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Fall Nights

September 27, 2018

Fall in South Georgia

Thunderheads formed on the horizon as I drove home.  I could see them in the distant twilight, a dark outline on the edge of lighter clouds. I was alone in the car and had Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s “C’mon, C’mon” on repeat. That song makes me remember, especially on a quiet night, alone in the car, with thunderheads in the distance. I love rain, always have. Mama says it’s because I was born during a summer storm.

To be fair, it’s the build-up to the storm I love most.  Anticipating a storm in South Georgia feels a little like the quickening right before a first kiss. Just a whisper of change at first, as smoky-gray clouds, begin their build-up overhead.  Then, the wind picks up and bends the pine tree tops. The dry, crunchy magnolia leaves balanced on top of the grass begin their whirling dance, a wind chime outfitted with old pieces of paper instead of hollow reeds.   When I lived on Morgan Hill, there was romance in going out on the front porch with a glass of iced tea just to watch the storm blow in.   There is an undeniable romance about fall in South Georgia.

Jamie would claim I believe there’s romance in most things.  He’s right, but it’s only once a year that fall walks in my door with a full suitcase of nostalgia and unpacks memories all over the place.  Like Christmas ornaments lovingly unwrapped every year, I welcome most and hold on to them just a little while before I pack them up and put them away until next time.  There are few surprises in my litany of remembrances.

The farmers don’t want any rain right now.  Not just yet. Most have just pulled peanuts up in the fields to dry.  Farmers around here, our friends and neighbors, have been working late into the evenings.  Those of us living on the field’s edge have begun the futile wiping of fine, red dust off the tops of our china cabinets and countertops.  It finds its way through briefly opened doors, slides in on the tops of shoes, and tiptoes inside through the constant squeak and slap of screen doors.  When we were little girls, Mama teased that the farmer who worked the field directly behind our house waited to pick peanuts when he saw her clean sheets hanging on the clothesline.

From now till late October, that most distinctive smell of fresh peanuts is in the air.  One whiff of that mixture of dirt, sweat, sunshine and peanuts and I can clearly see full moons and hay bales, leaf piles, and fields so full of cotton blooms it looks like a sudden and unexpected snow.  Pretty soon, but not quite yet, the driers at the peanut company will begin their slow, low-hummed lullaby blowing all night long.

I remember fall festivals with cake walks and sweet shop booths and games like Jacob’s ladder with a live goldfish as a prize.  Daddy threatened before we even got out of the car that we could play Jacob’s ladder as many times as we wanted to, but the goldfish stayed at school.

High school football games under bright lights on Friday nights were ubiquitous and still herald the beginning of back-to-school. Although it’s always hot when the season starts, there is an expectation of warm blankets, thermoses full of something warm, knitted scarves and hats. When I was in school, the crowd was enthusiastic and invested; the turf soft and green, thick beneath our feet.  I can still smell grilled hamburgers and roasted peanuts. I can hear the boys, primal in their readiness to tear through a paper sign painted by cheerleaders who just days before held thin, long wooden brushes thick with Columbia-blue tempera paint. I can still smell the paint, too.

On the eve of his first high school homecoming, I tried to impart to Jack what a big deal it once was to wear pinned to your shoulder a white mum with blue pipe cleaner fashioned into your boyfriend’s football number.  “It was a point of pride,” I said maybe too wistfully. “Yeah?” he asked, “It sounds like you got branded.” I could only laugh. There are some things man-children cannot understand.

Years and years ago, there was a fall evening that I was on a date with a fella Daddy didn’t like particularly well.  There was no reason in the world for Daddy not to like him, he was incredibly kind and an absolute gentleman. He had been active military and served two tours overseas. He was quite a bit older than I was, and Daddy was wary of his worldliness.

He was tall in his cowboy boots and thin as a rail.  He was working, saving money, and figuring out what he wanted to do now that he was out of the military.  To meet my excruciatingly early curfew and still enjoy time together, we took the long way home. It was a fall night with a big, bright moon high in the sky.  Unexpectedly, he rolled down the car windows and turned off our headlights. I was afraid at first, but he whispered, “Look around. You can see everything you need to see.”  He was right. The fields on either side of the road were completely illuminated. Every leaf on every tree was as clear as though it were early morning.  The whole world was water-colored in a light, inky blue. There were millions of stars in the sky. We held hands on the drive home and I rested my head on his shoulder, knowing I’d never be able to ride down River Road the same way again.  I haven’t, you know.

It was a fall not that long ago that Jamie and I were driving baby Jack, dressed in his footed pajamas printed with cowboys and cows, home to visit South Georgia.  We were just outside the city limits of Shellman, only 35 minutes left on our 13-hour trip.

It was late October. The cool night air meant we didn’t need an air-conditioner, so the smell of peanuts found their way into the car.  The moon was so bright and full it took my breath. I hadn’t been home in months and months. The minute I smelled the peanuts, involuntary tears began to roll down my cheeks and my throat tightened. I didn’t know until then that I missed it so badly – home.

I asked Jamie to pull over. I got out and stretched, road-weary, with both hands at the base of my back and took a long, deep, breath. My heartbeat slowed. The busy mind of a first-time Mama began to settle.  The big orange moon and that unmistakable smell brought past and present and home straight into my arms. Jamie didn’t rush me at all, as tired as we were. Bless him for letting me bask in the blessing of what it meant to have home speak to me so clearly, our little son asleep in his car seat in the back seat, the moon washing over him like a baptism.

After we had been home a few years, it was a fall night we had been promised by whomever it is that predicts such things that there would be a meteor shower. Jamie’s sister Keisha, Ginny and I wrapped Jack up in layers and layers and took him to our backfield.  We begged a reluctant Daddy to come with us. We weren’t afraid, not really. We knew the way with our eyes closed. Past the Bee Tree, named for the bees that found a home in the crook of its knobby branch when we were little girls; past the big water-oak we called The Nancy Tree, tall and tough like my grandmother, and yet, we wanted our most trusted protector with us.

We stomped through a picked peanut field where hay bales were still waiting to be moved, our feet sinking in the deep furrows. Once our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could see each other in outline, our breath soft puffs of white against the night. We spread blankets and lay down together with Daddy standing guard on the perimeter.  We saw only a few shooting stars that night, but the feeling of anticipating something marvelous is what I won’t ever forget.

This year, fall is taking her time about coming to South Georgia.  After a particularly wet summer, we are feeling the worst of the heat at the tail end of the season this year.  The sunbeams hot and high most days lately, with little relief in the evenings. Humidity’s been so thick the air around us could be spooned into a cup.  But it’s coming. Live here long enough, and you can feel it.

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