Every year since I can remember, I have carved a pumpkin around Halloween. And every year, a friend remarks that they haven’t carved one since they were a kid. I am always scandalized by this notion. “Really?! You havent?!,” I stammer, unable to stop my eyes from popping a bit from my skull, just like Jack’s.
Carving a Jack O’Lantern is such a part of the fabric of my ritual life at this point that I can hardly imagine omitting it. And why would I!? There are pumpkins everywhere around harvest time, bushels and bushels of them, beckoning, pleading even, for us to sculpt their true jagged, bumpy faces out of the smooth orange skin. Especially when you consider that these pumpkins were grown just for this purpose–they are really no good for eating–it seems just so wasteful not to carve them!
First I scan the pumpkin pile for one that calls out to be chosen. Each one assumes a notably different posture, some slumpy and slouchy scoundrels, others upright and perky autumnal citizens, and there always seems to be one character in particular that asks loud-n-clear to go home with me. I pick ‘im up and off we go!
Later, in the crispy cool of my front porch, I study the shape of the pumpkin, and usually I can see a faint wraith of a face hovering sheerily over the surface. I trace out the features little by little with a pencil, gradually darkening the lines as a one-toothed grimace or scowly eyebrow reveals itself. I get out a small, thin steak knife, and pierce the flesh at the crown, circling the stem with little jabs until the top pops off, and I can get my hand in to scoop out the guts.
This year, while my Jack O’ lies there, disemboweled, my 8 month old son crawls over and has a blast squeezing all the goop through his tiny hands. Just another of the sensorial discoveries of his first Fall, along with piles of golden maple leaves to crunch, and baskets-full of shiny apples to roll about.
I set him next to a mound of straw that I’m using to line the apple box, and he plays there contentedly while I carve. Just as dusk falls I put on the finishing touches–a big curly moustache–and light a candle inside the punkinhead. A big smile creeps across my son’s face, almost as big as Jack O’s, and just as glowing.
I breathe a prayer of thanks for all the dead folk who I’ve been missin’, appreciating the abundance of the harvest, and my first Halloween as a mother. Wow! Its chilly out here! I grab a chunky wool sweater and wrap it a bit awkwardly around us–I am not yet accustomed to holding a baby in cold weather–cuddling him close as the steam of our breath mingles in the air, possibly for the first time.
This is the first year in a long time that I haven’t planned a big Halloween ecosomatic style performance to mark the occasion–I have more on my new-mommy’s to do list than I can possibly get done this season, and have had to let some balls drop. So, I am even more thankful to have this small, sticky ritual to acknowledge the pleasures of Autumn before the busyness of Mamahood calls me away again.
In a few weeks, when Jack O’s head begins to mildew, he will become ritual mulch for my garden. I will take another big breath and smush him into the soil, composting him down along with all those unfulfilled promises and little dreams rotting on the vine–all the projects I was so sure of when I seeded them, but which never quite ripened. These are the shriveled things which don’t seem so important anymore through Jack O’s now-dim eyes, reminding me how much better they will serve as fodder for spring growth.