by Natalie Christensen
I’ve always thought Fall was an inherently sad season. Winter, with its bare branches and scoured landscape symbolizes death, but Fall sneaks in, dropping hints of impending austerity. Fall is the process of dying, death’s torturous prelude. I figured that everyone experienced autumn, not necessarily in as macabre manner as I do, but at least solemnly. Fall, simply put, was falling leaves, soup, sweaters, and sadness.
As it turns out I’m wrong. Some people look forward to Fall, waiting all year for the “best” season to come around. My own children, in fact, rate Fall near the top, waiting impatiently for the first leaf pile, the first opportunity to pair a sweater with leather boots. It may be that my early memories of Fall are equally pleasing, only they’ve been usurped by later, heavier ones.
I don’t know if my parents divorced in the Fall, but I felt it in the Fall. I suppose I could ask them, but I don’t want to, and it doesn’t really matter anyhow.
When evenings start to become crisp, when darkness drops like a curtain, catching you unaware, outside, unprepared, you scurry. You scurry home, to hearth, to warm lights and to savory scents. The fifteen year-old me was probably self-absorbed, flitting through summer, involved in my own sunny world, it wasn’t until Fall came that I scurried home, looking for the comfort I hadn’t needed during long days outside, driving aimlessly in cars with friends. I don’t know, I don’t remember that part.
I do remember coming home one Fall evening as though it was my first time, (as though I hadn’t been home every night of my entire life), to find the blinds still open, the house dark, the lights off, the kitchen cold and empty. It was this way because this was my father’s home now, my mother was across town, in a rented condo. My father worked until six and always had, usually returning home to change out of his suit and join his family at the oval kitchen table. The closing of the blinds, the lighting of mood lights, the savory scents had all come from my mom, and my dad, the newly crowned hearth-keeper, probably missed those pieces as much as I did. Certainly he hadn’t realized that the absence of those elements would throw me so thoroughly, or that I needed them in order to not feel alone and dismal and scared.
During this time, in some teen diet fad fit, one evening I wrote down everything I’d eaten at my high school that day, including a bag of Doritos and 2 peanut M&Ms, then forgot about it completely. I assume I must have left it on the counter because not soon afterward a big bag of chips and a family-sized sack of peanut M&Ms, foods that, until then, never had entered our home, showed up in our cabinet. My dad guessed my scribbled note was a shopping list, that we must have a family system in place and he should play his part.
Which is to say, he was trying.
Eventually, as all families do, we cobbled together a new sort of normal. My sister, Dad, and I formed a sort of bachelor life – standing in the kitchen together to eat, the teens freed from convention, having cereal for dinner, my Dad warming up leftovers from his work lunch. When with my mom, she cooked for us, old favorites from our childhood served on new plates, from her new place. My mom shored herself up enough to shore us up, maintaining routine and providing coziness. My Dad altered his routine, coming home early to turn the lights on for his daughters. They did their best. They did well.
But Fall still knocked the wind out of me.
Fall is a time to batten down the hatches, to get things in order, to store nuts for the long hard Winter. Having the floor fall out beneath me as a teenager during this season set some sort of internal alarm system. I’ve never lacked shelter, or food, or warm clothing, but the sound of an autumn football game, or the scent of dry leaves, sends me first into a mild panic, then into a sorrowful gloom. I yearn to be scooped up, wrapped in a homemade afghan, and served a cup of cocoa.
I want to be little and safe.
Less so now, twenty-some years later, in part because I have little ones of my own that need me to wrap them and keep them safe. Each time I turn-down our honey-colored blinds, and snap on the standing lamp, I am creating for them what I received as a little girl, and what I needed so badly as a frightened, lonely teen. Each time I make cocoa to warm us up on a dark, brisk evening, I am patching that tender spot.
And of course, as I wrestle my feelings, taming them enough to rise above and gather my wits, to fold sweaters and pull out the boots, I feel immense affection and empathy for my own parents. My mom cried and cried in that rental condo across town, yet she still piled our beds with snug blankets, prepared hearty, nourishing meals and packed our lunches. My dad took days off work, we’d find him disheveled, puttering about, a stunned look on his face, and yet he still taught us to drive, had permission slips signed on time, and sat on my floor to listen to Neil Young.
It’s ok if I feel a little sad in the Fall. What a perfect season to curl up and drift back through memories, to sink into a little melancholy, to make soup and cocoa—not as a matter of routine, but as an act of recognition, of honor, and of love for self and family.
(Note: this article is a repost and was originally published last year.)
About Natalie Christensen
“PARENTING WITH EMPATHY.”
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.