According to the calendar this is the last weekend before fall. But for those more in touch with their soul than a cold scientific definition of the seasons, fall has already begun. And here in Happy Valley autumn is a time of incredible beauty and a time of reflection.
Mums are out, pumpkins are orange, the green tomatoes take a tad longer to turn red than they did just weeks ago. The sun rises later and sets earlier and the evenings have a cooler feel. Kids have been back in school for a few weeks and football season is well underway.
Autumn’s story would best be written in poetry, not prose. It is a dramatic season bridging summer’s turn to winter. It is the reminder of time’s inevitable march toward our own mortality. The changing of this season, above all others, pushes the mind toward nostalgia.
How blessed are we to live in this valley which becomes clothed in oranges, reds, yellows and browns as the leaves change? Day by day, we can see the colors of Mount Nittany mark time’s passage into autumn.
On our streams, rays of afternoon sunlight reflect off the current’s ripples. Perhaps a trout will rise. A light breeze nudges a few golden leaves off the branches. The leaves tumble end over end, gently coming to float softly atop slow-moving water. Orchards nearby yield apples so perfectly ripe and crisp they crunch as you bite into one picked that same morning.
For Penn State alums Happy Valley is a minefield of good fall memories. Walking on campus sparks past imagery bursting into your mind, or draws up a long-forgotten story. Studying, walking to class, practical jokes and the beginning of lifelong friendships. The flash of light in the eyes of someone you danced with at a party. The warmth of their hand you held walking across campus sidewalks covered in damp leaves, the wet pavement shining under the streetlamp.
There was the excitement of a big game with Notre Dame or Alabama or Nebraska. Thursday the TV trucks emblazoned with ABC or CBS logos rolled into town. The anticipation made for an excruciating wait. Even later as a coach there was an excited tension walking off a Thursday night practice field knowing we were prepared, but headed toward an unknown outcome.
In some ways, life slows down the older we get. Decisions with ever-greater consequences make us more deliberate in action. Responsibilities beyond ourselves force that on us. Yet in other ways life zips by faster as we see our children grow. All the while we don’t realize each milestone of their lives marks more time passed on our journey toward the inevitable.
As I write these days, I find the mind opens and the words flow more freely in autumn. The window is open to the cooler air and the sounds from outside. The birdfeeder is visited by chirping cardinals and screeching blue jays and occasionally raided by squirrels. But as the acorns falls I see the squirrels less often. From a distance comes the call of a red-tailed hawk. And in the mornings neighborhood children call to one another riding their bikes to the elementary school down the hill.
It is in this time of year that we miss things more. I miss my father. I miss afternoons on the practice field. Some days he would point toward Mount Nittany bathed in the purple glow of the day’s last light from the sun setting across the valley.
“Remember!” he’d say to his coaches and team. “Remember who you are and where you come from.”
Autumn is a time to remember. I remember simple things. On game day Saturday mornings our kitchen was awash in the aroma of chopped onions, tomatoes and Italian dressing. My grandmother made homemade Italian sandwiches on rolls from Lattanzio’s Bakery in Latrobe. On the way to the game we’d pick up Mrs. O’Hara (bearing brownies and fudge) on Hartswick Avenue. My mother would make one of her three sons go to the door to help Mrs. O’Hara walk down the steep front steps of her house. As we turned off Park Avenue into the Beaver Stadium lot my grandfather passed a sandwich wrapped in foil to the same police officer directing traffic. Traffic and parking were much simpler then.
Those are days that linger, memories that endure. In autumn memories seem more vivid, so near that you could grab them once again. For those living in Happy Valley these memories are some of the greatest things we possess. They remain with us. As autumn arrives it is indeed a time before winter’s chill to remember who we are and where we come from.