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Opening Letters

We Are Grasshoppers

frittering away autumn days as the Wisconsin winter closes in

Katie Venit, design by Serena Wagner |

This morning, the kitchen thermostat reads 59 degrees. It’s still dark outside, so I can’t confirm the forecasted snow and wind. Either way, seems time to turn on the heat.

I hold my breath as the furnace clicks then rumbles to life. It’s an old furnace. “Don’t expect it to last the winter,” the home inspector told us last spring before we moved in. “Looks original to the house.” Some of the windows have lost their vacuum, and we’ll need to replace those, too, but right now we’re more worried about the furnace.

I bump the thermostat down a couple of degrees to save the old gal some effort. The kids can put on sweatshirts when they wake up.

Despite my worry over the furnace, the vents on the top floor of our colonial are still wide open, and the ones in the basement are still closed, but I can’t rouse myself to reverse them at 6am. Instead I brew the last of my favorite chestnut black tea and breathe in its sweet earthiness, remembering this time to sip only after it cools.

We waited too long. Our dressers hold summer’s tank tops, and sandals clog up the mudroom. Boots and snowpants are probably in some anonymous cardboard box in the basement. I couldn’t find a scarf if my life depended on it, which it very well might in a few weeks.

My mouth still smarts from the other day when I gulped my tea too fast. We were late for school, and I couldn’t find our winter gear. Hats were … somewhere, my son only had Crocs for shoes, and I struggled to come up with matching gloves. When I found two, he claimed they were too small to be endured.

“I can’t find bigger gloves,” I said. “You’ll have to choose between being cold and being uncomfortable.”

I guess he chose uncomfortable because he wore them home after school then threw them onto the counter in a huff.

This morning, I push the gloves aside to set out a baking pan and turn on the oven. I will make French toast. The kids may not like it – sometimes they don’t like eggs – but I have an abundance of stale bread, a chilly kitchen, and a hankering for maple syrup. But first I need to find a recipe that doesn’t need to soak in the custard overnight.

The problem of the missing gloves is, of course, systemic. We waited too long. Our dressers hold summer’s tank tops, and sandals clog up the mudroom. Boots and snowpants are probably in some anonymous cardboard box in the basement. I couldn’t find a scarf if my life depended on it, which it very well might in a few weeks.

As I tear the bread boule into pieces and look for the cinnamon, the half-hearted sun rises enough to illuminate our green hose languishing across the yard like a snake. I’ve been using it to water the white pine and river birch saplings I bought in September. At the time it seemed they should have plenty of time to settle in before the ground froze. Now I’m not so sure. I should mulch them but haven’t. Does Menards even sell mulch this late into fall?

Near the hose is the Slip ’n Slide – which is probably getting moldy – and the bright blue baby pool I meant to put out for bulk item pickup.

The windows in the sunroom stretch out wide, and the hammock swings in the wind. The bird feeders need refilling, and I never got around to buying mums. Our chimney should be swept if we want to use it this winter.

Not everyone is tardy. The squirrels whirl my grass like wreaths around their buried treasure.

The maples aren’t procrastinating. A neighbor’s leaves turned scarlet with electric yellow flashing along the veins. My five-year-old likes to stick them on her tongue as though catching psychedelic snowflakes. And now the cold is here – actual snowflakes are falling – but our gloves don’t both match and fit, and the vents are still arranged for air conditioning.

Autumn is for preparing. For canning, storing, raking, insulating, harvesting, feasting. For burrowing in, setting up, putting away. It is for bears who tumble stoutly into their dens, tired after feasting. For mallards and monarchs who left in time. For ants who busily collected food all summer and excavated below the frostline.

Alas, in my house we have not been ants but grasshoppers. We spent these last few weeks at the playground, on bikes, at the orchard. Crisp crackle crunching through leaves instead of raking them.

I have found the cinnamon at least. There’s just enough to sprinkle on the French toast before I slide the pan into the oven. The kids won’t like it – cinnamon is too “flavory” – but they need to get used to being uncomfortable.