Pumpkins are one of my favorite plants: For sheer viewing pleasure, it’s hard to beat the lobed, lush leaves, broader than flapjacks, and the cantankerous, prickly vines.
And, those flowers. Truly, these are the Bette Midler of blossoms: brassy, bawdy, bigger than life. The presence of a single peripatetic pumpkin plant can make an otherwise puny plot appear so casually fertile it’s almost promiscuous.
The fruit, however, is another matter – at least in my garden. For all their sound and fury, my allegedly early all-purpose pumpkins signify very little at harvest time. Recall those statistics: This year, I plucked two small fruit; last year, one. The truth is, my pumpkins, while clearly able, do not apply themselves.
Still the present pair is lovely, big as a baby’s head and twice as cute: mottled orange and green, with a curly cue of a stem where they let go of the vine. Today, of course, is Halloween, so they might become proper little jack o’ lanterns. But in truth, they’re too small to carve, and I haven’t the heart.
Besides, the reality of pumpkins is not so important as the idea. Nothing so says “Fall” like this grand gourd. And nothing quite recalls kiddom – at least for those of us who no longer can pretend youth – like Halloween.
My parents – young, energetic, naïve – were patient partners in our perennial masquerades. My mother once painstakingly wrapped my brother and I in gauze for a grade-school costume contest; had we not become whiny and demanded de-mummification, we would easily have won, as the prize went to a kid in a store-bought alligator get-up.
My parents often helped us concoct costumes: a bushy mustache, felt eyepatch, clip-on earring and cloth sash allowed me to pirate my way across our province, pillaging candy. As we grew older and more sophisticated, they splurged on those awful, wonderful costumes you could buy at an anachronism known as a department store: one-piece polyester put-ons that felt like silk to us, even though the plastic, full-face masks were suffocating, and by the end of the evening achieved an odor that permeates the years right down to today.
My father, though, was the biggest kid of all. A crinkly eyed, crew-cut grad student who became a professor, he left his academic demeanor on campus. Readily recruited into bad behavior, he took my brother and I to a Halloween expo from which we returned to my mother baring convincing wounds of petroleum jelly and Mercurochrome. Not long after, we went to see “Night of the Living Dead,’’ a black-and-white horror flick featuring stiff-gaited, cannibalistic corpses; so crudely creepy was this gem that it became a cult classic years before the current “walking dead” fetish.
My father’s best adventure, though, came on a Halloween night some years later, when he darkened the house save for the jagged-toothed jack o’ lanterns my mother had carved. Then he stuffed a pillow high under his shirt, hunchback style, applied a few Vaseline and Mercurochrome facial gashes and set about perfecting his best Igor walk, dragging one foot heavily and carrying a flickering candle that illuminated him in ghastly fashion.
This was the sight that greeted trick-or-treaters at my parents’ doorstep that year, and for the most part, my father was a big hit. Except for that one kid, who may still be running for his life.
“He was maybe 4 or 5,’’ Dad recalls. “I did my routine and the little boy ran out straight toward the street across the yard; he went right by his father.
“I realized what had happened and apologized for scaring him — his dad took it all in good stride. About 15 or 20 minutes later, I saw a flashlight in our yard; the dad had come back and was looking for the kid’s shoe. He had thrown a shoe when he was running.’’
More than 30 years have passed since my father inadvertently occasioned years of therapy for that child. In the interim, Halloween has become a frightful event in a sorrowful way, as parents hasten to protect their progeny from adult dangers beyond what any child might imagine.
So my humble pair of pumpkins will have done enough if they recall those finer fall nights, when fear existed mostly in our young imaginations — and in the form of my hunch-backed, horribly wounded father, limping his way harmlessly through the past.