B and I are going over to a friend's house this evening to watch the Giants play the Dallas Cowboys. We're not much in the way of football fans. We spend more time raking leaves (or these days, I admit, using our electric leaf-blower) and getting the yard ready for winter.
For me, the playing field is my backyard, and has been for a long time. And my game is raking leaves.
My thoughts first turn in this direction when the air becomes crisp in September and a few leaves start sprinkling down on the lawn. But I typically put off my raking until they have blanketed the ground, sometime in October. Then on a sunny Saturday, I don a pair of old gloves and pull out the rake from the back of the garage. Wiping off the cobwebs, I see two prongs are missing. Not bad. No need to buy a new rake this year.
People think raking leaves in a mindless chore, but my father taught me early on to put some planning into the job. First, you decide where to begin, then you follow a game plan. For me that's easy, because my lawn slopes from back to front, and it's easier to rake downhill. I rake the edges of the lawn into the bushes -- all the less to carry out later -- then start herding the leaves down the side of my yard.
Usually my father carried the leaves by himself; sometimes he'd hold one end of the blanket, I'd hold the other, and we'd carry the leaves out together. Three or four trips would do for our half-acre lawn.
Today, things have become more sophisticated, if less efficient. In my town, people are required to stuff their leaves into expensive biodegradable bags and line them up on the street. My yard takes at least six or eight bags.
The technique involves laying the bag on its side and pushing in armloads of crunchy leaves. Troubles come when I misjudge the piles and can't fit all he leaves into the bag. I rake some of the leftovers into the bushes, and the rest go into the next pile.
Toward the end of the day, I revert to the old method. Bags and patience gone, I haul out the old blanket and pile on the leaves. I can't put loose leaves on the street, though; they would just stay there all winter. So I carry them over to the empty lot down the street and dump them into the woods. The leaves are not really litter, I rationalize.
But the technique of leaf-raking is not all in the bagging. There's also the question of the raking stroke. Around the edges of the lawn, a short, upright stroke works best for getting into nooks and crannies of the yard; out on the open lawn, a long, flatter stroke is more effective. Eventually, you get into a rhythm, and the movement becomes hypnotic. Sometimes the distant pounding of drums from a high school band accompanies my strokes. An occasional far-off football cheer breaks the monotony.
There are moments when I begin to wonder why I don't live in a condo. I start thinking about problems involving my work, or issues with the kids, or resolving schedules at home, but I find the steady movement of arms and shoulders somewhow has a soothing effect that makes these problems seem less pressing, more manageable.
Sometimes, I fantasize about industrious children who could be doing this for me, but my kids are grown up and gone. Sometimes B comes out and helps me, but she has her own way of doing things. I actually prefer doing it myself. I like being out there alone.
Raking is not all work. It gets you out into the autumn air. It puts a little muscle on those desk-cramped shoulders, strengthens the legs, too. But the best thing about raking is the smell. The musky odor of fallen leaves brings back melancholy memories of days gone by -- of summers ending, of friends parting, of family members leaving for other far-off commitments,
Carting the last bag down to the street, gathering up the rake and blanket, I look back over the lawn and think about the autumn days of my youth. I picture my father's lawn, and how I helped him rake the leaves. There he is, in an old hat and moth-eaten beige cardigan sweater, teaching me the basics of leaf-raking, watching me as I clear off a few square yards of lawn, then give up and tumble into the piles of leaves he has made.
And there I am at a college football weekend, holding hands with my girlfriend, surveying the dormitory quad. Three men are making their way across the Pennsylvania lawn, pulling leaves into patches of canvas and hoisting them into the back of a truck at the end of the yard.
And I'm in New York City. My first apartment. The lawn in front of the building is only a worn patch of crabgrass. The wind swirls the leaves around a stunted tree. No one bothers to rake the leaves here. But there aren't too many, and by mid-November they will have disappeared.
And here I am today. I have done the job. The lawn is clean and surprisingly green in the waning light. Already a few new leaves have dropped from the trees, and next week the lawn will be covered once again. But for now I feel good; I have performed a rite of autumn.