ONE MILLION SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFITY THOUSAND LEAVES
By Phyllis Italiano It started…well, I guess you can say, it started when I bought this house. I saw the house for the first time on a February day. Now you all know how dismal February can be in the Northeast. I set out on February break from my school to buy a house on the east end ofLong Island. The house that eventually became mine was the third one I saw on that first day of house hunting.
When the agent opened the door, there was a bit of a catch in my breath, a deep pull of air into my open mouth, which I quickly covered with a small cough. I didn’t want the agent to up the price by ten grand because of that reaction, but the light that streamed into this house on that bitter cold winter day was unbelievably dazzling, like it was washed with a yellow glow. You would have thought you were walking into a summer day, visions of white sand and blue water flashed through my brain. I almost yelled, “Eureka! I’ll take it!” And so, after much haggling, I eventually did.
The house was surrounded by huge trees, brown silvery, deeply furrowed trunks with spindly branches reaching to the sky, and so many of them. Did I wonder if that luminous light flooding the interior of the house was actually the result of trees without leaves? Naw, a woman with three failed marriages is obviously one who jumps in and thinks later, so I jumped, yet, one more time–sans vision of the future.
That was almost ten years ago, and while I was still working I couldn’t care less. The house could have been buried in leaves I would hardly have noticed them. I only came to theEast Endonce a month. Then the day came when I became a retiree, collecting a small teacher’s pension and Social Security, and getting out of bed whenever I wanted to. After that, things changed.
So for the last six years when the crowds left and the nights cooled, I took my last swim in the bay and began to tackle the bounty of those trees. Only now I knew that the selling carrot of preserve on the side of the house and in the front of the house, were really oak leaf factories producing about 5,000 leaves per tree. Undaunted, I would try to remember how those mighty oaks had fanned us all during the summer’s heat. I would wait till the cleared half acre that I owned was covered and then begin the raking process. Piling leaves onto an old sheet as I had seen them do in theAtlantaneighborhood where I once lived in my very first house, unlike theBronxapartment where I was raised–without even a single tree on the horizon.
Taking my haul to the front curb, the magic men came in the early morning with big machines that ate the leaves up like a tasty meal. Sometimes I could be sleeping and if I heard the hum of the machine rolling down the street, I jumped out bed threw on a robe and ran out to the street to make sure I had every last morsel of a tasty leaf breakfast ready for the leaf-eating machine.
And it never ceased to amaze me how many leaves there were. Wish I had a mill for each leaf—not even a hapenny—a mill would make me a tidy sum I mused.
I worked endless long hours raking. I would write poems to the leaves becoming lightheaded from the lack of sustenance. The crisp still night air of fall or spring–of course, I always raked well into the night– would feel clean and fresh. Yes, that half acre had to be cleaned twice a year, every year, fall and spring, taking days to complete the job. I’m sure I am that rare person who eyes leaves as they emerge on the tips of branches each spring, and shutters.
How many more leaves were left to finally drop I always asked myself in the fall, and in the spring as I started the routine all over, it was, where did they come from? I thought I had carted every last leaf to the curb in last fall. Those tenacious little buggers how they loved to cling to the grass as though the grass was their mother. Could it be I wondered? Did leaves come from the nurturing the grass provided? No, there is no grass in the woods I could see, but there are plenty of leaves. Sometimes they cling together like lovers, even naughty lovers when more than two wrapped themselves around each other. And oh, how they could hide under and in the branches of any bush. They weren’t prejudiced. They didn’t care if it was an astonishing flowering azalea or an ordinary boxwood, as long as they could entwine their brown dry, crackling selves into any crevice in the body of the plant. They had no shame.