It was time to decorate for the season. I rummaged around the attic and brought down the long ropes of dried leaves that are the swags we use along the staircase for autumn. We have lots of these, preserved dried leaves carefully wired together into six foot long earthy ropes of leaves and nuts. I wrap them around the tall bronze floor lamps, hang them on the mantels, and drape them over mirrors. Most prominently they curl around the banister and turn in one long twining loop around the big hefty balusters at the top and bottom.
Then there are the inside pumpkins. Some of them are unglazed pottery and others are blown glass They hang out on sideboards and mantels giving the whole place a feeling of harvest and abundance. Most of the year they are hidden away wrapped in crinkly faded tissue paper and buried in boxes labeled ‘autumn’ in the attic. There are never enough lights up there, and so John hauls the boxes down and I pick through them choosing what comes out and what goes back up forgotten for another year.
Deeply buried in one of the boxes is an old paper mache jack o’ lantern with a black grinning face. It has hung on the side of a jelly cupboard in our playroom all the years we have lived in Vermont. Before that it hung on that same jelly cupboard in St Louis and Edwardsville respectively. And way before that it lived in another house and hung on the side of an anceinet Hoosier cabinet.
It was a fall Saturday afternoon and my mom and I were running errands. We had been to the beauty shop where I had gotten change from all the ladies, taken their orders, and made trips back and forth to the bakery for doughnuts. I’d gotten a treat on every errand so I was full of sugary jelly doughnuts dipped in milky coffee. After that we’d done our grocery shopping and been to the drug store for prescriptions. It was a payday week, so there were lot of errands still to do. We had to stop by the library to return and choose our new books, gas up the car, and get the oil changed. While we waited for that we would walk downtown to Graham’s Bookstore. Now this was not a bookstore like Borders or B&N. This was an old fashioned lemony oiled smelling paper goods store, where books were an accessory to all things devoted to the written word. There was a typewriter repair shop in the back and aisles of pens and ribbons and thick creamy paper that felt heavy and expensive and important all at once.
The floors were hard wood and stained dark with a well worn path in their centers. They smelled of wax and gleamed always at every time of year. The windows were high up and shafts of yellow light shown down into puddles on those shiny floors where my little Maryjanes made such satisfying clicks as I walked to my favorite part of the store. Actually I had two favorite parts. Because sometimes, like now, there was a display of seasonal stuff in the front window and those things were kept in an alcove way at the back right next to the kid’s books. I was always allowed to buy one book every other week after payday. This was in addition to my allowance and all of the regular weekly trips to the library. Books were as important as food and medicine was the message. These were the things we got every payday no matter what. I read voraciously, but I never checked out Nancy Drew books. These were the books I wanted to own, and so every other week I added to my collection, with an occasional Heidi or horse book thrown in for good measure.
Mr Parks would tell me if my new book was in and I would run back and grab the copy. If there was no new Nancy Drew book, there was always something and I would decide slowly. And then I’d run over to the seasonal displays. We were very frugal and so this was not a place in the store where we spent any money. But looking was free and I would ooh and ahh over Christmas decorations and long jointed witches which hung from front doors all over town. On this particular afternoon there were three amazing paper mache jack o’ lanterns. I always carried a little purse and I reached in and dug out my trusty notebook, (just like I imagined Nancy might do), and began sketching their faces. I showed my mom and told her that we could carve one of these into our pumpkin this year. She asked me which one I liked best. I couldn’t decide. They seemed so fancy, with their bright orange tissued bodies and their vivid black faces. I was longing for one, but they were $1.49. I got two dollars allowance, but I was saving for Christmas presents, so I couldn’t spare the exorbitant price. But my mom watched me fingering them over and over.
“Hmm”, she said. “$1.49. I think we could do that. This will be our little Halloween present to ourselves. Which one would you like?”
It was easy. I wanted the happiest looking plain one. It was just exactly like every single pumpkin we’d ever carved. I was drawing those faces thinking that maybe we could expand our repertoire, but when it came right down to it, I wanted the same happy reassuring symbol we’d always had. Mr Parks wrapped it carefully in tissue paper and we hung it on the side of Gram’s old kitchen cabinet.
That old tissue paper is falling apart now. But coming upon it every year takes me way back. I can smell the wax on the floors and hear the bell above the door. Forty years later the old jack o’ lantern has been part of three more childhoods. Thanks Mom. It is a sweet reminder that we never know which moments we will hold onto….