One fall afternoon in 1955, all the kids on the block raked their piles of fallen leaves off the lawns and sidewalks and into the street. Heaps of crinkled oak and maple mounded the curbside. The confluence of those sweet smelling deadfalls and autumn breath propelled us to kick up our feet and whoosh our sneakers through the piles. We’d shape more piles with armfuls of fly-aways, throwing half in the air and half on the mounds.
In the evening, the whole block came out. Designated parents set fire to the five foot stacks of leaves, one by one. The kids wiggled hot dogs and marshmallows onto twigs and held them over the flames. We ran back inside to our kitchen, stuffed our charred dogs into buns, plopped mustard on them and ran back to stand around the fire and eat with our neighbors.
I went to sleep late that night comforted by communal joy. Early the next morning I woke up with a hacking cough and sneezing fits. By the afternoon I could hardly breathe. My eyes were so watery I lost focus.
My mother, who had two other children and was pregnant, wasn’t a reliable nurse. Two aspirin and bedrest was her usual answer to any ailment. We rarely saw a doctor.
Once, while sitting on the back steps, she witnessed me fall off my bike and scrape my knee in the driveway. She gulped down a bottle of Budweiser and said, “Don’t expect me to feel sorry for you!”
The morning I woke up hacking and sneezing, she moved my limp nine-year-old body into a second-floor room of my own at the front of the house, closed the curtains and set up a humidifier. No one was allowed in, except her. And the doctor. The verdict? I had an allergic reaction to burning leaves that kicked off a bout of bronchitis.
During the next three weeks my mother brought me Campbell’s soup and apple juice on a tray. She took my temperature twice a day and rubbed Vicks Vapo Rub on my chest and back. She never complained about my unrelenting loud cough. I cried myself to sleep in her arms and called for her in the night. She always came.
My parents had too much to hide to ever become friends with any of our neighbors, wherever we lived. But one day, from my sick room, I heard her ask a neighbor not to burn any more leaves because I was sick.
I’m still allergic to burning leaves. In fact, I’m allergic to leafing out in the spring and falling leaves in autumn. The sheltered memories of kicking up leaves and smelling them burn evokes both sadness and delight of a community that smelt and felt the rush of the season at the same time in the same way.
But my mother ministering to my sickness is more than a memory. That one brief period taught me all I needed to know about healing love.