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