The Leaf Scientist

The Leaf Scientist

By Diana Renn

Fall leafs seamless background.When my five-year-old’s invisible friend first showed up, I thought he was the ideal houseguest. Quiet, polite, he kept to himself. I hardly noticed him at all. When he visited, he typically showed up for dinner.

His presence was announced by a placemat my son drew for him, with pictures of his food—gourmet meals I did not have to cook. When he was done, the placemat got recycled. He left no mess. What’s not to love?

The invisible friend had a name. Leaf Scientist. The name was also his occupation. He first blew in around late September, when the leaves were beginning to turn.

A turning point was occurring within our house, too. My son was leaving behind his preschool days, becoming a more active member of our household. “Give the five-year-old child some household responsibilities,” a developmental chart reminded us at the pediatrician’s office. And so our son was dutifully learning a household chore: setting the dinner table. He learned where to set utensils on either side of a plate, and how to fold a napkin into a triangle. And then one day he set four places rather than three.

I thought he was just enjoying the task, or adding an extra place setting for practice, but he insisted it was for a guest.

“Who?” I asked him.

“Leaf Scientist,” he replied. “He’s my invisible friend.”

I grinned. Our shy son had been slow to make friends, of both the flesh-and-blood and the invisible varieties. So my husband and I were rather tickled that this new friend had dropped by.

And as invisible friends go, this guy was great. As we got to know him better, we discovered he had a whole personality: quirky, thoughtful, and curious. Leaf Scientist, we were informed, studied leaves. Through my son, he made pronouncements about recent changes observed in leaves, and predictions of changes to come. Over the next few weeks, we had many entertaining dinner conversations on the topic of leaves and trees.

I began to see my son in a new light. And with awe. This was no longer the toddler who banged a spoon on a table or pushed cars around his dinner plate. This was someone you could have an actual conversation with. At a dinner table.

Our whole family dynamic, our way of relating to each other, was also changing. I could see the approaching end of the dinnertime tantrums and disciplinary actions. I was grateful to Leaf Scientist for ushering in this new era of family bonding.

As the leaves fell, samples and specimens started coming inside, accompanying Leaf Scientist’s visits. Leaf Scientist and I had words over this, through the mediation of my translator son. Fascinated as I was by our guest’s area of expertise, I preferred not to dine with dead foliage, especially when small insects crawled out of its leaves. Leaf Scientist disappeared for a few days, and I worried I’d scared him off. My son briefly returned to banging the table with a spoon and pushing cars around the dinner plate.

But one day the placemat appeared again, with a plate of magic marker food, and no dead leaves. The friend was back. And so were our pleasant dinners. The house felt a little bit fuller.

I liked that full feeling. We are a family of three. Generally, my son is okay with not having a sibling. While he’s interested in his friends’ siblings at play dates, he comes home expressing relief that he does not have to share toys or fight over TV shows. He does not have to share his parents.

My husband is also fine with being three. I get where he’s coming from. I really do. He has two grown daughters, twins, from his previous marriage. And he is currently the breadwinner in the house. He is shouldering the bulk of the bills. And he’s older. He’s enjoying his “surprise” son, but he is done bringing more people into the world, thank you very much.

I admit, I always feel a twinge of resentment when people call him a “father of three.” I am, forever, a mother of one.

When we got married, my husband and I had agreed to have one child together. We even discussed it in counseling. I said I was fine with one. And I was. I wanted to write books, and I knew that having more children would make writing harder. He cautioned I might change my mind, that women often felt the need for a second after they had the first. I assured him that would not happen to me.

As it turned out, he was right. Something changed with the birth of our son. I experienced a powerful, emotional and biological impulse to have a second. I wanted to do this great ride again, and to create a bigger, fuller family. I marveled at what my body was capable of, and I loved being a mother. My heart had room for more.

Intellectual reasons bubbled up too. I had a sibling myself, a younger sister. Because of our age difference—seven years—we were not close growing up. In my fantasy family, my son would have a sibling two years younger, and they would grow up close, always having each other to lean on.

My husband and I had recurring hard conversations about the second child over the next few years. We had conversations that were emotional and conversations that were logical, intellectual, like lawyers making their respective arguments. To one of these discussions I actually brought a file stuffed with documents and data. I may have drawn up a spreadsheet.

But finally, at the age of forty-one, I accepted that having one more child would actually damage our marriage. Having another baby might have been the best decision for me personally, individually, but it was not the best decision for our whole family. My husband, in his fifties and with the end of his working years in view, did not want the financial responsibility of another child and the worry about financing college for a fourth kid. In turn, I had to face the reality of my own limitations: my lack of patience, my lack of nearby family to help out with childcare, and, as a freelance writer and editor, my own limited income. We were not rich celebrities who could outsource childcare and move to a mansion. We were a middle-class family with an age difference and finite means.

