My favorite holiday, both as a child and when my children were young, was always Halloween. It wasn't the candy - okay, part of it was the candy - but it was so much more than the candy. It was the decorations, the spookiness, the feeling of magic in the air, and the excitement of children dressing up in costumes and venturing out into the scary night to ring the doorbells of strangers.
Even in my younger days, though, I felt the melancholy beneath the delights of the seasons. The glory of autumn is a prelude to the darkness and cold of winter. The brilliant displays of color that disappear so quickly remind me of the shortness of life and the speed at which everything disappears. The flavors of apple and pumpkin - well, there's no downside to the seasonal treats, except for gaining weight. But nevertheless, autumn brings forth our thoughts on mortality.
One of the most poignant poems of the season, Spring and Fall by Gerald Manly Hopkins, describes a young girl weeping over the falling of golden leaves without quite knowing why she's crying. The poet, seeing the child's grief and her innocence, realizes that someday she will grieve for more than fallen leaves.
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Which pretty much sums it up - now, in autumn, I do weep and know why. Both my parents died in the fall: my father on September 15, 2014, and my mother on October 4, 2008. In Jewish tradition, despite being a hardcore agnostic - if agnostics by definition can be hardcore - I light a candle on the anniversaries of their deaths on the Hebrew calendar and recite Kaddish, the mourner's prayer. For me, the season has become not just a symbol of mortality, it has become the season of grief. Now, with the passage of time since their deaths, the grief has become muted, but still, every autumn, I remember my parents - and remember losing them.
Those feelings are amplified by the High Holy Days in the Jewish religion, which fall sometime between August and the end of October, depending on the year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not so much a joyous celebration of the start of a new year in the Jewish calendar as a solemn contemplation of the fragility of life and the speed at which it goes. We look back on the year and think of what we could have done better. And we remember those who have passed. I remember my parents, not only because they both died in the fall, but because going to services for the High Holy Days was something we did together from my childhood through my teen years. And then on Yom Kippur, there is the Yizkor service - where we chant prayers in memory of our dead. As a child, I would leave the sanctuary before Yizkor began - those who have not lost a close family member are not supposed to take part. My parents would stay to recite the prayers for their parents. Now I stay, non-religious though I may be, to say the prayers for them. In the rustling of leaves, and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.
I still love autumn. It's still my favorite season. Pumpkins, apples, bright leaves, Halloween all retain their appeal. But it is also a season of sadness. Now at my age, I suspect that I continue to love autumn not despite the melancholy that the season evokes, but because of it.