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Woodpile and ashes (10/09/2005)
By Janet Lewis Burns


     
The final breath of this past summer is not likely to blow over as so much dust in the wind. For storm victims the summer of 2005 went out with a gasp, a roar, and a gulp. Now a weighty sigh for what may lie ahead and a lump in the throat for loss of loved ones taints this autumn with grief.

All around the countryside in autumn, children, hubbies, and hired hands look to the family kitchen table for molasses cookies, hot chocolate, warm cereal, beef stew, chili, pumpkin pie, and bread warm and fresh from the oven (known today as "Pillsbury's Poppin' Fresh").

Earthy gourds, deformed and shapely, in a basket with cobs of Indian corn, miniature hay bales and pumpkins with painted faces, along with some dry, deeply-hued leaves, make a cheery centerpiece. Grandma's visit to the Pumpkin Patch puts her in the spirit of the season.

What does a sixty year old from Winona County native recall of autumn as a Lewiston tomboy? Back home, two doors down from the 12-grade school, our family had a huge garden, a rhubarb patch, lilac bushes, a wooden swing, sandbox, and a natural cesspool in our backyard.

The black abyss haunted me with its dizzying depth and putrid smell, as I removed the metal cover to toss the evening garbage into its gullet.

Dad trekked mounds of leaves we had raked to the garden gone to seed. I can still picture his silhouette against a brilliant, pink sunset as he lit the leaf pile, which cascaded into thousands of floating, red ashes. His back bent forward, curved with an ache he never mentioned.

There was the rectangle, hinged, basement window where, in early autumn, us kids neatly piled split wood Dad tossed down to us in the dank, cement basement. There he kept a wood burner stoked all winter so Mom's laundry would dry on rows of clotheslines. Lewis Lye and homemade soup camouflaged the acrid scent of solid wood smoldering.

Autumn was Homecoming time at LHS. Up until around my eighth year in school, students were allowed to participate in a torchlight parade. It was taken as a grave responsibility to carry that splintery stick, wrapped on top with cloth soaked with kerosene.

I drift back to the aura of excitement and heart throbbing hush, as bobbing flames canvassed Lewiston streets. The parade climaxed at the football field where a huge woodpile shot flames into an ebony backdrop, masking dense cornrows beyond.

Fall meant a trip to Winona for winter school clothes. Choates was too expensive, though I delighted in scanning the racks to run my hands over fine, sleek garments. Home we'd go with our modest, yet trendy, outfits from Woolworths or Kresges, and paper dolls and comics we'd begged for, having bought our own Cokes at the lunch counter.

Our dad began his annual washtub baths at the hint of bitter winter. We had a woodstove in our kitchen, messy sooty stovepipes and all, where a kettle of water was always a swift flame away from boiling.

The washtub caper set us kids to giggling. Saturday nights in the sitting room, next to the kitchen, we sang and danced with Mother to the rollicking "Hit Parade" and "Lawrence Welk." Dad would sink into a steaming caldron, next to the stove in the darkened kitchen, splashing and humming.

Fall meant orange school buses bouncing along gravel roads, Halloween houses dressed in bewitching garb, caramel apples, storm windows, football, football, football, picking burrs from hooded sweatshirts, early to bed, chicken dumpling soup, and cuddling by the gas fireplace.

In many ways, it's not all that different today from autumns I knew as a child. It's what one makes of it.

It's about tradition, weathering storms, and burning bridges. It's brotherly love, American pride, and sacrifice. It's faith turning heaps of destruction into ash, and forging new beginnings.

Hope is the wind beneath our wings. Make yourself necessary to someone. 

 

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