The Oak Leaf: A Story of Memories

“One more shelf Emily and we’ll be done” Dad encourages.  While not grueling work cleaning out Mom’s closet is emotionally draining. It took Dad a few years to be ready for it, I know that I’m not. We are both a little wary of this last shelf, its where she stored her keepsakes.  The home of her most treasured memories.

We carefully remove each box and explore its contents.  Several are filled with greeting cards, both store-bought and handmade. Some of them make us laugh, a few make us cry. Another box contains trinkets from various destinations around the country. A thimble from the Grand Canyon.  A silver spoon from Wall Drug Store.  A Minnie Mouse hat – somewhere there’s a picture of Mom and me sporting our hats. The last shoe box I pull from the shelf is so light I thought it may be empty.  “Watcha got Emily?” Dad asks.

“I’m not sure,” I say and hand Dad the old shoe box.  He slowly removes the lid and peers inside. “I forgot about these,” he whispers.   Stepping down from the kitchen chair I take a look at the box for myself.  It seems to be a collection of dried leaves. Reaching to pick one of them up I ask, “why’d she keep these Dad?”

“Careful Emily, they’ll be very fragile by now,” Dad gently warns as he put the lid back on. “Let’s go get some tea and I’ll explain.”

After settling around the kitchen table Dad again opens the box. “These leaves are from Deer Run Park. You remember our fall hikes?”

“You mean with all of Mom’s family?  Sure.”

Dad leans back and begins to reminisce, “They’d pick a weekend in October, hoping that the leaves had turned.  We would drive the couple hours to the park to picnic and hike no matter the weather.  Some years were beautiful. The bright sun causing the trees to glow with color. It always reminded me of a patchwork quilt.  Other years it was cold and gloomy.  But there was a special beauty in that as well.”  Sitting forward Dad turns to me.  “Each hike your Mom would gather a leaf, one that she found to be the prettiest or special in some way.”

“I remember that. You used to get so perturbed because she would stop on the trail to look for leaves while everyone else hiked on.

“Yeah, well, she was not happy with just any old leaf, it had to be just right.” Dad examined the box for a few moments. “She could pick up each one of these and tell you which hike it was from. Probably not the year but something related.

“Like the year the park was so flooded we had to wade through the last part to finish the trail?”

“Yeah, something like that. She could tell you which leaf she collected that year, but I can’t.”

“So what are we going to do with them? We just can’t throw them out or burn them like other leaves.”  Both of us stare at the box as if it held the answer.

Stirring in his chair Dad says, “Let’s take them back. How about you and I take these back to Deer Run.”

“Are your knees up to it? If I remember right some of those trails were pretty rugged.”

“I’ll be alright, we can stay on the easier trails.  I’ve heard there’s a way down to the dells that avoid the stairs. Does the third Saturday in October work for you?  We always went around that time.”

“The third Saturday it is,” I confirm.

Following an uneventful drive, we finally reach the park entrance.  The trees lining the entrance road are brilliantly lit, creating a kind of stained glass canopy with their different colors. After a brief picnic of sub sandwiches and chips, we begin our walk.  Dad is dressed for the hike like I always remembered, blue jeans, denim jacket, broad brim hat, and a walking stick.  The one difference is the shoebox held in his other arm.

“So how are we going to do this?” I asked as we entered the trail.

“How about we place a leaf wherever we think Mom would have liked it?”

“Okay, sounds good to me.”  As we hike along we can hear the giggling of children ahead.  Every now and again the wind would rustle the trees causing a colorful cascade of leaves to drift down.

“That looks like a good place,” gently taking a leaf from the box Dad points to a boulder by the stream. “Put this one by the boulder Emily.” Returning from my task I see him smile and nod, pleased with the spot. As we walk the trail different memories bubble to the surface like my first hike, the time my uncles got lost, and when aunt Marie fell in the creek.  Every now and then Dad stops, hands me a leaf and points out a rock, a peculiar tree, or a bright spot where the sun is breaking through the trees.  Dad smiles and nods each time a leaf is placed.

“Well Emily, we’re down to the last leaf,” he says holding up a very brittle oak leaf.  “This was probably her first leaf, maybe from when she was a kid. We need to find someplace special.”

We come across several promising spots, an old stump, a small patch of wildflowers, a bed of pine needles, and a peculiarly twisted maple, but none seem exactly perfect. At one point Dad mentions putting it in the stream that runs beside the trail, but that doesn’t quite fit either.  Rounding a bend in the trail we enter the dells, we’ll soon have to turn back.  This part of the trail runs between sandstone cliffs.  Damp, dark, and musty this section is different than the rest of the trail. At the end of the dells are ladders which continue the trail but will it be the end of the line for us.  Along the dells were various cul-de-sacs with fantastic names like “Devil’s Punchbowl” and “Giant’s Bathtub”.  In one particular nameless cul-de-sac, there is a shelf like space worn into the sandstone.  It was the place where Mom’s family always stopped to capture a family photo. We called it the “caves” even though the only cave-like feature was a hole that kids could go through.

The “sitting in the caves” photos in Mom’s albums tumble through my mind.  All similar yet marking the passing of time, children growing up, new faces as spouses make their first hike and the smaller faces of grandchildren. Looking at the caves I can almost see them jostling around, getting set for another picture, another year. This is the perfect spot for the last leaf.

“Emily, crawl up there. Find a crack or a spot where the wind won’t blow it away.” Dad says as he hands me the leaf.  Near the back of the shelf, I find a small opening between the layers of rock.  Using a twig I gently prod the leaf into the crack.  Clambering down from the shelf I see Dad smile, nod, and knock the remaining bits of leaf from the box.

“Very good Emily, I think Mom would approve. How about we head to the General Store from some ice cream?”

Taking the shoebox I link my arm in his and together we begin to walk back the way we came. About halfway back I stop, reach down and pick up a perfectly formed, deep red oak leaf. Twirling it by the stem I examine its form, its veins, the richness of its color. When I hold it up to the sun it glows like stained glass. Opening up the shoe box I place it inside.

“Watcha doing Emily?” Dad asks.

“I think that it may be time to start keeping some memories of my own, is it okay if I keep the shoebox?”  Dad smiles, nods, and together we walk back. 

Dale Heinold
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