Before moving to Chicago, we lived in Montreal’s immigrant ghetto. There, Fall’s leaves accumulated across barren yards and were left to disintegrate. In America, Fall was heralded by leaf raking and, except for the rainiest of weekends, backyard fires. October’s first weekend was fantastically sunny — perfect for leaf burning. From our second floor window, I watched smoke rising from nearby gardens. Oil-drums, packed to overflowing with damp leaves, smoldered but flames rarely shot up. Instead, smoke swirled up toward heaven. Riotous neighborhood raking contests and laughter enhanced by smoke’s aroma, captivated me.
That first fall, my father’s intolerance of smoke — even a taste he perceived, dominated our weekends. But I loved those smoky roasting aromas that wafted above surrounding houses and parks.
One Fall Sunday, my parents and I had gone for lunch to Lenny’s Deli near our apartment, our ritual while my brother worked his part-time job. That particular Sunday, my father’s secret scar surfaced — one entirely different from any I’d ever known.
We’d just left the deli. My father stopped unexpectedly, sniffed the air deeply and titled his head upward like a dog in search of prey. He stared at the sky, cloudless but for scattered smoke pillars. Still looking up, he twisted to see more smoke from adjacent streets. Suddenly, without warning, he spun around and around as though struggling to make sense of his surroundings. My father turned toward my mother and me. His face was transformed and terror-darkened. Perspiration erupted across his forehead and upper lip, glistening like glass shards. For a few seconds, he was frozen in space, breathless and inanimate.
Then my father’s voice exploded at my mother in Yiddish growls and hisses. “They all should burn in hell with their God-damned burning leaves! If they saw smoke and fires what I saw, they’d never again burn anything the whole rest from their lives!”
He left us standing outside of Lenny’s. We watched as he took off running, watched him cross the lush Village Green lawn, watched his gait transition into a lope as he pushed himself home ever faster across the remaining distance.
My mother and I walked home, our paces measured but words few. We found my father locked inside his bedroom, every window both closed and locked. I imagined him panicked, bounding room to room frantically locking every opening before hiding himself away.
He refused to go outside until Monday mornings by which time the weekend fires would have burned themselves out, the air returned to suburban clear. His reactions remained consistent on all but the rainiest of weekends when no fires burned.
“Dad, why don’t you like this smell?” I asked one Sunday during dinner. “I think it smells really nice!” I hoped my enthusiasm would sway him, convincing him to join us for future lunches. But I wasn’t prepared for his response, didn’t understand what my father knew: that he risked intolerable assaults to his memory.
Our first fall, my father explained smoke’s deeper significance only one time. We never again spoke of it.
“I’m asking you now this easy question,” he said, “to help you understand what is this smoke business with me.” I nodded encouragement. “Nu, could you still like smokey smells if you were where I was?” He asked, rhetorically.
I braced for what might follow. My father’s delivery was in whispers devoid of emotion. “If you saw smoke what I saw, smoke from crematoriums filling the sky, smelled what you knew was Jews burning in Auschwitz — family, friends, children… can you answer? Nu, you’d still like smokey smells?”