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Maples in November

I stare through the plate glass window, my knees pumping up and down on the pedals of the stationary bike. The scene is gray and wet. The tires of the cars that flash past in both directions make a shushing sound that I can’t hear, but that I know. Across the highway is the cemetery. (For much of my life it was the only cemetery in town and, thus, carries the privilege of the definite article.) It feels appropriate, symbolic, well-timed that I would be here on this cold and rainy Sunday after Thanksgiving, working as hard on my attitude as I am on my cardio. I am approaching the anniversary of my mother’s death. Three years. Even longer when I count the long descent precipitated by Alzheimer’s. The missing, the longing, the sorrow feels as heavy as the sky that hovers over the low tombstones and soaring monuments. The calendar tells me it is almost Advent and my heart tells me it is anything but. I glance down at the digital numbers keeping me apprised of how many calories I have expended, how much time has expired, how far I have gone without moving at all. I can’t help wondering if all these machines were intentionally placed to face the cemetery. Is it on purpose that the patrons are reminded day after day of what all their effort is meant to, if not avoid, then certainly delay as long as possible? Or is it just unavoidable irony? And, then, as if she were standing right behind me, I can hear my mother’s voice. “Stop whining or I’ll give you something to whine about.” She knew well that, despite my generally optimistic attitude, I am capable of melodrama. “Now, hold up your shoulders and finish your exercising so you can get home before the roads get bad.” So I straighten my shoulders and, staring once again toward the cemetery, I notice a maple tree – Surely it was there before! – covered in leaves that look like flames. Orange and red and pomegranate pink. It stands right at the edge of the road by which every hearse, every mourner enters the cemetery. A single swath of color, a welcoming sentry, an invitation to see – even in darkness and sadness – beauty. Staring now at the glimmering shimmering tree, I remember the Thanksgiving afternoons of my childhood. Between the gluttonous meal at lunch and the return for second helpings at supper, Grannie and the aunts and the cousins would squeeze into the largest of the cars parked in the backyard and ride around the county looking for burial places of various kinds. I can see my mother and my aunts, their tiny waists cinched in shirtwaist dresses, leaning over to straighten a crooked wreath or reset a tipped over potted plant. I can hear their whispers as they point out to each other familiar names while we children wandered up and down rows of granite headstones, calculating ages and giggling at the old-fashioned monikers. We knew nothing of mortality, of grief, of the inevitability of both. We also knew nothing of the way in which our hearts were harvesting memories, laying them by in barns from which we would be able to pull them on cold and wet Sundays, on warm and sunny Wednesdays, on special occasions and ordinary days. Snapshots and video reels and audio files that defy death in amazing and mystical ways. The wind picks up a little, tickles the leaves on the maple tree just enough to send them dancing. I slow my pedaling, take a deep breath, and smile. When I was in college and first started keeping a quote book, I came across one from James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. “God gave us memories,” he said, “that we might have roses in December.” Or, I remind myself, in this case, maples in November.

Copyright 2023

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You touched my heart today. Thank you for sharing your gift. ❤️

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