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Autumn on The Commons

“Indian Summer”

Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.

Now by the brook the maple leans,
With all his glory spread;
And all the sumacs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.

Now, by great marshes wrapt in mist,
Or past some river’s mouth,
Throughout the long still autumn day
Wild birds are flying south.

-William Wilfred Campbell (1860-1919)

This poem, which I memorized as a child in public school, always comes to mind when I remember autumn on The Commons. Our house on Hill Street overlooked Picton Harbour and sumac grew on the steep bank that descended from our backyard to the shores of the bay. Across the bay were “the smoky hills” of Upper Glenora Road. The call of blue jays, indeed, could be heard “all the day”, as summer turned to fall and leaves softly fell to carpet our lawn.

Burn permits were an unheard of thing in the early 1960’s. Leaves were raked into huge piles, by almost every homeowner on Hill Street and bonfires then were lighted to burn them. Although I had no enthusiasm for raking leaves, I did enjoy the sight and smell of them burning, so I always volunteered to help my parents with this annual chore. My mother and I would rake large piles of leaves to the curb, then she would light them. We never left our bonfires unattended and always kept the garden hose close by.

Across the bay from our house was the waterfront home of Miss Marjorie Vance, a highly respected teacher at Mary Street School. Every fall, she would burn leaves on the shore. We watched for her bonfires, each October. Usually, she burned her leaves at dusk. My father would call us to the kitchen window, whenever he spotted smoke curling upward near the Vances’ boat house. He would observe that Miss Vance was once again starting fires.

Fall evenings were magical. The smell of burning leaves permeated the air, even after bonfires had been doused. Neighbours lingered in their yards, as it grew dusk, reluctant to go indoors. For those of us still in public school, October was an exciting time of the year. All of us looked forward to Hallowe`en and the special school activities that led up to it.

When I was in grade three, our teacher, Mrs. Gardiner planned a Hallowe`en party for us. We came to school in costume and bobbed for apples. Since my mother had not yet bought a Hallowe`en costume for me, she had to improvise. Making use of what was readily at hand, she decked me out in a ruffled white blouse and long skirt borrowed from my older sister, Mary. She then plunked a purple straw hat on my head (it had belonged to my recently deceased great aunt Annie) and a pair of wire-rimmed classes and declared that I was dressed as a little old lady. I thereby became the only eight-year-old in Halloween history ever to be disguised as an eighty-year-old. Although my costume may not have been convincing, I was very taken with the purple straw hat.

When my mother and I finally did go shopping for a Halloween costume, that fall, I decided on a pink and blue crepe paper outfit that instantly transformed me to Little Bo Peep, minus sheep. My older sister, Mary, was conscripted to take me trick or treating. Displeased at being required to follow an eight-year-old on a sugar high through our neighbourhood she made more than one attempt to lose Little Bo Peep and her invisible sheep, but was unsuccessful.

Halloween remained an exciting time for me, even after I entered high school. When I was in grade nine, two fellow students, Peter McLean and Malcolm McFarland jointly hosted a costume party at The Palomar (now Kentwood Nursing Home). I was delighted to receive an invitation to this gala event and spent considerable time planning my costume. Too old to disguise myself as Little Bo Peep and too young to once again dress as a little old lady, I decided to go as a grand lady of the early 1800`s. My mother suggested that, with a few alterations, a vintage formal dress that had once belonged to my late Aunt Mary could readily be transformed to a ball gown.

Mother hand-stitched voluminous pink panniers for the dress, which was a beautiful shade of Wedgewood blue. I styled my hair in an upsweep and sprayed it white, then tucked a large pink flower in it. Although I felt very grand at the time, unwittingly I had combined elements of Little Bo Peep with those of an elderly lady to create Little Old Peep.

On the night of the Halloween ball, all of us were asked to parade in a circle around the dance floor. To my astonishment, my costume won first prize – a handsome lunchbox styled as a trendy totebag. It was a memorable party and I still recall it each fall, when ghosts and goblins are about.

Many years have passed since Miss Vance lit her bonfires on the shores of Picton Harbour, but I have never forgotten the smell of burning leaves, on those long ago autumn nights on The Commons.

Filed Under: Margaret Haylock-Capon

About the Author: Maggie Haylock is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has co-authored several books with her husband, Alan Capon.

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