Fall is coming. Again.
The temps have dropped in the mornings into the high 50s, and it's like a taste of some unspeakably good food, something long-denied. Driving home yesterday the cool brushed my face, made my skin feel tight and strong. I passed a homeowner who was hard at work burning some of the fallen branches in his yard and the sharp smell of pecan wood smoke in the air tore my imagination loose from it's staid summer moorings and sent it, and me, reeling.
I was thinking about Fall and all that this time of year means. Fall has to be my favourite time of year. I'm not exactly one of Mr. Bradbury's October People but I'm close. I love the smells and the look of Fall; that slow turn toward winter, the spider lilies setting their blazing scarlet tendrils into the air, the piles of firewood being uncovered and readied, the squirrels fattening themselves in the pine trees. The smells of cotton ripening in the fields, the dry leaves crunching underfoot, and the slow settling of the world into bed.
I was thinking about being a kid, sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and dad and my brother, flipping pages in the Sears Big Book, shopping for flannel shirts. That was our Fall treat--new checkered flannel shirts, pre-teen lumberjacks. My father always looked for the sort with the quilted insides, but me, I was always eager to see what colours there were this year. Red was always the strong front-runner, naturally, but what sort of red to get? Red with lots of black or a little? Red with some green showing strong, or blue? Red that was almost a Scottish tartan or red that was just strong, vibrant RED?
After the agony of decision Mom would call and place the order, and soon a little card would show up in the mail: "Your package is ready." When the weekend would roll around we'd pile in the station wagon and head into town, drive to Sears and park around back, the dingy face of Sears that you didn't see unless you went looking for it. The face that was cluttered with discarded packing materials and half-assembled lawnmowers, the face with the delivery trucks backed in.
Into Package Pickup, which back then didn't involve a receipt with a bar code and a scanner. No, back then it was a big room behind a door, a big room filled with somber grey racks, numbered and lettered to make grids. Your card had a letter and a number, and you had to find your bin to locate your package. Half the fun was finding the right grid coordinate, tracking across the open shelves with eager eyes, looking at boxes and packages destined for other homes, wondering what might lie behind all that cardboard and plastic, looking excitedly at clear blister packs and plastic-wrapped machinery.
We'd recover our box, bring it to the checkout and pay for it, and into the car to tear into the packing like it was Christmas morning, only hosted by Jack and his lantern, black cats at his feet. The new material would come tumbling out, smelling sharp and fresh of dyes and new thread, the colours ecstatically bright. The cold vied with our excitement to colour our cheeks red.
As the Fall wore on into Winter those shirts would get worn almost constantly, through cold and colder, in the damp and the occasional snow. They'd be worn in cotton trailers and to cousin's houses, worn non-stop if we could have had our way. Worn every weekend until by the time Spring was rolling around, borne in on rabbit fur and dyed eggs and the changing of the flowers and the vestments in church our once-new shirts were faded and patched, much softer and often almost outgrown.
I don't recall where I bought my last flannel shirt. I don't outgrown them anymore, so I don't get to buy one every Fall, but then again the magic that used to accompany that time is almost faded, too; a soft red, the black now greyish and the material of that memory is now soft with broken threads and repeated handling. My flannel shirt is grey now, with a heavy black pattern, but it still comes out every Fall. It's taken out from it's place in the back of the closet, shaken out good to dislodge the little critters who might have made it home and worn as a light jacket over an oversized T-shirt, hanging unbuttoned over jeans. It follows me to hauling branches across the yard, keeps sawdust and metal shavings off my skin when I'm in the shop, and keeps the branches off me when I'm trying to push through the branches to get set up for a good train photo. It's an anchor back to a time when nothing much mattered but fun and the cold air and the crackle of a fire in the fireplace when the day was done.
It's softer now than when I first bought it, my old flannel shirt. It's far softer and faded, but still whole and useful. Much like my memories.