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Guest column

Journey into Fall

By Joanne Catz Hartman '82

Illustration by Randy Lyhus
Illustration by Randy Lyhus

A magenta leaf, the color of candy, floats and twirls, landing on my foot. I look down and realize how very long it's been since I've stood on Granite State soil in autumn. Leaves spatter the ground like so many drops of fluorescent paint. This color show is what I've come to see and show my family. I stoop to pick up a leaf. "See," I tell my not-from-here husband as I wave purple in front of his face. "Now this is a leaf!"

A California girl, I fell in love with UNH upon first meeting 22 years ago. Even though the summer was hot and humid, I was promised autumn just around the corner. And with lobster at Newick's nearby and scallops so often for dinner at Huddleston Hall, how could I complain? These were expensive delicacies back home. I loved being a New England college student, walking in College Woods, seeing green hillsides in summertime, when the hills at home resembled camels' humps. I loved wearing L.L. Bean wool sweaters and watching trees on campus explode with color, some changing hue overnight.

In winter, I marveled at the first snow, and the toddlers at Dover Day Care--my first work-study job--taught me how to make snow angels. I watched leaves dance, snow swirl and fall, and spring blossoms bud from my dorm-room window in Hetzel Hall. I wanted more years of four seasons and vowed to stay in New Hampshire forever.

But jobs were scarce in the early '80s. I headed back to the left coast for a while. A job offer as a reporter for a sailing magazine convinced me to stay and explore the waters of San Francisco Bay. My closest friends left New England too; there was no one to visit here, no one to invite me to come back.

And now, I am finally here myself, with six entire days of leaf-peeping ahead and plenty of time to persuade my husband, John, and young daughter, Natalie, that this is a place we need to visit more often. Perhaps I'll even plant a seed in Natalie's baby brain so she'll be New England bound one day. I've explained the vocabulary of leaf-peeping. "Holding on to summer" means we shouldn't visit there yet, and "past peak" means the best colors are on the ground, not in the trees.

John says I'm leaf obsessed. It is true. I'm powerless to turn away from their changing beauty. I stare for hours. I spend exorbitant amounts of money on film for my camera and cassettes for the camcorder.

We visit Franconia and the Frost Place, walking the Poetry Trail past birches in Robert Frost's woods. We've hit it past peak, but it doesn't matter. The colors that cover the ground look like Impressionist paintings, and Natalie stomps, kicks and crawls through them. They are "boo-fee-ul," she says, an early connoisseur of color.

John is slowly becoming quite a leaf-peeper himself. "There's one showing off," he tells me and points to a bright red maple on our way through the Lakes region. When we get to UNH, we take our first walk across campus and stop to gawk and then photograph and videotape the tree--orange fire--in front of Jessie Doe dorm.

Things have changed since I was a student. There are reissued license plates, an expansive student bookstore and sports arena, cordless phones and students surfing the net as I walk through Hetzel. But Tin Palace pizza sauce is still as savory as I remember. Young's breakfasts are the same, even though when I walk in the door, I can't find my favorite table and realize the interior has changed completely.

We walk across campus, and I kneel down to the stroller and whisper in the ear of my sleeping daughter, "This is where you will go to college, this is where you will want to come."

We walk back through the trees and end up at the granite bench in front of the New England Center. Natalie holds up a bright pink fluorescent leaf in her tiny fingers and says, "Mommy, are you home now?"

"Yes," I say, and draw her close. Before sleep comes that night, I close my eyes and see bursts of color--fiery reds and translucent yellows and shimmering oranges--colors I will see in my dreams when I'm back in my California home. ~

A former magazine writer and teacher, Joanne Catz Hartman '82 lives in Northern California, where she's planted maples next to the redwood trees in her backyard.

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