The Loveliest Season
by Michelle Hollander
My phone sings out its cheery ringtone just as I’m approaching the midway point on my trail walk, right past the highest of the four hills on this particularly hilly path. I can’t count how many times I’ve hiked up these slopes since we moved here in the spring, sometimes with Joe and the kids but usually on my own. Still, I’m a little winded when I get to the final peak.
The caller, not surprisingly, is my mother. I’m so tempted to turn off the manufactured music in the woods, where there should be only the sound of birds and squirrels and crunching leaves. And if I can, I’ll also turn off the guilt in my chest for the annoyance this call is creating. She understands that when I’m out walking, enjoying the best part of my Sunday, I’ll get back to her later. I almost always do.
But no, this time the on-off switch that controls my conscience is stuck. I sigh and answer.
“She fell again,” Mom informs me without a single pleasantry to start the conversation. My typically pleasant mother is pretty rattled, I can tell. But I can’t tell who fell because that “she” could be almost anyone in Mom’s largely geriatric orbit. I continue my walk while she fills in the details.
This time it was Gloria. She could have tripped or maybe her 82-year-old legs simply called it a day. She was on her way to church, and the priest was the one who found her, lying on the walkway near the “Jesus Saves” sign. He called an ambulance and escorted her to the hospital, leaving someone else to start the early morning service.
I look up to the sky, well past the tallest tree, and consider the comfort it must have given Gloria, having her priest at her side right then.
A large bird, possibly a hawk, glides into my field of vision, its dark wings broad and magnificent against the bright blue background.
On second thought, being prone and in pain with a priest by her side might have pointed to a far worse outcome. Perhaps being found by a kid on a skateboard or by a couple with a stroller would have been better. Not that it matters now.
My thoughts are interrupted by seemingly far-off shuffling through dried leaves and then a couple of yips and one exceedingly loud bark. Within moments two dogs – one small and shaggy, the other dark and massive – are bounding in my direction, their owner ambling along well behind with leashes dangling in his hand.
I ask my mother to hold on while I scratch the yippy pooch’s head and try to keep the huge one with the baritone bark from knocking me over. “Sorry about Barney! He’s a bit too friendly,” the dogs’ owner calls out.
I wave to indicate that I’m fine, the dogs are fine, the day is fine, and I’m glad to see someone else in the woods on this gorgeous autumn afternoon.
Most of my neighbors in our new town, with its top-notch schools and huge parks and playing fields, refuse to walk on the trails. They’re concerned about the wildlife. At least that’s what I hear from Bill across the street, who actually takes a moment to say hello when he’s dragging out his recycling every other Tuesday, or from the few parents who are willing to strike up a conversation at a Girl Scout meeting or soccer game with someone they haven’t known since their kids were in preschool together.
When I tell them that I walk in the woods, often by myself, no one offers to join me. I’m fairly sure they’re avoiding the trails, not avoiding me. Otherwise I guess I’d be offended instead of entertained by all this worrying about something that never happens, like a wild turkey attack or a confrontation with a vicious chipmunk.
A sudden crash, probably a branch coming down or something coming down from a branch, sends lightning up my spine. I ask Mom to hang on a little longer, as I strain my eyes to find the critter that might have caused such a racket.
“You know there are bears all over this area,” Terri warned me at the school bus stop just last week. She grew up in the next town over and now lives a few houses down the road. “I hear they’re really active this time of year.”
I wasn’t looking to argue, so maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that I see her jogging on the road pretty often, where cars are really active all year.
Besides, I added, I couldn’t give up the trees and the trail and the fabulous fresh air, especially during this, the loveliest season, for fear of some unlikely encounter.
Arms crossed against her chest, Terri glared at me. “I’d take it a little more seriously if I were you. If you run into a mother bear with her cubs, that could be the last time you enjoy your fabulous fresh air.”
We looked away from each other and at our daughters, prancing on the curb as if it were a balance beam.
“Sandra, get over here,” my neighbor snapped at her seven-year-old. “You’re going to take a tumble.”
“You can’t blame a mama bear for wanting to protect her young ones, can you?” I smiled.
Terri didn’t smile back.
She barely said a word to me the rest of the week, and I suspect that we won’t be talking about walking in the woods again while we wait at the bus stop tomorrow or any day after.
I remember that my own mother is waiting on the phone, and she’s got concerns of her own that don’t involve chance meetings with angry bears or even expected ones with neighbors who can’t take a joke.
Her favorite friend, the one she checks in with every day – just as she checks in with me, especially now that seeing me is at least a day trip for either of us – is stuck in the hospital for however long, which will be followed by a stint in rehab for however long, until she finds her way home, or doesn’t.
My mother says that Gloria will almost certainly recover this time, and I’m relieved for both of them. Those lunches and movie dates and check-in calls will continue. Until they don’t.
And my persistent mother will call me each and every day, even when I am out in the woods enjoying the best part of my day.
That is, until she doesn’t.
With each step I breathe in the massive trees on either side of the path. As if on cue, a bright red leaf floats down, bounces off my chest, and lands in front of me on the packed dirt, a new obstacle to navigate.
If Mom were to fall – like Gloria, or Aunt Maddie, or Joe’s old boss who helped him get this new job – and these daily calls were to stop, who would want to hear about the salad place that opened near my office, or the meeting Lucy’s teacher requested, or the book I picked up at Barnes & Noble? Probably not Joe, who has his hands full at work, or my old friends, who are all so very busy, and definitely not my neighbors.
“Mom, remember after Aunt Maddie’s funeral, how we said we’d go to the cemetery to visit Dad and Grandma and Grandpa, but then I got kind of busy with the move and the girls and work and stuff? And then we didn’t want to go in the summer when it’s so hot? We should go, you know, before the holidays and the cold weather.”
I spot a broken walnut and kick it a few times down the trail, as I switch the phone from my left ear to my right.
“Hey, Mom, remember in our old house when I was like eight, and an acorn nailed me right on my head and I cried and cried, and we went out front and scolded the tree for being so mean?”
She laughs. Of course she remembers.
My chest tightens when I think about the memories my girls and I will, or perhaps won’t, keep from these precious years. When Lucy fell off the swing in our backyard over the summer, I suggested we have a word with that naughty swing. She looked at me like I was crazy.
I’m back on top of the highest hill when I hear the rustling and see a flash of black and then something a lot smaller moving nearby. I freeze, even though I know it’s only that guy’s dogs, big Barney and whatever the little one’s name is. I mean, logically, what else could it be?
Mom says she has to go, but I’m sure there’s something else I need to tell her.
“Lucy could draw a nice get-well card for Gloria,” I offer.
She thinks that’s a wonderful idea.
We’re about to hang up when I hear more movement in the woods.
“Mom, we’ll talk tomorrow. Right?”
Michelle Hollander writes from suburban New Jersey, where she has spent many years drafting non-fiction (and far too many PowerPoint presentations) in the corporate arena, and reading, discussing, and crafting fiction whenever possible. Her short stories have been published in Canyon Voices and Monday Night.
About the visual art and artist:
Images and method: Florida is a constant botanical spectacle and feast for the photo-artist’s eye, in color and black and white. I work with material from all sources from fancy conservatories to roadside wildflowers, often in photomontage. The cover piece is one of a five part series about “green”, the color and all of its connotations.
With international online, print, and gallery credits from a long career as an artist, teacher, and curator, publisher, and promoter, Roger Leege lives and works in Venice, Florida. In addition to his own practice, he gives back to the photo-art community as the publisher of Dek Unu Magazine. See more of his own work at www.rogerleege.net and contact him via email at rleege[at] gmail[dot]com.