In Minnesota, we have the blessings of four seasons and my favorite by far is autumn. It’s a transitional time that gently, but efficiently, ushers us from cacophonous summer into the deep solace of winter. A bit of splash, a bit of dash. Salads trade places with hot dishes and plaid retakes its rightful position on the fashion mantle over invasive summer patterns and primary palettes. Fashion tip: nothing goes with plaid like another plaid. Those bugs in the alley that sound like someone should call an electrician have finally stopped, and ducks, leaves and retired people begin their exits. Geese are overheard overhead honking like Chicago cabdrivers (not Minnesota cabdrivers — our junkyards are full of never-been-used horns). We enter “good sleeping weather,” which is code for: “Better hurry and get that furnace tested.”
As a kid, autumn was my favorite time to visit my grandparents’ farm, where we had what was called “unstructured time.” Now they call it boredom. But I was never bored on that farm. It was a feast for the senses: animals, tractors and hay barns, where, for some strange reason, we all learned to smoke — I guess we thought, “They’ll never look for us here.”
We were used to an ever-expanding world on that farm, and I believe this is the primary reason I have never been bored since. I’ve been to some plays where I wished I was somewhere else, and other plays where I would’ve fallen asleep if I hadn’t been the one talking, but I’ve never been bored.
I have my grandparents to thank. My grandfather was a German farmer as wide as he was tall. We used to say that if it wasn’t for the direction of his buttons, we wouldn’t know if he was lying down or standing up. He always smelled like tractor grease, even in church. He could back up a trailer into a thimble, taught me to always carry a pocket knife and a pair of pliers, and to be good to your neighbors, because there will be a time you will need them, and he always referred to my guinea pig as “livestock.”
My grandmother’s kitchen was an artist studio and whatever Grampa provided as a medium was instantly transformed, teased, poached, pickled … pickled everything. If Grampa could cut it off, Grandma could pickle it.
When the aunts would gather, I’d hide in the corner by the stove hoping to garner secrets of the magic. Curing, canning, preserving, brines, baths, boiling jars …
Aunt Mary complains that Uncle Johnny’s lungs have gotten so bad she has to tie his arms behind his back four times a day, on doctors orders, to open the lungs up. She worries tying up her husband four times a day makes her “kinky.” My mom says, “Not unless you enjoy it,” and Mary gets a worried look on her face.
During the harvest, I’d help line up saw horses and then Grampa would put plywood across them with bedsheets on top for tablecloths. Soon the neighbors and migrant farmers would arrive for the harvest. Breakfast was everything: eggs, bacon, sausage, chicken, chops, Grampa’s famous bierwurst, bockwurst, mettwurst, salad, Jell-O, potatoes and gravy.
And sauerkraut! Sauerkraut comes from countries that needed to preserve foods for the long winters. One cousin includes kimchi, from Korea. So good!
Seriously, Grampa’s sauerkraut, one bite you saw new colors, you’re dancing with the pandas, swimming with the endorphins, the world is as beautiful as the Jehovah’s Witnesses say it will be. I would’ve given up my friends and a secret rocket fuel formula just to get one more bite of that kraut.
I remember being with Grampa in the backyard of the farmhouse after a long day of work. We sat in silence — I believe Minnesotans do silence better than anyone. There are lifetimes in the unspoken. We were each going through a stage of transition. I was entering a life of independence as he was leaving his. There were already signs he and Grandma would be moving into town soon.
There is a similar quality of light that occurs at sunrise and then again at sunset, and for one moment Grampa and I shared that light.
And that, to me, will always be the light of autumn.
Kevin Kling is a nationally renowned storyteller and playwright. The Minnesota native is the author of “The Dog Says How,” “Holiday Inn,” and other books. His commentaries can be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He lives in Minneapolis.