Most of the year, little Miss Grace lived high up over city streets in a New York City apartment building complete with a doorman in blue uniform with brass buttons. But from lilac time to Labor Day she resided in Vermont, in her tiny white cottage over by the big butternut tree. She was near 90 the late summer day when she phoned. The first bursts of color were appearing on our maples.
"Dearie," she said. (I'm her 40ish neighbor, a mother of teenagers, but to her I'm a youngster.) "Will you go out and get me 300 red maple leaves? I want to press them to take to the city when I go back." I agreed, but she hung up before I could question her.
Three hundred red maple leaves! What will she do with them? It was so early in the color season that finding brilliant hues was not easy. But I wore rubber boots to the swamp and gathered a lot, and found other early ones here and there. By the time I arrived at her house to deliver them, I had 300 and about 30 more to spare.
She opened her door, smiling, and clapped her hands when she saw them. "Thank you, Dearie! I knew you'd be able to go to places where I couldn't to get them. This is my assignment for our Garden Club in the city."
"Garden Club ... in New York City?" I asked, amazed. "Don't all your members live in apartment buildings?"
"Oh yes, we do," she said. "We only grow houseplants. But we invite our friends to luncheons and card parties to raise money for botanical gardens and city-park beautification. And our favorite project is this. A lot of us old ladies who have summer places volunteer to bring back what we can in the fall. One member brings Maine seashells; another, little pieces of marble; another brings acorns. There's one who brings scraps of birch bark; another little tufts of wool from the sheep her son raises; another, 300 tiny pine cones. There's even one who brings dried rosebuds that she has hung in the sun. Then, at our first meeting in the fall, we gather to fill 300 shoeboxes.
"The granddaughter of one of our members is a science teacher," my friend continued. "She gives them to kindergarten children who only know the city streets, so that they can hold a little bit of country in their hands."
I think about Miss Grace's Garden Club when our autumn color is loudest. It is good to recall her concern - and that of her lady friends - for the city's children. I envision those eager kindergartners opening their treasuries of nature's wonders, caressing marble chips and sea shells, peeling back delicate birch-bark layers. I imagine sheep's wool and soft moss brushing against little cheeks. Small noses sniffing pine cones, the spicy dried rosebuds, the salt of the shells. Eyes sparkle, I think happily, coming upon the most brilliant treasure to be carried home to show their mothers: a scarlet maple leaf.