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The Homefront: Leaves — and humans — change with the seasons

By D. Louise Brown - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Oct 5, 2021

D. Louise Brown

So, what happens when carotenoids experience a drop in chlorophyll production? Red leaves happen. Red, yellow, orange and their many variants happen. In short, fall happens.

I’m this many years old and I still have to look it up when my mother asks, “What makes the leaves turn red?” She used to know, but she’s nearly 90 years old so some of her brain cells that used to hold that kind of information have, well, turned a different shade and dropped away.

Apparently so have mine.

I know it has something to do with shorter days and cooler temperatures. But her still-inquisitive mind deserves the real answer (I think). “Mom, it says here (reading from my phone) that leaves get their green color from chlorophyll, which helps trees use sunlight. But trees also have pigments called carotenoids which you don’t see when the leaves are taking in sunlight. When colder weather stops chlorophyll production, then the other colors show up.” I tell her all of this, noticing that it’s going right over her grey head. She’s nodding politely, but her eyes are glued to the passing mountainsides as we travel through the canyon.

Of course they are. The hillsides are splendidly awash with every color imaginable, from golden yellows to dark purples, to reds, oranges and browns. We’re on this ride specifically to let her see the fall colors, and the canyon does not disappoint.

Her constant exclamations of delight at what she sees are a poignant background to the disquieting fact that Mom is in the autumn of her life. This woman who raised seven children to adulthood was once strong and vibrant. Now quiet and reserved, she’s slowly but steadily regressing to a more childlike state, someone who needs constant care and assistance. In her autumn, we, her children, the ones who were once nurtured and guarded and guided by her, have become her nurturers and guardians and guides.

She is showing us how to grow older — how to rely on others, how to reduce our lives to the simplest of needs, how to let go. She let go of Dad nearly two decades ago. That was the hardest letting go of her life. But she literally kissed his forehead and told him it was OK to leave, that she’d join him soon. And then she continued living without him because that was, and is, her lot in life.

She doesn’t complain. She certainly has a right to. Her body continually plays the “Here’s What’s Going Bad Next” game. But she takes it in stride, adapts to the newest needful way of living and keeps smiling. And she keeps completing WordSearch puzzles because “It keeps my mind active,” she tells us. She’s right. Even cataracts don’t keep her from studying the large print puzzles to find those elusive words.

Despite those failing eyes, she still sees the vivid foliage on the mountainsides and repeatedly exclaims with glee, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them more beautiful!” Her joy at simply viewing the resplendent hillsides elevates my own.

We should return to her little senior apartment soon, but she needs a memento. So I pull the car over and break off a couple of branches of brilliant leaves. They ride in the trunk next to her wheelchair. Back home, I haul the wheelchair out, get her safely into it, then pull out the leaves and put them in her lap. I couldn’t have given her a finer gift.

On our ride, Mom also asked me why leaves fall off the trees. The short answer is they’ve finished their job of turning sunlight into food for the tree. The leaf dries up, the tree stops holding it and the leaf falls away.

As parents age, we face the sobering awareness that someday we will be forced to stop holding them. It’s as inevitable as autumn leaves falling from a tree. The tree doesn’t get to decide when that happens any more than we do. But until they fall away from us, our parents’ changing seasons become ever more cherished to us.

Even in their final seasons, they still teach us.

D. Louise Brown lives in Layton. She writes a biweekly column for the Standard-Examiner.

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