I have an autumn assignment in my tenth-grade art class to collect and draw leaves. On jogs throughout town I gather them in gold, orange, speckled red and green. I press them between the pages of my heaviest books, then arrange them in a composition to draw. It’s good practice for layering colored pencil hues, blending shades and etching veins. But I find myself erasing and re-drawing, frustrated that I can’t get the vibrant colors exactly right. Still, I earn a blue ribbon at the art show.
After that project, I never quite lose the habit of collecting leaves. My first semester at Calvin blazes with crimson maples, and I walk around campus with eyes downcast from loneliness and leaf-searching. I stuff them in coat pockets and backpack compartments to preserve in my art history textbook; their moisture ruins its resale value.
As I slowly make friends, they start bringing me leaves they find, too. I store the leaves in a shoebox that grows more and more full. My friends ask me what I’m going to do with them, and, to be honest, I don’t know. I just keep picking up the next beautiful leaf I see.
Leaf color is the most brilliant after the rain. But once they’re dry, the color is lessened, and after a week between book pages, it’s faded even more. I experiment with different pressing times, different books, lining them with wax paper or newspaper, but the color never lasts like I want it to.
Today, I wander my neighborhood and admire the leaves my new country is famous for. I think of all the preserving I’d wanted to do before leaving Madison, all the moments I wished would never end. My last wine tasting, my last church service, my last walk along the lakeside. Last puzzle, last shared cocktail, last roommate night. Last bad movie with the people I watched bad movies with for five years. Last time seeing dozens of friends I could not hug goodbye.
I tried not to say anything during those times to announce how important they were to me; it’s best to just let the moment be, let it pass in all its sacredness and enjoy it while it’s there. I have some photographs from these times that I’ll press into album pages, but nothing can show the true spectrum of the life I had in the place that turned me into a Wisconsonite.
In college, my leaf shoebox fills with leaves from many cities, states, and even a few countries. I write letters to people on the leaves, or pen Bible verses and hang them in clothespins in my room. My roommate and I put some on our dorm room wall in a Van Gogh tribute, but even that must come down at the end of the school year.
My leaves are in storage now, next to other boxes full of movie tickets, letters, and keepsakes of the moments I’ve lived. I’m not sure what I’ll ever use them for, though sometimes I open the box and breathe the tea-like scent of a decade’s dried leaves. Still, I can’t bring myself to throw them away.
As the days now grow shorter and the nights darker, I try to let the metaphor of autumn give me hope instead of melancholy. The leaves turn brown and fall, but next year always brings beauty new and fresh. Like a wedding, autumn is a beautiful death to the way life once was. A necessary end to usher in a new beginning.
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband Josh and dog Rainy. She works as an IT support analyst and enjoys painting, rock climbing, and exploring the city.