It's amazing, how quickly it all happens: the days suddenly turning shorter, the leaves going red on the dogwood tree, the sunlight slanting in through the windows at a different angle, the need for a thin blanket at night.

Then one day you notice that the garden seems quite still, no longer alive and growing. And you're aware that your summer clothes feel all wrong -- the colors too light, the shoes too bare. Porches start to look emptier and the air doesn't seem as fragrant with the smell of steaks sizzling on a grill.

And if you listen carefully, you can almost hear the faint sound of a door closing. And as it swings shut we catch our last glimpses of the flowers and the warmth and the brilliant light of that high, bold season we call summer.

Why does the end of summer always catch us by surprise? Why is it that we are never prepared for the abruptness with which the shortened day bumps up against the lengthened evening? Or for the psychological shift that comes as one season ends and another begins?

True, summer isn't over officially until late September, but for most of us the fall season begins just after the Labor Day weekend.

It begins with the kids going back to school. With the packing of lunches and driving of car pools. With brand-new pencil cases and little pink erasers that give off the smell of new rubber.

It begins with saying "Hurry up or we'll be late" at least a dozen times a day.

It begins with heading the car out of the alley only to find the street jammed with cars. The same street, incidentally, that only a week ago was almost deserted.

It begins with packing away the bathing suits that smell of chlorine and getting out the sweaters and jackets.

It begins with loading up the car with stereos and clothes and beanbag chairs and driving your teen-ager off to a new life in some distant dormitory.

It begins with coming back to your teen-ager's empty room and, with a lump in your throat, wondering where the years went.

It begins with looking out of your kitchen window and noticing how the leaves are scattered into zigzagged patterns across the lawn.

It begins with noticing how early the dark comes on and how, after dinner, the streets are no longer filled with the sounds of children playing.

It begins with the crunching sound of a small patch of leaves underfoot and the faint aroma of burning wood in the air.

And fall begins, if you're anything like me, with the melancholy feeling that something has been lost.

It's odd. I've had this feeling of loss about summer's end since I was a child but have never known why. I can, however, actually pinpoint its origins back almost to the day and hour:

I was 8 years old, sick with a strep throat and in my third day of missing the first week of school. The white Motorola radio next to my bed was on and suddenly a man's voice started singing: "And the days dwindle down to a precious few -- September, November . . ."

I didn't know who was singing or what the song was -- years later I learned it was "September Song" -- but I knew instantly it was about loss and that it made me terribly sad.

It still does.

But as you grow older I suppose it's natural to notice the changing of the seasons and, perhaps, feel an inexplicable sadness. Maybe the sadness is the dim recognition that there is a finite number of summers and falls left in your life.

A friend who is approaching her 85th year tells me that some years ago she began numbering the seasons. It helps her to understand, she said, how unique each one is. By her arithmetic, this year marks her 85th observance of the changing of summer into fall.

I thought about this the other evening as I stood outside watering my garden. "Look," an inner voice seemed to be saying, look around you and take it all in. The setting sun forming pale rectangles on the brick wall. The red cardinal piercing the darkening sky like an arrow. The gentle movement in the trees as unseen squirrels fly from branch to branch. The golden hue surrounding the last of the tall, black-eyed Susans."

Standing there, in the half-light of evening with summer all around me, I wanted to reach out, extend my arms and catch the warmth and the breeze and the flowers and draw it all into a circle inside myself, where it could live forever.

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