I’ve searched the net to find out where this little poem came from. I know it’s not original with me. It came, if I recall, from a long-play recording of poetry by Carl Sandburg, although I don’t believe it is his. I think, rather, it was attributed to his mother — still, I wouldn’t bet on it. I wouldn’t bet on the accuracy of my recollection of it, either. So, call it a paraphrase of a poem that I once heard and committed to imperfect memory.
I think of it now because my sister’s life is evaporating before our eyes like a puddle in the sun. Jody and I keep a sober vigil, waiting for Maxeen’s inevitable transport from this world to the next. And in the waiting, I sit with my sister and remember the ‘who,’ the ‘what,’ the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of her life and mine. We remember the all important ‘how’ it happened.
Passing the time with photographs of people and places that we both remember, I realize that it is not just one person that is dying, it is a community. Those people and places known to no one but she and I will soon be known only by me. They will be treasured in only one heart, and eventually, the remembering will cease. Who? What? When? Where? How? Will swirl away like fallen leaves.
In our home town, on the street where I spent my first seven years and Maxeen her first 17, autumn was a mystical time. I remember it as a kind of festival. The men would rake leaves that drifted from the brooding maples that lined McKinley Avenue. The children would push them into long ridges — imaginary walls of make-believe houses in which unfolded pretend lives — until a grown-up, with his rake, would pull the leaves over the curb into the street and set them afire. The smoke would rise silently and touch the branches where the leaves had grown and lived, and then, like a fragrant memory, drift skyward and be gone.