In the fall a few years ago, my mother, writing me from Arkansas, sent along a collection of five pear leaves in various stages of autumn change. One leaf was still mostly green with a few yellow streaks, one was ocher, one brilliant red, one almost maroon, and one a bright, coppery brown with slightly curled edges. In her unsteady and downward-slanting scrawl she had written, ''I know how much you miss the changing of the leaves.''
Indeed, it was October, but from my window the barren Texas landscape burned as though it were summer. The Devil's Backbone was in the midst of a drought, and the farmers had to blow-torch the prickles off their cactuses so the cattle could graze on them.
But in Arkansas, I knew, the sky was cool and windy. In my mind I could picture the leaves falling outside the house where I was raised. So my mother's letter set off a longing, not only for the mild days of Indian summer but also for the sweet and lingering season of my youth.
We had planted the pear tree as a sapling, and had watched it bloom every spring for years. With its white, bursting blossoms it seemed to hover in our backyard like a beautiful cloud. However, it seemed even more beautiful to us in autumn when my mother and I shared a special admiration for its splendid color.
So it returned lost years to me when I pulled those fallen leaves from the envelope. They were still bright with all the color of their season, and I sat for several moments quietly savoring a remembrance of home.
My mother had said that sending me the leaves was a careless gesture, thought of on the spur of the moment during a stroll through the yard. I could envision her solitary figure struggling with the steps off the back porch, her white hair tossed by the effort and the leaves falling around her on the yard where I had played as a boy. And suddenly it seemed to me that it was a symbol of change I held in my hand.
Momentarily I was saddened by this thought, and the same mood of sad nostalgia that gripped the medieval poet held me: ''Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?'' ''Where are they who went before us?'' But the leaves lay in front of me on the open letter my mother had sent, and at length their beauty and splendid variety dazzled and reassured me. And I realized that while the leaves did symbolize change, change is natural and right - another name for growth. Further, those same leaves stood for something else; they became for me a symbol of my mother's love, something vigorous and unchanging.
I don't have that letter anymore or those leaves that came with it. And the tree that bore them is itself gone - the victim of an April storm. Nevertheless, they return fresh in my mind each autumn with the thought of my mother's hand gathering them for me off the ground in a spontaneous gesture of love.