My heart was still pleading, but logic won out. I started donating the baby gear and selling off nursery furniture that I’d never use again. I threw myself into my writing and realized my dream of publishing a novel. And I devoted myself to my son, grateful that we could now afford to send him to an excellent school and enroll him in enriching activities. With a second child, he would not have had such opportunities. I knew that.

Despite the rationalizations, at odd times I’d still feel the pang of the phantom child, that missing fourth family member. One of those times was when setting the table. Having grown up in a family of four, it felt natural to me to put out four place settings.

Maybe that was why I was so quick to hand that chore off to my newly responsible son. I felt, too acutely, the palpable absence in that fourth chair. The lack of symmetry bugged me.

Throughout the fall, leaf scientist, strangely enough, came to fill that chair. I enjoyed seeing my son set out real utensils and cups for him. The invisible friend began to feel less like a houseguest and more like family.

“How’s Leaf Scientist today?” I’d ask my son.

“He’s doing great!”

“Where is he right now?”

“Finishing a TV show in the other room. He’ll be in for dinner.”

My son would report on Leaf Scientist’s research and recreation at odd times of day, so naturally, that it came to feel as though there really was a fourth body occupying the house. I looked forward to the Leaf Scientist reports.

Leaf Scientist hung around well into the winter. Even after the autumn leaves had been mostly gathered up and swept away, Christmas trees held his attention. There was still much to study and discuss. His placemat appeared at the table.

And then, one evening, it didn’t.

I asked my son if he forgot to set it out.

“No,” my son said. “Leaf Scientist has left.”

“But he’ll be back, right?”

He shook his head. Then he suddenly turned to me, his eyes brimming with tears. “He blew away,” he told me. “He’s not coming back.”

As quietly as he had entered our lives, Leaf Scientist had apparently vanished.

No goodbyes. No explanations.

My heart beat a little faster. I swallowed hard. I took my son into my arms and held him close.

“Spring is around the corner,” I whispered into his hair. “He’ll be back. There will be plenty more leaves to study.”

“He will not be back.” There was something different in my son’s voice. Sadness mixed with surety. He was processing feelings, experiencing loss. He was also accepting a truth.

I watched as he let the tears fall for a minute longer. Then he went into the other room to play Legos.

I sat down in the dining room next to Leaf Scientist’s empty seat, bewildered by the onslaught of my son’s complex emotions—and my own.

Was that the end of my son’s era of invisible friends? It had happened so fast. He’d turn six in a few months. How long did kids have invisible friends, anyway? My son had made so many new friends in Kindergarten. He talked more of real boys and girls these days.

And then another realization stabbed me. There would be no comforting myself with words like, “Oh, that was a fun phase; I can’t wait to see what the next kid’s invisible friend will be like.”

There was no next kid.

There was no next kid’s invisible friend.

Developmental phases like this would flare up fast and blow out like birthday candles, never to be relived through the experience of a sibling.

I thought I’d dealt with this second child issue. Maybe I hadn’t. Or maybe, on some level, I’d always be dealing with it, and that’s what I had to accept.

Intellectual acceptance and emotional acceptance are not the same things. It may take years before they dovetail. Or they may not dovetail at all. Maybe all of us hit a point where we’re left with our own invisible friends: the children we might have had, the dreams that weren’t realized. What’s in our own empty chairs? What fantasies must we relinquish?

I’d been hiding behind Leaf Scientist instead of truly dealing with my emotions and moving on. When Leaf Scientist wasn’t visiting, I was hiding behind other things. Like work and busyness. It was time to find ways to process my emotions about the size of our family instead of letting my resentment fester.

It was also time to start filling that fourth chair with other things. Maybe real-life people. Cousins, nieces, nephews. Grandparents, neighbors, friends. We could start inviting actual human beings for dinner, filling the chairs with folks we could all actually converse with, instead of indulging in our son’s fantasy life.

All of this could be a start toward letting go of resentment and accepting all the great things I already had. Including my one wonderful family. Opening the door to take down the dead Christmas wreath, I whispered a silent thank-you to Leaf Scientist for once again ushering in a new era. “Goodbye,” I whispered. A breeze sent some crunchy old foliage skittering down the sidewalk. I smiled and imagined our invisible friend quietly bowing and taking his leave.

Author’s Note: This essay surprised me. What began as a light-hearted, amusing sketch about my son’s invisible friend turned into a deeper exploration of our family’s size. I had no idea the two things were connected until the writing was well underway. Writing the essay was an important step in my coming to terms with this issue, and learning how to focus on the reality of my family. I am now looking forward to the next season, wondering what fresh surprises it may bring for my inquisitive son.

Diana Renn writes contemporary mysteries for young adults. She is the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine featuring writing for and by teens. Diana’s essays and short stories have been published in a variety of magazines, including The Writer, Writer’s Digest, YARN, and Literary Mama. A Seattle native, Diana now lives outside of Boston with her husband and young son. Visit her online at

This essay is from our new Fall issue. Click here to order the issue or to subscribe.