By Julie C. Donaldson
It was October when we moved into an old red brick house in Salt Lake City. We were renting while my husband finished graduate school, and we counted ourselves fortunate to live in such an established neighborhood that was blessed with the first trees in the valley. Because they’ve been here so long, the trees lining our street are giant beauties: tall, full, stately, stretching up and out and meeting high overhead.
The trees were particularly striking that month as they put on their autumn finery and morphed from one level of glory to the next in an extraordinary display of color. And then one day, as if at an unseen signal, the leaves took the leap as one. Brick houses stood like islands on lakes of orange and gold. My children pressed their noses to the window and watched leaves drift through the air like multi-colored snowflakes.
My oldest daughter, Adah, eagerly asked if we could make a leaf pile and jump in it. Her excitement reminded me of my first experience jumping in a leaf pile. I was a freshman at Utah State University in beautiful Logan, Utah. Having grown up in various desert locales, I had never known a real, leaf-turning autumn. So when I passed the quad one day between classes and saw the leaves piled into great mounds, I felt like a child again. Giddy with excitement, I took a running start, leapt high into the air, and dove onto a leaf pile. I landed –whump! — stomach first. Sprawled on the ground with my breath knocked out of me, I felt extremely foolish as passersby stopped and stared.
I hadn’t had the experience necessary to know that a pile of leaves wouldn’t support my weight.
As I stood at the window with my four children I thought, I bet it’s easier for kids, with their lighter bodies. They probably don¹t hit the ground as hard as I did. I told the kids to get their shoes on because we were going to go leaf-pile-jumping. But before we could tie a single lace, the lawn service came, courtesy of our out-of-state landlord. We watched in dismay as five competent men zipped around the yard before we could make a single pile and drove off with bags full of leavesŠour leaves. I felt robbed of my autumn experience.
I looked next door and noticed that our neighbor’s lawn was completely buried in fallen leaves. I hadn¹t met her yet, but I knew she was elderly. And then I had a brilliant idea.
“Don’t worry,” I told the kids. “Tomorrow we’ll go next door and rake up the neighbor’s leaves for her. You can jump in the piles and then we’ll bag them so she won’t have to.”
Autumn fun and a service project rolled into one. What could be better? I imagined an enjoyable afternoon project that would take maybe an hour at the most. Again I lacked the experience to know what I had gotten myself into.
After school the next day I put jackets and gloves on the kids and we went next door with rakes and bags. The first order of business was to make a pile for them to jump in. They were smarter than I had been and jumped onto their knees. It was fun for a few minutes, and then it was time to get to work.
My children, ranging in age from four months to 7 years old, were not extremely helpful. Five year-old David was the closest to being helpful, pushing leaves into (and over and under) bags and hauling the bags to the
sidewalk. Jacob cried and I had to stop raking to nurse him. Adah kept wandering back inside to watch PBS. And Sarah, being a typical toddler, screamed if I accepted a bag tie from anyone but her.
I raked until my shoulders ached. I bagged until my strength flagged. I could not believe the extent of the project I had taken on. The picturesque lake of leaves grew to enormous proportions in my mind, rivaling the Pacific Ocean in its vastness. I wanted to quit several times, but the thought of that unknown elderly woman inside the house gave me the strength to persevere.
Four hours later I stopped and surveyed my work. I had filled twenty huge leaf bags, and there was one last pile on the lawn. Jacob was asleep under piles of blankets in the middle of the lawn and the girls had given up and gone inside long ago. It was cold and nearly dark and it was time to make dinner. I was so tempted to leave that last pile there.
Just then my neighbor Gwen from across the street walked over and asked me if I had met the lady whose yard I was raking.
No, not yet, I told her. She took me by the arm (a tired arm) and knocked on the door of my unknown neighbor. A little, stooped, white-haired lady opened the door and peered out uncertainly.
Gwen said, “Betty, this is your new neighbor Julie. I thought you should know that she’s been out here all afternoon with her kids raking up your leaves for you.”
I squirmed in embarrassment and wished I wasn’t there. I didn’t want the attention. After all, aren’t we supposed to give our alms in secret?
“Oh, really?” she asked in a feeble voice. “I heard children but I thought they were just playing in the leaves.”
Gwen said, “No, they’ve been raking them for you. Isn’t that nice?”
Betty squinted at me with her faded blue eyes. “Well, thank you,” she said. “My lawn guy will be very happy.”
I felt like I¹d had the breath knocked out of me. I pasted a smile on my face and said, “I didn’t realize you had a lawn guy. Well, then….”
I suddenly felt very foolish. It seemed like all of my work was for nothing, and I wanted to just go home and never rake another leaf again. Let the lawn guy take care of that last pile of leaves–my work here obviously wasn’t needed, and maybe not even appreciated.
But then Gwen put her arm around my shoulders and said, “Well, she’s done a great job showing her children how to serve. And isn’t that the most important thing?”
Betty smiled and nodded and I said good-bye. Gwen walked back across the street and I stared at that last pile of leaves, trying to decide if it represented an insult or an opportunity. With Gwen’s words echoing in my
mind, I made a quick decision and called out, “Hey, Davey! Come help me with this last pile.”
“Sure, mom!” he replied, skipping over with a bag in hand, still eager to help at the end of this long project.
As we pushed leaves into a bag I asked him, “So, how do you feel about helping our neighbor?”
“Great!” His blue eyes glowed with happiness, his cheeks dimpling with his deep smile. “She’s going to be so happy!”
I couldn’t help but smile right back at him. Working alongside my son in the dusky twilight, I thought about his joy in serving someone he didn’t know. That’s when I realized that it didn’t matter if it was the lawn guy or the elderly lady that we made happy that day. Gwen was right. It was the experience that mattered.