November 14, 1997

The Burning Shirt

I love raking leaves. It is one of the very few physical activities that I do really well. I am not one of those yard guys who loves gardening, mowing the lawn and pruning the bushes. No, I hate all of those things. I only like to rake leaves.

Raking must be done in an orderly fashion of rectangles. You rake long sweeps of rectangles to clear a larger rectangle. Then you lay out a rectangular tarp to capture the leaves. The four corners of the tarp are then joined carefully together, one laid over another, without twisting, and the leaves are dragged to the pile.

The beauty of this arrangement is that the rectangles can be of any size, depending on your ambition. I like to keep mine small. It is easier to do more small areas than to peter out in the middle of a big one.

The real topper is to mow and bag the areas after they are raked. The mower sucks up any leaves left behind and a carpet of green is left where only an hour ago dead leaves resided. Do not get your fears about perfectionism get in the way. The reward is worth the jibes of your family and friends.

A tinge of sadness always accompanies my leaf raking. I learned my raking skills from my dad when at an early age I was conscripted to help out in the yard. He had not heard of the notion of paying children for yard help, so it was viewed by my brothers and me as slavery - which it was. But he was a benevolent master. And he always wore his burning shirt.

A burning shirt is a red and black plaid wool shirt which is worn for yard work in the fall. My dad always had one - not the same one because they do wear out every ten to twenty years. Please note that it was not his “raking shirt.” It was his “burning shirt” because after all those leaves were raked he would burn them. He would spend the entire weekend afternoon tending little piles of burning leaves.

I can still smell the smoke and the smoldering ashes. I would dance around the fires pretending that I had some good reason to be there. My favorite occupation was tossing chestnuts into the fire and then waiting for them to explode.

Sadly, burning is no longer allowed. The air we breathe may be better off, but I am not sure that we are. So there is always a let down after my raking. There is a touch of something missing each time I hang up my burning shirt.

Yes, I have a burning shirt. In fact, it is the very shirt my father wore during that period shortly before he died in 1971. I wear the shirt more sparsely than he did, so it has lasted me many years. I cannot afford to wear it for other activities, because it cannot be replaced.

The leaves themselves will be replaced. Spring will always bring a new batch of candidates which are allowed a few months of green before being retired to their true function. And I will be out there with my insane rectangles. Some days I will share with my son. The challenge is to pass along the love without the rectangles. But most days I will be by myself. But in my burning shirt I am never alone. I am just part of the transition.

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