On Collecting

Fallen red leaf on a wooden deck
Photo by Gilberto Olimpio on Unsplash

Slimy, colorful leaves, like tree-fingers, cling full-bodied to the damp, dark wooden deck. Asher, my two-year-old son, peels one off like the Band-Aid on his finger.

He, toddler-amazed, carries the wet, paper-bag leaf inside, layering it on the window sill like paper-mâché—reminding me of the paper-mâché doll that I made in elementary school, kept in a box underneath my bed alongside skeleton keys, pyrite, rose quartz, and arrowheads, foreign currency, and journals of gel-pen thoughts.

Asher returns, chooses burning embers, emeralds, blazes, brown swirls of rot—in partially-eaten and mostly-eaten-leaf shapes.

“Look leafs, Mama!” He holds them up for me to inspect, admire, or reject—the same way that, before he was conceived, I held up the pregnancy tests, squinting, heart full of hummingbirds. When I found my two-lined test, I kept it in my nightstand drawer, brought it out to admire it like a four-leaf clover.

“Yes, leaves, baby.” I hold up my phone to take a photo, to crystallize this moment, to lock it away in my memory museum, encapsulate billions of atoms with the imprint of my finger on the glowing glass.

I am a collector of memories, tucking them into my pockets, behind my ears. Sometimes I use photographs as memory-traps; more often I wrangle them with words.

Like a leaf that dries between the pages of a novel or behind plastic in a scrapbook—pressed until it becomes a flaky wafer—so the moments get compressed, transformed, pasted onto construction paper, painted over with finger paints or traced with stencils, and hung from the fridge where the sun fades them.

With written words, I make meaning of the memory, transform it. I try to taxidermy time. But a moose head hung on a wall does little to showcase its swift trot, solitary soul, summertime swims in the cold stream.

“I want more leafs, Mama.”

“Here’s a yellow one.” I point with my toe.

“No, I want—green one.” Asher grabs my hand, pulls me to the edge of the deck where a maple tree’s branch hangs, bursting with buds, bottle-green leaves.

Chlorophyll, the leaves' green pigment, captures light, storing it in molecules. Like chlorophyll, my words can capture, reveal in-color truths. And even in the deterioration, the breaking down of chlorophyll, of fact—vibrancy is revealed—burnt orange, ruby red, glittering gold hues.

I pluck a handful of leaves for Asher. He uses them as blankets, shields, curtains—to hide his toy cars. Then, he pulls the leaves away one-at-a-time, revealing his tiny treasures beneath, squealing with delight.

In my writing, I cover up then uncover, rearrange then reveal, find delight in grasping memories—frosting smeared on my son’s face, the roar of Niagara Falls, the tickles from my husband’s beard—as they float toward the ground. But I also peel up the slimy ones—the unwanted touch, a friend’s suicide, religion-fueled shame—and give these memories a home on a sunny windowsill, a place for their crinkly, rotting selves in my collection.

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