“Don’t get a big one.”
That’s what my mom said to me as she bounced around the living room doing parental things like zipping up coats and backpacks before sending my three sisters and me off to school. As she shuffled us out the door, I already knew that I was going to disobey her.
I was absolutely going to get the biggest pumpkin my 9-year-old arms could carry.
I knew many of my classmates would opt for adorable little sugar pumpkins. But me? I was going to go big AND go home, because that’s what introverts with a deep love of Halloween do.
Later that morning, as I boarded the school bus with my fellow fourth graders to head to the farm, I wondered what kind of pumpkin I would get. Would it have a weird stem? Speckles and knots? Would it be round or oblong? My indecisive nature was deeply stressed about having too many options.
I don’t recall the autumn activities that my classmates and I took part in that day, but I do remember the farm. It was what Ray Bradbury would call October country. It was cold and gray and wet. It wasn’t quite raining so much as misting, which is great for hair. I remember descending the steps of the school bus in sneakers that were no match for the mud and muck, and I was disgusted by the squishy wetness beneath my feet. I have a brief memory of a tractor, a hayride, and the sickly-sweet outdoor smells that have accompanied every pumpkin patch and apple orchard I’ve ever been to.
I also don’t remember much about the bus ride back to school, but I know I was jazzed about my new best fall friend. My BFF was big and orange and took up the other half of my seat. I think it also had a wicked stem.
It wasn’t until the school bus lurched to a stop in front of my school—which was situated halfway up a hill and had more stairs than students—that I thought about what my mom had said to me earlier that morning.
“Don’t get a big one.”
But it was too late. I had done exactly that. I hadn’t considered why my mom had told me not to go for the big gourd. She had known that my frail fourth-grader arms would have to carry the pumpkin from the patch all the way back to the school bus, up and down several flights of stairs at school, and then home, which was two blocks away from the bus stop and required walking up and down several more hills.
As a kid, I suffered from a melodramatic internal monologue. I know I cried in my head the whole time I lugged that pumpkin home. I’m sure I probably cursed everyone and everything in my path—as if I wasn’t suffering the consequences of my own actions, as if I hadn’t been warned by my mom! I know that I was terrified of dropping that pumpkin and accidentally smashing its gooey orange guts against the rough cement, but with small hands and slick palms, I managed to keep a tight grip on it all the way home.
I don’t remember what kind of jack-o’-lantern I carved that day, but I do know that my arms felt like rubber by the time I arrived home. Carrying that pumpkin home is probably the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a parent of a newborn. (Even today, I still put seatbelts around my pumpkins when transporting them home.)
That’s my most potent memory about pumpkins. I come from a Halloween-loving family, but I don’t have any other distinct memories of carving pumpkins before or after that moment. However, since 2015, I have carved at least one pumpkin every year. I’m making up for lost jacks. How dedicated am I to pumpkin carving, you ask? Well, have you ever had to go to physical therapy because you carved a 97-pound Atlantic Giant pumpkin all by yourself?
Even though I didn’t carve them often when I was younger, my appreciation for pumpkins persisted throughout my childhood. I didn’t have strong opinions about pumpkin innards until I read “Pumpkin Juice” in R.L. Stine’s Still More Tales to Give You Goosebumps. After reading that short story—and Attack of the Jack-o’-Lanterns—I learned that pumpkins and their guts could be really scary. After watching the opening credits of Halloween (1978) for the first time, I discovered that smiling, happy jack-o’-lanterns could be far more ominous than a jack with jagged teeth.
But here’s the thing about pumpkins: They’re versatile. Sure, they can be creepy, but they can also add whimsy to Halloween. I watched Halloweentown every chance I got. Marnie was a favorite childhood witch, but the real star of that movie was the Halloweentown pumpkin. And one of my all-time favorite picture books that captures the whimsy of jack-o’-lanterns is Pick a Pumpkin by Patricia Toht.
These days, I still lose my cool when I see a pumpkin. Knucklehead and Warty Goblin pumpkins make me cringe, but Cinderella’s Carriage pumpkins, ghostly Jarrahdales, and Jack Be Littles light up the happy center of my brain. Of course, classic orange pumpkins are delightful, but I also have a soft spot for Mellow Yellow, Cotton Candy, and Casper pumpkins, too. I’ve amassed a collection of mini pumpkin figurines. I laugh uncontrollably whenever I see a huge pumpkin, like the giant ones that Wegmans stores sometimes put on display during the month of October. If a pumpkin has a wicked, twisty stem, then guess what? That pumpkin’s coming home with me.
All of this delight from a pumpkin. A pumpkin.
Think about that. Cucumbers, apples, broccoli, kiwi—no other fruit or veggie inspires as much delight as a gourd.
We humans are so strange, and I mean that as a compliment.
Have you ever wondered why we feel the way we do about pumpkins? Is it simply because, as Ray Bradbury puts it, we are from “that country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts”? For me, that’s certainly been true since childhood—long before I disobeyed my mom by lugging a giant pumpkin home.
In the words of Halloween artist Rhode Montijo, “It’s always Halloween inside my head.”
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