The leaves have fallen and their musty scent lifts up from the woods around the house and drapes itself around me like a shawl. The beautiful red maple leaves lie dormant on the forest lawn along side the oaks and birch and lowly locust. Their decay, although colorful and dramatic, usually takes me down a path to a past I can no longer visit, not even in my dreams.
…but, not this year.
It has been four years without my Lilly — four years of Birthdays, Thanksgivings, Christmases, vacations. All these years, I’ve felt alone, displaced… like a leaf fallen from a tree that was never raked up or mowed, never absorbed back into the soil, not even blown away to a ditch with other leaves. I’ve felt like that one leaf, moldy and damp, that lies on the ground beneath the snow and ice until spring, somehow separate from all the other leaves that have gone on to replenish the soil and finish their life cycle.
It may creep up on me though, even before the family gathering. It always does. The old familiar gray. But this year has been different….
This year, our community food pantry had a crisis. I don’t know why, but they were short on supplies to feed over 1000 needy families in my small, rural town (the city population is 4,000 and the county-wide population is about 30,000). The food pantry posted on Facebook that they needed 1000 cans of green beans, 1000 cans of corn, 700 cans of pumpkin, 900 boxes of stuffing, etc., in order to meet their ordinary demand for Thanksgiving. The needed this food within a week to make delivery of Thanksgiving Baskets to needy area families. I was shocked that we had over 1000 families in our small area that needed food. I wanted to help, but I was overwhelmed with the idea of 1000 cans of anything. However, I was determined to help my neighbors in need in whatever way that I could.
I went to the grocery store and bought a case of green beans, Green Giant brand, .58 cents a can — and a case of canned corn for the same price. They were on sale. The cake mixes where also on sale so I bought a case of that also. I also purchased canned pumpkin for pies, evaporated and sweetened condensed milk, chicken broth, stuffing, mac and cheese, bags of dry beans, instant mashed potatoes, canned gravy and cranberry sauce… by the case.
I felt like Santa Clause! The more food I bought, the better I felt. I could imagine the mother of the family opening her Thanksgiving basket and planning how to prepare her family a wonderful meal. I could see the kids eyes light up for mashed potatoes and gravy and see the father sit back in his chair too full to sit up right any longer after finishing his meal. In my imagination I was with those families, having that much desired meal, the aroma of the gravy and the tukeys and hams the parish house provided wafting through the room. I could feel their worries disappear, if just for that day, as they sat down together for a good meal. I could feel their thankfulness, and I was thankful.
I realized as I was shopping that I felt useful again. I felt that I had something important to do, a purpose. I realized that I had not felt that way since I lost Lilly. I had been like that leaf lying on the grass through snow and ice, surviving, but not living. That day, I was actually doing something meaningful. I didn’t realize how much I had missed that, how much I needed to be needed.
By the time I donated my food, the pantry had nearly all the food they needed and were starting to place extra food aside for their Christmas Dinner demand. I was amazed at our community’s response to this need. Everyone bought a case of this or a can or that and, suddenly, within a week, we were taking care of the entire hungry population in our area.
So I guess I wasn’t like that one lone leaf. There were lots of us leaves floating about in the autumn air, some giving, some receiving… all needing something.
This Thanksgiving, our little community determine that not one of us would go hungry. That not one of us would feel like that leaf that survived in the spring alone with no other to understand. This year, we would all eat. We would all be thankful… giver and receiver alike. This year, we would all be full. I was a part of that, and I am both proud and humble.
In the fall of the year, all the leaves fall from the trees, whether Oak or Maple, Birch or Locust… they all land on the forest floor. The smell is musty and it envelopes you like a shawl.