The light from the sun has grown softer as it strikes obliquely from the south. For me there is respite from Chicago’s high skies and, this summer, unrelenting brightness unmitigated by grey. As the chlorophyll fades and the reds, yellows, oranges, and browns emerge, for a moment I feel like I’m 18 years old again, arriving in Chicago for the first time, adapting to a sunrise and sunset that occur earlier in the day here at the eastern end of the central time zone than they do in Western New York, in the midst of the eastern time zone.
Of the first few weeks I don’t remember much — a cab driver taking me to Kimball instead of Kimbark, meeting my roommate and her parents, orientation, placement exams that made me stressed and sick, adapting to communal living and the concepts of status and pecking order, a field trip to see Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If the new experiences and freedoms of adulthood away from home inspired exhilaration, the strangeness of the new life and setting, plus the unanticipated rigors of academia compounded by loneliness, inspired detachment and depression.
Still, it’s October, when sun glows gloriously through the multi-hued leaves and the black clouds lower to crush the land, tinting memories of long evenings drawn out by pain and warmed by conversation, like a harsh movie scene softened by artful focusing.
It was a time for long, cool walks under the sun or the clouds, and in the evenings under the slowly awakening lamps. It was a time for sharing herbal teas and discovering a rare kindred spirit over them. It was a time when there was still hope that classes would go well or at least not badly. It was a time when it was comfortable outdoors, not hot, not cold, not humid, but brisk and invigorating. Memories of those first Octobers and the feelings they evoke have made living here all these years bearable. It’s not home, but nothing is. There is only October.
October is also a bittersweet month. It was in October 1987 that my brother and I returned home for the final time, to help our dad sort through his belongings in preparation for his move to Pennsylvania, closer to his family.
Most of the week was memory perfect, often sunny and cool enough to require big, comfortable sweaters. It made my sister-in-law want to move to Western New York, and it made me wonder why I’d ever left. Now I was leaving, forever, the only place that had ever felt like home to me, the place that, small and cramped as it was, had been my only home for 18 years.
Between packing and shopping, we had time for a visit to my dad’s cousin John in Eden, New York, a place I had always loved, where on other visits I’d seen hummingbirds in the garden. Returning home one night from a visit many years before, we’d seen a shooting star ahead as we navigated down the strangely dark country road. My dad and I must have had the same thought — that our eyes were not to be trusted. “Did you see that?” “I think so. What did you see?” Such sights are so rare and so lovely that we were almost sure we could not have been so fortunate as to be in the right place at the right time. I don’t think I’ve seen one since; I don’t know that I want to, because twice in a lifetime might diminish the rarity and beauty and uniqueness of the shared vision.
Now we were in Eden again for what we believed would be our last visit. I wasn’t 16 years old any more, and all of John and Catherine’s seven children were long gone, just as we were, all well traveled down their paths in life, just as we were.
When you’re a child or teenager, you have no way of realizing that the moments spent with other kids in their houses and rooms, play fighting, admiring possessions, tickling, teasing, perhaps even flirting, will one day evoke painfully strong memories of a sweet, unburdened time that can’t be recaptured and evoke emotions that are as elusive as a dragon, as intangible as beliefs that can never be experienced. Adulthood has its joys, but they are never as artless and unaware as those of a child. So while a feeling was born that those were rare times that somehow ended before I could know what they would mean, the children had left, along with the youth of the parents, now grandparents, and my own sheltered naivete. With all that gone, the magic is only a memory.
Had we seen a falling star on our return that day, it might have interrupted the conversation or the silence, but would it have inspired awe? Much of the time the adult mind is so crowded with facts, thoughts, concerns, worries, anxieties, love, lust, fear, anger, skepticism, a host of processes and emotions that it can’t relax and open itself to uncensored experience and emotion, the kind of passion that inspired so many scientists, writers, and poets as children.
We went to Niagara Falls late on an oppressively grey day. It was little like my memory, which had when I was very young become fixed on walking through the parkland around it and encountering my first squirrels, lovely creatures I’d envisioned as appearing only in deep woodlands only to woodcutters and lost children. It was impossible that there were squirrels in such a crowded sitting, only a few feet from me, sitting in the dappled morning sun falling through the tall trees of the park. Now I see a dozen squirrels a day. The sight is so common that it has lost its magic, but has the memory?
I took dozens of photos at Niagara Falls and of my home during that final visit, trying to capture something that had either changed irrevocably or had existed only in my head or heart as a feeling. The field where we’d played baseball and football, where I’d picnicked, where I’d discovered and picked wild strawberries, where I’d explored the swampy low spots and hidden behind grasses and trees, where I’d gotten sunburned following the mowing machine and collecting the hay, where my dad had dug up a wild rosebush — now that field is no longer a field, but an extension of the trailer park, covered with mobile homes. The corner of the woods next to the intersection is now a funeral home and parking lot. Nothing stays the same, but does it improve?
I still have the photos. I still have the memories, but like the photos they are flat and lack the power to make me forget 25 years of adulthood that have made me numb my feelings in self-defense. Perhaps when I am older, old, my filters will weaken, my walls fall, and I will once again feel throughout my being the simple joy of seeing a squirrel twitch its tail on a sun-dappled lawn or of going out for a treat like ice cream. When I am old and everything is once more uncommon or difficult, not to be taken for granted, maybe then I will experience the purest and deepest of pleasures and strongest of emotions once again.
Maybe then I will feel October’s glow and warmth once more.