Lisa Q. Mathews

Pumpkins I Have Known

When it comes to obsessing over great orange gourds, Linus Van Pelt has nothing on me. Forget about the candy and costumes and cats. In my view, Halloween is all about the jack o’ lanterns. It’s also about my dad, but I’ll get to that later.

They say Jack of lantern fame was a real person, doomed to roam the peat bogs of Ireland forever with his flickering turnip lantern after a deal gone wrong with the devil. And residents put their own ghoulishly carved gourds—turnips, radishes, potatoes—in the windows or outside their abodes to warn him away, along with the other nasty spirits on the prowl the night before All Souls Day. I’m sure it worked.  Check out this early jack o’ lantern, which is on display in an Irish museum.

irish-jack-o-lantern

It’s been said the flickering candles represent the souls trapped in Purgatory. Brrr. Maybe it’s my 88% Celtic ancestry (yep, DNA tested), or my mystery-writer tendency to get a little carried away with stories, but those aren’t the kind of jack o’ lanterns I’m talking about here. A scaredy-cat at heart, I much prefer the grinning, glowing, bright orange pumpkins of my childhood. Fake plastic shells and battery operated tea lights need not apply. Because, really, it’s the spirit of the pumpkin—including the stringy, yellowish guts and melting wax—that holds particular fascination for me. Or maybe it’s just the face.

lisa-jacks-tray-table

Each fall in elementary school, I looked forward to those purple mimeographed coloring pages my teachers passed out each October. Yeah, there were cats and the slightly-trickier witches where we had to connect the numbers first—but the pumpkins were the ones that got cut out and hung up in class.  Triangle eyes, circle nose, and a jagged mouth with missing teeth. Pretty innocuous.

lisa-stacked-jacks

My dad, who happened to be an Irishman named Jack, shared my fascination with these grinning gourds. Selecting worthy pumpkins to carve was a ritual for the two of us every year.

me-dad-pumpkins

Dad was extremely picky, although the pumpkins always came out exactly the same. The night before each Halloween, my mom fled to the other side of the house while my dad and I gleefully destroyed the kitchen with gloppy pumpkin guts and slimy seeds, not to mention all that test candle wax. I have no idea what I’m doing in this pre-cell-phone pic. Maybe I’m trying to make a pumpkin face. But I’m probably just exhausted.

pumpkin-face

We lived in the wilds of Connecticut, in a neighborhood worthy of a Washington Irving tale. My dad placed our precious creations on the stone wall in front of our house. One year, an unlucky pair was attacked by stick-brandishing hooligans in a car.  I was dismayed the next morning to see the crushed, slippery remnants in the road at my bus stop.

The next year, we were more careful. The pumpkins were set on a TV tray on our stone patio, and I kept vigil by the window after I finished trick or treating. But sadly, our cheerful jacks died a slow, painful death anyway over the next week, set on Corelle Ware plates in the kitchen. First, little black dots would appear, and then the sides began to crumple, twisting mild expressions into gnarly, evil scowls. At that point, my orange charges would simply disappear, never to be seen again, and my mother blamed their abduction on the cleaning lady or the dog.

me-poodle-jackolant

Halloweens have come and gone, but each year when the scent of chrysanthemums and wet leaves fills the air and the nights fall sooner and colder and darker—even with the harvest moon—it’s time for the great pumpkins to return.

SONY DSC

Sadly, my dad suffered from Alzheimer’s in his later years. One October seven years ago, when he was 94, I made him a jack o’ lantern for the bay window in his room. When we turned off the lights, his face lit up the same way I’m sure mine did, every year, when I was a kid. He passed away a week later.

On Saturday, I delivered a small but worthy pumpkin to the cemetery. As I placed it next to my dad’s monument, his veteran’s flag began to wave wildly, despite the cold, windless day. I reminded him that, per our new tradition, it will return to my house for carving the night before Halloween—and hold one white candle to glow in the window for a smiling Jack.

jacks-lantern

Readers, any special pumpkin memories or pix? Please share in the comments below, and Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

 

 

 

28 thoughts on “Pumpkins I Have Known

  1. Lisa,

    What a lovely story and great memory of your dad and you. No great pumpkin stories here, except my husband insists we watch ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’ and we watch Hocus Pocus, to get into the halloween spirit.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Such a heartfelt story. Thabk you Lisa! Small traditions really gain momentum… especially for kids. What a great way to celebrate and remember your dad. Was thinking I’d skip the pumpkin carving this year as my kids are so small, but it’s never too early, right?!?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Lisa, your post is beautiful. It brought me to tears. We didn’t carve pumpkins as kids. But Eliza and I did for a couple of years, and I loved doing it. If she were still home, I’d do it again this year. I did learn not to carve them too far in advance of Halloween. One year we ended up with a puddly mess by the time Halloween rolled around!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. What a beautiful story, Lisa–and I love that you brought a pumpkin to your dad’s grave!

    We have a friend who used to host a massive pumpkin carving fest at his house each year for Halloween (the carving portion took three fulls days), but, alas, when the amount of pumpkins reached 600 and the visitors triple that number, he had to stop,

    Liked by 3 people

  5. What a beautiful, moving post, Lisa. ❤ ❤ ❤

    We typically go big for Halloween with funny, over-the-top decorations. My favorite is our "candy butler" who delivers quippy one-liners in a very J. Peterman voice whenever someone reaches into the candy dish.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Love the story with your dad, Lisa! There’s a picture floating around with me and my brother next to a ginormous pumpkin my dad probably grew one year. I loved the carving as I kid, although my contribution was mostly digging out the slimy guts. With our kids we carved pumpkins, but again, I was the only one who liked the goo. (I’m also a big fan of gutting fish, which horrifies my family. Don’t judge me.) When we discovered those carving kits where you just tape a pattern on the pumpkin and punch little perforation holes that create really intricate designs, that was a fun year. I think we each did our own. So easy and so little maiming of fingers! We don’t do them anymore, though. Last year I saw a squirrel dragging a huge jack-o-lantern down the street. Hilarious.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m so glad, Nancy! The flag waves are quite a regular thing—even at my daughter’s July wedding inside a stifling courthouse with non-functioning a/c. Only the US flag, not the NYS flag beside it.

    Like

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