I always feel Thanksgiving is near when most of the leaves have fallen from the trees, resulting in endless giant piles of decaying brown crumbs. As our giant pile begins to take over the street, we pray that the township will come soon to remove it. Inevitably, they won’t make it in time for the first snowfall of the season…followed by another…and then another…leaving us with a giant frozen pile of brown crumbs blanketed in ice and snow. And, of course, these piles always block the drainage system, flooding the streets until late spring and a much needed warming trend.
But when I was a kid, my most favorite activity in the autumn was to make giant piles with the leaves and jump in and out of them for endless hours. Other times I would ride my bike into and through them…now that’s fun! Oftentimes, our city would push all the extra leaves to the dead end at the bottom of the descending side street we lived on, making bicycle crashes at least safer by being out of the roadways. And when the leaves were not removed before the first snow came, we’d grab our sleds and race down to the bottom of the hill, head first, into the great pile of fluffy white and brown.
This time of year also reminds me that Christmas is right around the corner. In America, you can’t get away from it. Before I was Jewish, I celebrated Christmas with my family. Looking back, I think as a child that I thought it was my favorite holiday…but it wasn’t. There was such a build up of anticipation for what you might receive from Santa – you picked what you wanted out of the big Sears catalog and showed it to your mother to ensure a message would get through to the big guy. Then came the unavoidable disappointment of not getting exactly what you asked for – the generic brand Barbie or just socks and underwear or maybe a new nightgown. So much hope and energy went into this one day and all I would be left with was despondence. I knew and know my parents did their best and wanted Christmas to be as magical as it was. But as I got older, I grew more and more to dread this time of year – not being able to buy loved ones what they wanted; battling the masses at every store and shopping mall; trying to avoid the crazy drivers and the endless traffic; being berated by nasty people who have completely missed the point of the season altogether…
Becoming Jewish and no longer having to celebrate Christmas was a huge relief – no more expectations or anxiety. My husband and I pretty much hibernate until January, stockpiling supplies until it’s safe to leave the house. But don’t get me wrong – as the days grow shorter and shorter, I enjoy the whimsical decorations and the dark nights shining with colorful lights.
Right after Thanksgiving, my go-to route has Winterfest. A makeshift ice skating rink is erected that is open to the public with nightly shows by professional skaters who also teach lessons. A tent alongside the rink serves fun winter snacks and a giant Christmas tree is put on display. This year they also installed a kiddie Ferris Wheel, a motorcycle track and a carousel.
Later this month, Chabad will put up their giant menorah for Hanukkah.
Here, I met a woman in her 40s who asked me about the festival. Then she started asking about cycling. She wanted to learn how to ride a bike again, not having ridden one since she was a small child. She asked me all kinds of questions – “Where do I buy a bike?” “Do you carry water and how?” “Isn’t it scary riding with cars on the road?” “I have to wear a helmet, right?” I answered all her questions to her liking, she telling me why she wanted to learn. She liked being outdoors and being in nature and wanted to be able to go further. To her, “Riding a bike looks so free.” I told her she was right and urged her to contact a local cycling group to find lessons ASAP.
Since 2010, my dread leading up to this time of year has been the anniversary of my sister Maureen’s death. She died suddenly three days before Christmas. My family was coordinating a get together for Christmas day, which fell on a Saturday that year. My parents were making their travel arrangements and my sisters were discussing the potluck menu. The last thing Maureen did was attend a Christmas party where she worked. By all accounts, she had a wonderful time, eating, drinking and laughing along with her coworkers and friends. She died peacefully in her sleep and reportedly had no pain when she passed. Although I’m grateful that she was happy and felt no pain at the time of her death, it was still untimely and devastating for our family. She was 51 – the age I am now. She would’ve been 52 on January 20, 2011. I will be 52 on February 4, 2017. I cannot imagine my life being over in three weeks from now…this time of year sucks…
I’ve talked about totems before and have come to realize they’re not always “animal spirits.” Sometimes they’re objects or symbols…or strange weather patterns…
Being Jewish and no longer celebrating Christmas, my refusal to attend my family’s Christmas party didn’t seem to sit well with my sister. Maureen dying right before Christmas forced my presence. The day after Christmas we drove to my other sister’s home to prepare for the funeral and spend the day together in mourning. That night, on our way back to the hotel, a blizzard developed – an enveloping white that poured over the earth, making property, sidewalks and roadways indecipherable. The next morning, we cautiously made our way to the funeral home, attempting not to kill ourselves on the icy roads and large snowy embankments along the highway.
In late January 2015, I picked up my brother and his wife from the Philadelphia Airport. My mother had returned to her home to die, and despite my brother’s cancer and chronic pain, he defied doctors’ orders and flew back to New Jersey to say goodbye to our mother. As we approached the Walt Whitman Bridge heading east, the sky ahead over southern New Jersey became increasingly darker to the point of pure blackness. All day had been sunny with blue skies, yet we suddenly found ourselves in udder darkness amidst a blizzard less than three miles from my mother’s home. We managed to trudge to the house where my brother got to spend time with family throughout our mother’s last days. On my way home, the snow suddenly stopped at the border of my mother’s town…there was no snow in the forecast that day…
Three days before Maureen died, we talked about the winner of Survivor – I think we were both happy about the results (it was Fabio…). That same night, this was her last post on Facebook:
“just saw a commercial for the ‘”fockers”‘ and it was ‘”are you prepared to be a godfocker”‘ lol.”
I think it’s about time for me to watch this movie…
“I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall”
Autumn Leaves – Eva Cassidy
“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump