guy who had bought the place had demolished the old house. There was a new building there. I didn’t know what else might have changed and didn’t want to know. But Daddy persisted. Just curious, he’d say. So, we went.
I slowed down as we approached the place that had once been my home. We almost crept up on it, and then it was there. There was a big fence around the place, and work trucks parked on a wide pavement. Daddy right out of the chute said they tore the big live oak down, the one in the front yard. He said he’d keep it, but he took it down. I couldn’t help myself, I had to turn and look, and it was every bit as bad as I thought it might be, so I averted my eyes and said see, we shouldn’t have come down here.
But we did, and you can’t unsee that.
My wife Stacy and I still go down there — we live in Ft. Worth now — to visit the cemetery. The ritual hasn’t changed much. Walking past the other graves (I try not to step on them, a habit I’ve had since I was a boy, when older people told me that I shouldn’t step on a grave). Looking at the plots. Touching the names. Sitting on the bench. Maybe leaving some flowers. Scraping away the pine needles that always accumulate.
When we visit the cemetery, no matter what time of year it may be, I often hear September Song in my head.
My coffee’s gone, and the morning had grown warmer. I walked back inside, thinking of Septembers and Octobers of the past.
Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel Field of Blood.