I am living at the edge of a new leaf.
—Arthur Sze, “The Shape of Leaves”
The day after Thanksgiving I grabbed a plastic Target bag, its red chevrons dancing as I walked down my street to the best tree on the block. I had watched the ginkgo for weeks, doing its annual morph from green to yellow, knowing that by Thanksgiving, most of that gold in the branches would lie on the ground.
And this year there was no one to go out each morning and rake the leavings into the gutter for the weekly pickup. I would not drive by and see a little old man bent to his task, determined to clean up around that grand tree. His wife no longer worked in the kitchen. Their children were long gone.
Byron Patterson died two years ago. His wife Ellen died last November. And for much of this year contractors have swarmed over the little house at 816 Santa Ynez Way, fixing it up, replacing the old windows, giving it a new front door with a bit of stained glass at the top, painting the whole thing, of course. I could only imagine what they were doing inside—probably sanding and restaining the old oak floors that, like mine, had weathered under the feet of who knows how many people and animals.
I hoped that it was being renovated because a family member wanted to live there. But when the for sale sign went up on the lawn under the still-green ginkgo, I knew all that snazzy-ing up was to get the little house ready for new owners in our highly desirable, crazily overpriced neighborhood.
I haven’t looked on the realtor’s website to see what they want for it. Somehow I can’t bear to know. But I did look up his obituary again, and I was reminded that Byron Patterson taught English at American River College for 30 years and, according to his obit, “never met a faulty pronoun reference he couldn’t give an F to.” The obit also says, “He earned the ire of the Los Rios [Community] College District management when he helped organize the teachers’ union there.”
He served as a member of the Sacramento Central Labor Council and, the obit says, “a high point in his life was walking with Cesar Chavez.”
By the time he died, after 63 married years to Ellen, Byron Patterson had lost two sons to death. Only their daughter Susan remains, so she must be selling the house. Part of me wants to call her and say I want that house, though it will probably sell for a fortune. I suspect someone also wants it and is already dreaming of living there.
Still, the for sale sign’s been on the lawn for a good month now. I was rather relieved that the house remained unoccupied as I took my ginkgo leaf-filled bag up on the porch to peer in the windows. The house looks brand new inside, staged within an inch of its life. The floors are perfect, as is the paint, and it looks as if they opened up the kitchen from its formerly dark, enclosed space so it flows into the small dining room on the driveway side of the house.
I unlatched the gate to see a new deck off the back, new French doors into the small master bedroom at the rear. The lone tree in the back yard stood bare.
I used to stop by from time to time with brownies, just to be neighborly. Six years ago I wrote a poem about the Pattersons’ ginkgo that I gave to Mr. Patterson one day while he was out in the yard, before I knew that he’d been an English teacher. I think I told him that I taught writing at City College, and from under his English driving cap, I saw his eyes crinkle and his lips curl under a bushy mustache. He did not reveal his past life.
I wish now that I’d stopped and talked to him, see if he’d engage in a little shop talk. Given that line about the faulty pronoun reference in his obituary, was he a tough-guy English teacher who’d fail students for minor infractions? God knows I’ve wanted to fail students for dumb mistakes, for doing things that I’ve told them over and over in a composition class are just flat-out wrong, or for misspelling names in a news story. But I can’t teach from that place. It doesn’t work. I tried it early in my career. It just shuts people down, makes them feel like failures instead of beginners who could learn from their mistakes.
Instead, I purple their pages with my ballpoint and make them do it over again. The ones who are serious about journalism in particular or writing in general seem to get it. Some never do. But, with luck, I hope I’ve helped them become better and more confident writers.
I think Mr. Patterson and I would have had a lot to chat about, if I’d taken the time in inquire. What if I’d lingered, ankle deep in those fallen ginkgo leaves, and engaged him in conversation? Maybe Ellen would’ve invited me inside for some tea to go with the brownies and sit in the front room with its old oak floors, relax on the sofa. I could’ve asked about her life, asked him about his teaching and activist days.
“Thank you for helping to start the teachers’ union in the district,” I’d say. “Tell me about that. And what was it like to march with Cesar Chavez?”
But I didn’t know those things about him then. I learned them from his obituary. Why didn’t I reach out to that man with the bushy mustache?
Instead, I left him with a poem and brownies. I waved at Ellen when I saw her in the front window of 816 Santa Ynez Way, then trotted down the street to my house.
And now I wonder who will come to live in that house and, I hope, care for that ginkgo—not cut it down because it drops those golden fans all over the yard. When they fall, they flutter as if they were held in the hands of young Asian women. The magical fans carpet the grass under the ginkgo; they spill onto the street and into the gutter, a big swath of leafy sunshine that makes me smile on these cloudy, foggy, rainy days.
Winter is coming, the ginkgo reminds me. And after that, spring.
Here is the poem I wrote in 2010 and gave to the Pattersons about their magnificent tree:
thousands of little yellow fans
artfully arranged on crewcut grass
just before Thanksgiving.
For twenty-three seasons, I have
watched this neighbor’s tree
leaf greenly each spring,
weather the furnace of Sacramento
summers, then shudder itself
into its bright yellow sweater
Now the ginkgo relaxes into
what is coming, lets go,
sends each fan waltzing its way
groundward like so many pieces
of scallop-edged origami.
As families turn to the table
fat with turkey and stuffing,
I come to the ginkgo every year
with plastic bag in hand
to retrieve those last spots
of sunshine, bound for glass bowls
spread around my house,
enough to last me