The most obvious is the beginning of the school year. Even as someone who is long past her formal education, or even her six years as a school teacher, 35 years ago, I feel the start of school like some kind of hidden music. I notice the changes in traffic, in crowds, the school buses replacing recreational vehicles, the private school uniforms rolled at the waist to make the skirts shorter. The signs for fall sports and fairs brings back every game I attended or activity I got involved in, not only in childhood, but those of my own child, and my time as a parent. The crushing heat and glassine sunlight of summer is replaced by a honeyed, slanting warmth, that begins to leave the premises by late afternoon, instead of mid evening. I buy magazines for recipes that feature ubiquitous squash and pumpkin options, replacing heirloom tomato, fresh corn, and grilling ideas in their covers and pages. Outside every supermarket, chrysanthemums of all colors wait in their black plastic pots to be bought and planted, or stuck in terra cotta or baskets, to proclaim “ I declare the fall season is now open!”
Chrysanthemums play a big part in my memories of fall in my early childhood, when my world was contained within the five streets that bordered the University and its campus. My father worked there, as did most of our neighbor’s fathers, and all walked to work, and walked home. I didn’t really know too many people that didn’t work at or attend the University, as my folks, many relatives, and almost all their friends that I knew did. Fall started with the students coming back, the center of my small world becoming busy with cars, band music, raucous parties and panty raids, and football games. The noises and sights of all of those replaced my friends and my ability, each summer, to walk or bike the one block to the University, where we could play games on the quad, or safely ride around in the parking lots without being in the street.
As alumni of the University, and members of its vocational tribe, Homecoming Weekend was a big event of the Fall for my parents. On the Saturday morning of Homecoming, the day cooperating in being golden and warm, but not hot, people would arrive at our small stucco house. My aunts and uncles came, their friends from their respective classes arrived, those that were local, and those that drove in ALL THE WAY from Los Angeles. I remember them crowding into the house, whooping and hugging and largely ignoring us kids, in their pre reunion excitement. This also happened to correspond with a time in my parents’ life, and those of most of their siblings and former classmates, where time was not exactly full of exotic and expensive social activities. More often than not, in those years anyway, several of the women would be in maternity clothes. If they had any social lives at all in those years, it was to pile the babies on the master double beds, stick a sullen teenager in the backyard watching the toddlers and kids, and have a game of bridge, a potluck dinner, or sometimes a dance, usually at the University, but not much else.
So Homecoming Weekend was a big deal for young marrieds. A chance to return to campus in a formal way, and renew nostalgia ( remember when we climbed out on the roof?) and attend formally organized activities without kids, that brought back the times in the old days when they were young, and silly, and had no obligations other than getting to class, and passing each year. One vivid memory is of my mother being a nervous wreck ( translation, a crabby one) picking up the house, and deciding what to serve when people arrived (sandwiches cut in shapes, and punch, were a safe and frequent choice) but then, she and my Dad would get dressed up! My mother, dressed up, was a vision to behold, her daily wear being pedal pushers, blouses, and curlers before my Dad got home from work. For her kids, it was strictly bland. I never saw my mother dressed up except on Sundays, and this dressed up was a little more festive than the Sunday School uniform. My Dad wore a suit to work every day, but somehow suit or not, he seemed freer, and happier. All the women wore fall suits or dresses, jewelry, perfume!, and a large maroon chrysanthemum corsage, with a pipe cleaner fashioned in the shape of an R, on the face of the flower. The flowers’ stems were wrapped in green florist’s tape and the corsage was attached with a hat pin. As the oldest, I was often pressed into service, by my harried mother, to pin on her flower.
First, placement was important. Then an appropriately anchored stem, so that the flower did not droop forward, obscuring that critical pipe cleaner R. Any man who has had to pin a corsage on the dress or lapel of a girlfriend or wife, can attest to the huge anxiety created by this task. Pushing in the pin was not easy, nor was not pricking the corsage wearer ( blood on the dress! Horrors!), or oneself. Seven year olds are not terribly brave about pin sticks, and then there was the height factor. Even my mother, a relatively short woman, was taller than me, and certainly was in heels, another something I rarely saw her wear. And then, of course, there was the hurry. “Honey, we are going to be Late!!” But, anxiety or not, it made me feel a part of the grown up occasion and not one of the inferior class in the backyard.
Homecoming consisted of sorority luncheons for the women, fraternity gatherings for the men, where they could smoke cigarettes, out of sight of University superiors. Then THE GAME, where all the returnees would pack the stadium in their colorful clothes, all wearing their chrysanthemum, and the big event would start. I could hear the game cheers at our house, and as I got older, Mom would let me walk over to the stadium to see part of the game, and then the presentation of the homecoming court and queen crowning. My memory of this magical time was being a part of such an adult tradition, and that the football players, all 18-22 years old, WERE GIANTS. The queen’s court and ceremony, served for many years to be the most glamorous vision I had in my young life. Game over, everyone would return to the house, to change into party clothes, and I would once again be in the kids camp. They would leave, nights crisp now and cooling, in their coats, to attend the fraternity mixers and dance, and I would watch the parade out the picture window, yearning to go. Every oldest and only child knows, that lacking the tribe of compadres that may come later, being on the stairs, lying in the hall, peering out the window, a wallflower in the adult pageantry, is the true definition of yearning.
Homecoming weekend remains one of the most clear and detailed memories of my life, despite the passage of sixty years. As events stack up over the years, they aren’t ever again as glamorous as the child’s view from the outside looking in. So every fall, the thinning sunlight, the increased energy in the air of kids and teachers going back to school, and homecoming weekend linger in the corners of my eyes, whatever else I am doing. They transport me to a time of tradition and safety, where the five-block boundary was the only world I knew, and the only one I needed.