“1,750,000 Leaves,” a Memoir

by Phyllis Italiano

   It started . . . well, I guess you can say, it started when I bought this house.  I saw the house for the first time on a February day.  Now you all know how dismal February can be in the Northeast. I set out on February break from my school to buy a house on the east end of Long Island. The house that eventually became mine was the third one I saw on that first day of house hunting.
    When the agent opened the door, there was a bit of a catch in my breath, a deep pull of air into my open mouth, which I quickly covered with a small cough. I didn’t want the agent to up the price by 10 grand because of that reaction, but the light that streamed into this house on that bitter cold winter day was unbelievably dazzling, like it was washed with a yellow glow. You would have thought you were walking into a summer day; visions of white sand and blue water flashed through my brain. I almost yelled, “Eureka! I’ll take it!” And so, after much haggling, I eventually did.
    The house was surrounded by huge trees, brown-silvery, deeply furrowed trunks with spindly branches reaching to the sky — and so many of them. Did I wonder if that luminous light flooding the interior of the house was actually the result of trees without leaves? Naw, a woman with three failed marriages is obviously one who jumps in and thinks later, so I jumped, yet, one more time — sans ­vision of the future.
    That was 10 years ago, and while I was still working I couldn’t care less. The house could have been buried in leaves — I would hardly have noticed them. I only came to the East End once a month during the winter months. Then the day came when I became a retiree, collecting a small teacher’s pension and Social Security, and getting out of bed whenever I wanted to. After that, things changed.
   So for the last six years when the crowds left and the nights cooled, I took my last swim in the bay and began to tackle the bounty of those trees. Only now I knew that the real estate agent’s sale carrot, preserves on the side and the front of the house, were really oak leaf factories producing about 5,000 leaves per tree, according to East Hampton’s former natural resources director, Larry Penny.
    Undaunted, I would try to remember how those mighty oaks had fanned us all during the summer’s heat. I would wait till the cleared half-acre that I owned was covered and then I would begin the raking process, piling leaves onto an old sheet as I had seen them do in the Atlanta neighborhood where I once lived in my very first house — unlike the Bronx apartment where I was raised, without even a single tree on the horizon.
    I took my haul to the front curb, and the magic men came in the early morning with big machines that ate the leaves up like a tasty meal. Sometimes I would be sleeping, but if I heard the hum of the machine rolling down the street, I jumped out of bed, threw on a robe, and ran out to the street to make sure I had every last morsel of a tasty leaf breakfast ready for the leaf-eating machine.
    And it never ceased to amaze me how many leaves there were. Wish I had a mill for each leaf, the old coin worth one-tenth of a cent; not even a ha’penny. A mill would make me a tidy sum, I mused.
    I worked endless long hours raking. I would compose poems to the leaves, becoming a bit lightheaded from the lack of sustenance and hydration. The crisp still night air of fall or spring — of course, I always raked well into the night — would feel clean and fresh.
    Yes, that half-acre had to be cleaned twice a year, every year, fall and spring, taking days to complete the job. I’m sure I am that rare person who eyes the budding leaves as they emerge on the tips of branches each spring and shudders.
    How many more leaves were left to finally drop, I always asked myself in the fall, and in the spring as I started the routine all over, it was, where did they all come from? I thought I had carted every last leaf to the curb last fall.
    Those tenacious little buggers; how they loved to cling to the grass as though the grass was their mother. Could it be, I wondered? Did leaves come from the nurturing the grass provided? No, there is no grass in the woods that I could see, but there are plenty of leaves. Sometimes they cling together like lovers, even naughty lovers when more than two wrapped themselves around each other. And how they could hide under and in the branches of any bush. They weren’t prejudiced. They didn’t care if it was an astonishing flowering azalea or an ordinary boxwood, as long as they could entwine their dry brown crackling selves into any crevice in the body of the plant. They had no shame.
    Then a few years ago, it all changed. Some shortsighted people on the town board decided to cut out the leafpickup program for that year even though there was money already in the budget for the eating of my leaves to continue. When I heard this news, I could feel my bones aching in a massive revolt. What am I going to do with 1,750,000 leaves? Having counted the trees that just ring the immediate surrounding edge of the property, the number of leaves was simple arithmetic. I could stuff mattresses with them, but then what would I do with the mattresses and who would ever want to buy a leaf mattress?
    One million, seven hundred and fifty thousand leaves, though as I gather them up I am sure there are more leaves on my property than the national debt! My God, where will I put them? Seriously, where? I looked around me . . . and around me. I could take them to the dump — but how? In my Prius? It would probably take about 50 trips. Oh, that sounds like an enormous amount of work.
    But first I had to gather them all up and a sheet won’t do. I went to town to buy a leaf blower. How do you use a blower? Two master’s degrees and about 150 other post-graduate college hours, but not an hour spent on learning about the technique of using a blower. How hard can it be? I found out. Very! It was slow and tedious, and actually even a little boring. (What did I do with that sheet, anyway?)
     I tried the blower with my left hand, then with my right. Sometimes I tossed it between the right and left hands. I watched the leaves perform as I aimed my blower at them. They danced along, twirling around and around like young ladies in a ballet class. I worked hour after hour hoping my neighbors weren’t too annoyed by the loud humming sound as they went about their lives. If I can only keep up my concentration, I can master the stroke that gathers the most leaves to their final end. Whenever I pretended I was throwing a bowling ball, I managed to herd the leaves like a cowboy gathering his cattle together for a long drive.
    One million, seven hundred and fifty thousand leaves this year! Wish I could devour them like that lovely machine used to. Wasn’t much I could do with this haul but pile it into a moat I can create around the property line, and pray that soon they will come to their senses and rescind the no-leaf-pickup nonsense. Then I could rush out to the leaf-eating machine at the edge of the street and watch it while it devoured 3,500,000 leaves for breakfast.

    Phyllis Italiano lives in Springs, surrounded by trees. A retired teacher and school administrator, she has taken writing courses from several local writing teachers, and has had stories published previously in The Star.