It was a downpour, but no need for a raincoat! Leaves were furiously raining down upon me during my morning walk – reds, yellows, browns, oranges. The bright sun enhanced the colors like jewels glimmering as they fell. Gusts of wind sent them swirling, twirling, dancing across my path, some sticking temporarily in my hair. Acorns and dry leaves crunched beneath my shoes. It was a glorious autumn experience! Because every day is different and autumn is brief, I knew it was a momentary treasure. But remembering and reliving it now, can put me back in a place of absolute delight.
Last week, I listened to a small group of women who were also remembering treasured moments. These were beautiful memories as jewel-like as autumn leaves. The women are widows, attending my eight-week grief support group, sharing about their husbands. Each brought a photo to show. The pride on their faces was obvious as they described the details of their husband’s life and virtues, of their shared life together. Occasionally, a tissue came out to mop tears. Memories can be bittersweet, filling us with joy and sadness at the same moment.
Autumn leaves exemplify this paradox. As we know, at the end of their growing season, deciduous trees prepare for winter dormancy. The green leaves which previously provided the magic of photosynthesis. As the tree prepares for winter, it conserves energy by slowing the flow of nutrients out to the limbs. The autumn beauty of the leaves comes, as they lose energy, they cycle through all remaining pigments. Those previously green leaves not only produced the oxygen that we breathe, but also helped pull out pollution, provided cooling shade in the summer, offered food and lodging for insects, helped reduce global warming by sequestering carbon dioxide. Even in death, leaves do not stop giving. Left under the trees from which they fell, they offer a free combo of overwintering protective mulch which will decay and produce nutrients those trees will need. Shredding them well with the lawnmower produces free fertilizer for the lawn or compost pile. But wait, there’s more! Leaves not raked up or blown away become safe harbor for insects to overwinter and lay their eggs. Insects are a crucial part of the food chain, especially for birds and other small animals. Yes, autumn leaves exemplify the paradox of death and life.
As I write this, Thanksgiving Day is near. I recall all the Thanksgiving tables I’ve sat around through my 70 years. As a teenager, I experienced the first missing face around the table – my mother who died October 28, 1968. We all know the bittersweet memories of holidays past when certain loved ones were still with us, and the missing faces around the table now. Each holiday season, I feel the pang of Benedictine Sisters’ faces, dear to my heart, no longer around our table. Like the fallen autumn leaves, though, they continue to be life giving to those of us who miss them. They left colorful examples of faith, hope, love, laughter, playfulness, curiosity, creativity, good zeal, enthusiasm, hard work, perseverance, and much more. Plenty of overwintering mulch to see us through our own journey to spring.
By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB