Sunday, October 25

Stirring Things Up For Halloween

Grammy and Papa drove over two rivers and through the woods to be at our house every Halloween that I can remember growing up. We would gather for a somewhat fancy family dinner, my sister and I keeping our eyes on the clock throughout the meal, not wanting to be a minute late for trick-or-treating. For one of those suppers, my mother took an adventurous culinary left turn, serving a meatloaf that featured a bright orange carrot mash rolled up into its center a la an autumnal buche de noel. My poor mother. We still talk about that meat loaf. Not kindly. Then my grandparents would see us off trick-or-treating with our friends, exclaim over neighborhood kids' costumes, help my parents pass out candy (it seemed like a big job) and, the night would end, every year, with my nearly deaf grandfather rumbling how, boy, he remembered how far our father used to go trick-or-treating when he was a kid. I thought that was what all families did on Halloween. Maybe that's what first planted this magical time as a major holiday in my mind. Lately, it's become my favorite.

There's so much to love. I love the quiet magic of the season the most. But I also like that there's not a lot of pressure involved with Halloween. There is no gift-giving to stress about. No major feast to prepare. (I didn't follow in my mother's footsteps there. I don't have family over on the big night. Just my mom. I'm too excited to entertain.) There is decorating to be done...which I love. But this time of year, most of the design work is done courtesy of Nature. The world is gloriously disheveled in fall. Talk about shabby chic! Piles of leaves in your yard? Fine. Kale wilting and tumbling out of your window boxes? Au courant. The crab apple tree that is so out of control as to look menacing? Perfect for tapping trick-or-treaters on the shoulder. Gourds fallen over by your front door? Abundance right on your stoop. My house, which looks just slightly worse for wear, never looks better. As though I planned it this way all along.  And best of all, no one's trying to dictate your emotions on Halloween. No one's trying to force you into a feeling of togetherness with your family, trying to make you grateful for anything, trying to get you to believe in Jesus if that's not your thing or invoking a prescribed version of patriotism. There's nothing worse than trying to call up feelings on someone else's time schedule. That's not on Halloween's agenda. Halloween is just for playfulness, magic and wonder. Anything goes.

Our family takes its cues for our Halloween countdown not from the poor sucker in the neon-colored ape suit waving the Halloween Sale sign on Rte. 6 but from the weather when it cooperates and from our own seasonal rituals. First to arrive are the pumpkins. I love the fatness of pumpkins. The plumpness that sums up the fecundity of this time of year. They come home from the farmers' market and the grocery store where they're cheapest. These orange orbs are chosen based on which are the weirdest-looking, longest-stemmed and which we feel the most sorry for. By the time Halloween arrives, we have enough to fill a small patch. When we're done with them, the remains rot in the garden and the deer eat them in the winter. The birds and field mice snatch up most of the seeds we haven't roasted in the spring.

As soon as the first cold wind blows, I brew up my first batch of Carrot Sweet Potato Soup on the stove in the biggest pot I have. Then I just wait for my brood to come in from the weather. Adapted from the Moosewood cookbook, this concoction is my family’s truest sign that fall has been let in the door.  This soup's as orange as the pumpkins piled up on the stoop. It tastes like no other soup you've ever made.  I add a sweet potato instead of a potato. I use at least half a cup slivered almonds, 1 cup milk, 4 cups vegetarian vegetable stock and no other seasoning or garnish. You must eat it with warmed-up, crusty wheat bread. Everyone loves this soup.

Next, when I have time, I set up my funny little Halloween village. A mixture of dried moss and gourds, curly willow branches and a generous helping of glitter, it’s a wee land that I made by hand for any fairy folk who wander into our home. The kids have loved it since they were little and ask when it’s going up every year but I think I love it more than anybody. It reminds me of when Captain Kangaroo had people who lived in the bookcase near his desk on his show. Remember them? Every few episodes, not nearly often enough for my taste, Captain Kangaroo would say, "Let's go check in on our little friends..." and pull the book aside. There they'd be..these tiny people...busy living their lives in the bookcase. That transfixed me as a child, the idea that there could be people living right inside my world that I couldn't see...that their whole world could fit inside a SHELF. I don't think I ever quite got over it. The other day when I left the back door open for the dog, a bird flew in. Straight inside the kitchen and made a beeline for the shelf that I've cleared this year for the gourd houses and curly willow branches. The bird started scuffling around in the moss among the Halloween houses and knocked down some of the little fencing I'd made. I don't know what she was looking for. She poked around the gourds and moss for a few good solid minutes, darting with intent. Then, satisfied, she flew back out the way she came. Just checking, I guess.

Lastly, down from the attic, dear Henry lugs the boxes full of cool weather clothes and Halloween treasures. Most sought after are the Halloween books. Some of them date back to my mother-in-law’s days as a teacher. Favorites include The Night the Scarecrow Walked and The Littlest Pumpkin. The Littlest Pumpkin is about a little, misshapen pumpkin who waits the entire day on the last day before Halloween to be taken home and made into a jack o’lantern. He dreams of being placed at the center of a happy party and danced around by children in costumes. But no one chooses him because he's too small. So the Littlest Pumpkin is left all alone on Halloween at the pumpkin stand, lonely and sad. But wait! He's not really alone! The mice are there! and they bedeck and bedazzle him and make him the center of their celebration! This oft-repeated story has forever convinced my children that pumpkins have feelings too. (Hence, the strange-looking pumpkins we end up with every year.) The pen and ink drawings of The Night the Scarecrow Walked show a to-be-pitied scarecrow stuck on his pole at the beginning of Halloween day. Later, he looks so much like a strange, raggedy man that the brother and younger sister see walking a country road that same night as they return home from trick-or-treating. It just couldn't be.... But when they pass the scarecrow's field on their way to school the next morning, the scarecrow's pole is empty!  Unsure they want to hear it, my kids insist on having this one read and reread anyway. It captures the duality of Halloween: excitement and creepiness- two sides of the same sweet candy treat. Somehow that feeling goes down this well only at this time of year.

Lucy was born the day after Halloween. There is a picture of me sitting at home that Halloween night, swathed in a long, tight brown stretch of a warm dress waiting for my two tiny trick-or-treaters to come home, two firefighters that year, my own belly a ripe pumpkin. The look in my eyes that the camera captured that night is one of expectation, impatience and more than a little discomfort. And yes, I’ll say it: it’s half-crazed. With power, hormones and a tetch of panic, the way we women are in the hours just before we push a fully formed human being from our pelvises. Somehow it didn’t register as discordant that it was on Halloween that I was preparing to push Lucy out into the world. In fact, it seemed just perfect. To me, it’s always been such a magical night. The one night a year so many of us seem to feel comfortable acknowledging the thin veil between this world and the next. When it’s okay to smile about spirits swooping around the night. Spirits entering and spirits leaving. It's the night to acknowledge that death can be frightening, yes, but that we can be friendly with it too.

On a different October evening, six years earlier, my Grammy had a fairly peaceful death on a hospital bed in the home of her daughter, Helen, and her daughter’s dear partner, Emma. They had cared gently for her for weeks in their small, wallpapered dining room where, years earlier, Emma's brother had also come to die. It was kind of becoming their specialty. I was walking through the gate into my small yard and climbing the stone steps towards my porch some 140 miles away in Somerville, Massachusetts when I felt her go. I knew before the phone rang.

On Halloween, a few weeks later, I asked some of my women friends to come to dinner. I stirred up a pot of my soup and left it slowly bubbling on the stove. I set out a plate of lemon squares on my porch. I ironed one of Grammy’s outfits. The iron must have been unnerved to find itself in my hands but I had to. Grammy was never wrinkled. I hung the clothes on a hanger on my trellis where it was sheltered a little from the autumn wind and where the lattice also held a creeping autumn rose. Grammy loved roses. The wind blew strong that night and a little warm for October.

I wanted Grammy to know she was invited too. That she was always invited. I set the table with care. I used her dishes: Briarwood Rose Spode. Her wedding china. A year or so before, when she was still in her own home and her spindle bed had first been moved to then dining room, we'd talked about her china in the hutches that were then surrounding her. These were her diamonds, her pearls. She wanted me to choose which ones I wanted. There were multitudes of dishes, china patterns and glassware that she registered for or bought on a schoolteacher’s and Southern New England Telephone electrician’s salary and on which she'd served recipes clipped out of Gourmet magazine. Each piece had a story. I'd sat and listened to so many. Now she wanted me to pick. I chose the sweet rose-covered pattern that she chose herself, as a not-too-young bride in the 1940‘s. She watched from the bed as I wrapped each piece in newspaper. Twice. That Halloween night I carefully placed the lemon squares I'd made for her on a Briarwood Rose dessert plate and put them on the porch under her fluttering clothes. I knew she'd be pleased.

 Throughout the season, as our family's Halloween preparations build, I love to step out into our back yard at night after dinner and breathe deep. I inhale the sweet decay of fall. I listen for the humming rumble of our furnace and the rhythm of my family's clothes flapping in the dryer behind the cellar wall. Time seems like such a long story back here behind the house at night where the stone wall, built by long-gone hands stretches down into the woods until I can't see it. But looking back inside the warm, litup house is like peering in on a movie and the story, it feels far too brief.

That's just a piece of the magic of the season. In the everyday. The regular.  In remembering. In birth. Death. Plates. Pots of soup. The extra ingredient is this: infusing them with whatever meaning you want to find there. In a bird. On a shelf. Leaves on the ground. Clothes blowing in the wind. A gate banging shut and your step on the path. The phone rings and you already know. We read the same stories together each year savoring the unchanging endings, their familiarity serving as both the mystery and the comfort we crave. Halloween holds them both like a fat, ripe pumpkin, like my belly held Lucy ten Halloweens ago this year. I still like to be at home on Halloween. These days, I'm greeting trick or treaters in my cobweb-strewn witch’s hat at our door, exclaiming over their disguises, handing out candy in my chocolate-infused hall, wondering how far my kids will go this year. Waiting at my post, I'm listening for the telltale sound of shuffling feet through the fragrant leaves across our yard. And for whatever else is out there.


  1. I had forgotten about your Carrot Sweet Potato Soup! So good!

  2. Wow! This was an amazing story and I'm so glad you shared it. Halloween is very special to me as well. I hope you continue to make many more Halloween memories.


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