Nothing reminds you of the impermanence of life more than the humble fall leaf. When I was a small child, I felt a deep sadness for dead leaves. Falling down one by one, more with the wind gusts that had the coming winter’s sharp edge to them, they would float to the ground, making piles of yellow and amber, rust and red, that would then quickly curl and crumble. I would scoop them up in great handfuls, or as great as a tiny hand could gather, and crush them, horrified and fascinated by their natural demise. Because I personified everything, I thought of the fresh green spring buds as real babies, growing with adolescent impudence into confident full maturity over the warm summer, proud of them like a mama. But it was over so quickly for them. Fall brought out the hidden beauty in each leaf, but shortly and mercilessly took it all away. Save for a week or so of Indian Summer, there would be no reprieve for the leaves.

We lived in the country, so there were many leaves each fall that had to be raked into dozens of piles, then gathered before the wind could cruelly disarrange them to bring over to our burning barrel. The barrel was a large rusted metal container, maybe an old garbage can or oil barrel, weighted by bricks and compacted ash at the bottom so there would be no risk of it tipping over. It seems so odd now, but people used to burn trash in these things, cutting down on trips to the dump. I can’t remember having a garbage service there, or if we did, it wasn’t frequent.

My dad was the sole master of the burning barrel, in the same way that he was the only one who ever worked the Weber grill and the fireplace. We kids were strictly warned against ever starting a fire in the burning barrel. Hell, my folks had me too scared of fire to even dare to light a match. My dad always seemed to like the task, even though it got very smoky and would make your eyes sting. I can still see him standing next to to the barrel, wearing a bomber jacket and old tan flare pants, poking the fire and trash and leaves and ashes with a long metal poker, warning me to stay back, with a cigarette in his other hand.

When the wind would start up I would worry. The flames would leap out and away from the barrel, hot little bits of orange and black ash scattering. I would run over to each and stamp them out with my shoe, in my mind seeing the one I missed roaring through the dry grass, forming into a wildfire that would consume my home. My dad would watch this rather impassively. He didn’t understand that I felt I had to do it, or we would all die. He didn’t talk, and I didn’t talk. My eyes would scan the sky, and then the ground, and he would solemnly keep poking the ashes, smoking his Salem. The smoke would drift away from the house, gray or black plumes rising until they dispersed and were unseen in the grayness of the low clouds.

The notice came from the county one day that any burning without a permit would no longer be allowed by law, which made my father mad. He didn’t like any government telling him what to do, after spending five years in the Army during World War II. He stopped burning trash, but kept burning the leaves until the barrel became so decrepit that you could see holes through it. It collapsed soon afterward and was never replaced.

Fall was, for me, the smell of the smoke from the burning barrel and my dad’s cigarette, bright orange little cardboard “Trick Or Treat For UNICEF” money boxes, black burn marks on the bottom of my shoes, and the aching irrational little stab of grief at seeing each leaf drift to earth.

The White Stripes, "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"