There was no such thing as Fall Break when I was a kid. We did have KEA Week, which later evolved into Spring Break, but there was no autumn oasis to look forward to in October.
Part of the reason might be that we didn’t start school until after Labor Day back then. How, when and why everything changed is irrelevant by now, but the point is, Fall Break has become a pretty popular tradition in our community and I don’t envision it going away anytime soon.
Fall is my favorite time of the year. Always has been. If I’d been a kid and had a Fall Break to look forward to, it would have been even more of a favorite.
Not that it would have really made any difference. My family never traveled, never took a vacation, never did anything on school breaks or holidays.
But just to be home …!
Home when the sun came up on that crisp autumn morning, with wisps of fog still entwined among the barren tomato plants and the dried shells of empty milkweed pods on the vine.
Home during that perfect season between air conditioning and heating, when you sleep with the windows open and wake up to a chill in your bedroom that makes the blankets pulled snug over your shoulders feel all the cozier and the dog tucked in at your feet feel all the warmer.
Home, where you scamper to your dresser and dig deep under the flimsy T-shirts to find a heavy sweatshirt, and you root relentlessly through your sock drawer until you find the thick pair that comes up almost to your knees.
Home, where your mother has already left for work, but there are packets of instant oatmeal in the cabinet, and even as you stand next to the microwave waiting for the chime, you imagine yourself as a pioneer child fixing her breakfast in the lonely cabin out on the vast prairie.
And then after you clatter your dishes into the sink with a fleeting thought of washing them later – maybe – you dash outside, where already small groups of the neighborhood children have gathered, and someone suggests riding bikes and for once the chorus that responds is all in agreement. So you duck into the garage and wheel out your bicycle, the one that has stood sad and silent for most of the summer because it was too hot to ride, but today – today is the perfect day to ride long and far and away from home.
So off you go, pedaling fiercely, determined not to be the rotten egg, breathing loud through your nose until you give up and suck in great lungsful of air through your open mouth, feeling the sharp cold in your throat and down deep in your chest as you pump furiously up the big hill, and then exhale and squint into the still-rising sun as you coast swiftly down the other side.
Two of the kids up in the front of the group – the big kids, the fast and strong kids – are shouting something over their shoulders, but the wind whips their words away and so you don’t know what they said or where you’re going, but when they make that sharp turn at the corner, everyone swings after them without protest or questioning, just like those big flocks of birds that wheel and turn in choreographed sweeps across the sky, with only the lead birds knowing where they are going next and all the others obediently following behind.
You are so focused on keeping up that you don’t pay attention to where you are or where you’re going, so that by the time the bikes in the lead slow down, you look around and realize you are lost.
But you disguise that little stab of fear, and when you see the big kids carelessly drop their bikes, heedless of kickstands and parents’ warnings, you do the same, walking away nonchalantly as the wheels and frame and handlebar clatter to the ground.
Everyone is gathered now under a big tree, and you shiver a little in the cool of the shade, despite the sweat that is running down your back from the excursion of that wild, exhilarating ride just completed.
Nobody seems to know what to do now, not even the big kids, who cover up their indecision by talking more loudly, so you kick at a rock and then follow it with your glance to where it has landed next to a bush. Something catches your eye and you walk over for a closer look. At first you thought it was a cardinal, or a bit of red fabric, but then you see it is a flower. Its scarlet petals are bright and cheerful, as though it is happy to have been discovered.
You reach out to pick it, thinking to surprise your mother when she comes home from work this afternoon, but something makes you hesitate. You turn around quickly, before anyone sees you, before they see the flower and pick it themselves, fearful they will take it away or, worse, dash it cruelly to the ground to wither and die.
Everyone gets back on their bikes and you ride back home now. Nobody is going fast, nobody is racing. The return route seems all uphill.
You go home, wheeling your bicycle back into the garage, lowering the kickstand as you lean your bike gently to rest. You step toward the door to go inside, then impulsively turn and walk to the backyard. You sit on the lawn chair and look toward the horizon.
Summer is over and fall is here. Winter is coming.
But somewhere, there is a flower blooming, and you know now that life goes on.