Willie works as a garden man,
He plants trees, he burns leaves
You won’t find me raking leaves with ear buds in. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy my favorite music or an entertaining podcast. I probably would. But there’s something I enjoy more: my own thoughts. Or more specifically, where my thoughts decide to go.
Where they went last Saturday was to a song I hadn’t thought of in years. I spent close to three hours raking and all the while the opening lines of the same song kept playing in my head. And I just let them. I didn’t know I had those lines wrong, however, until I Googled it a few minutes ago.
What I kept singing was:
Willie works in a garden where
He plants trees, he rakes leaves.
I kept thinking, unlike Willie, I don’t plant trees, but I sure rake a lot of leaves.
But the actual lyrics, printed above, are different. When I read them I realized how unlike Willie I truly am. I don’t burn leaves either. But my dad did. And that brings me to one of the best things about raking leaves. I always do it by myself, but I never do it alone.
My dad is always with me. He and our old next door neighbor Tony “Cab” Waitkevich. Both have been gone a long time, but their memory is fresh. Especially on a crisp fall day. When we were little, they’d let us help rake leaves into the gutter where they’d light them on fire. We’re talking the 1950s. Nobody’s burnt leaves in a gutter for decades, but those of us old enough to remember also remember the aroma wafting through the neighborhood. It defined autumn. And in many ways defined our youth. These were simple times.
It’s that simplicity, I suppose, that I seek whenever I grab a rake and head outside. It’s the same simplicity I observed in the backyard of a B & B in Cooperstown, New York, in the mid-80s as innkeeper Michael Jerome put his own rake to use. He was a picture of serenity. I watched him from afar and told myself to let that scene sink in. And replicate it myself whenever I can.
I wrote about Michael Jerome a few years ago during leaf-raking season, saying I had heard he’d passed away. A copy of that article found its way to him and he promptly emailed me to say I’d heard wrong. What a relief.
My kids, too, show up, so to speak. In their 30s now, one in Texas, the other in L.A., when a rake’s in my hands, they are tykes once again. When they were little, we lived in Clarks Summit. There you just had to rake your leaves into the gutter and the street department came along to suck them up. Cool beans, except that the gutter was in the front of my house and all the leaves were out back. An old-timer with the same problem taught me to use a bed sheet. Lay it on the ground, rake the leaves into it, pull the four corners together, throw it over your shoulder like Santa’s sack, and carry it to the curb.
This method not only worked to a tee, but also spawned a lot of silly fun. When I wasn’t looking (on purpose, of course), Michael, maybe 3 years old, would climb into the pile of leaves on the sheet. I’d look around, asking Greta where her brother went. Naturally, she did not know. I’d hoist up my “sack” with complaints of how heavy this one was compared to the last. I’d also pretend I did not notice the giggles coming from inside. Out at the curb, when the stowaway was revealed, we’d all laugh hysterically. And then do it all over again.
That Art Garfunkel song, by the way? The one to which I goofed up the words? Its title is “Feuilles, Oh.” Feuilles, pronounced “fay,” is French for leaves.
The lyrics include the line: “Oh, leaves, save my life.”
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I must say leaves have, in a way, saved my life. Well, raking them has. So has cutting grass, trimming hedges and shoveling snow. It seems every time I had something difficult to work out, or some emotional pain to get through, Mother Nature rescued me with a yard full of fallen leaves or sidewalks buried in snow. I’m not sure if it was the physical effort or the fresh air or the sense of accomplishment, but I’d always finish the task feeling far better than when I had started.
Art Garfunkel included “Feuilles, Oh” on his first solo album in 1973. The name of that album is “Angel Clare,” which leads me to someone else who “arrives” to rake leaves with me. My mom. Her name was Claire, spelled slightly differently, and, yes, she was an angel.
My mom was not one to rake, but she loved holding open those big plastic lawn and leaf bags for me to fill. She died 16 years ago, leaving me to struggle with those blasted bags myself. That is, until someone invented the biodegradable paper ones that stand up by themselves. They’re pretty nifty those bags. But they’re not Mom.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blongs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.