I spot the hills    
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
~Carl SandburgI read a story on the internet about children’s Halloween costumes becoming too sexy.  Indeed, when I looked further, there were pictures of scantily clad little girls in costumes that vaguely resembled outfits worn by exotic dancers.  It made me sad.

When I was a little girl, I loved the excitement of Halloween and the prospects of trick-or-treating.  We fashioned costumes from clothing and accessories we already owned- a scarf and a gold hoop earring for a pirate, burnt cork and a shirt from the rag bag for a hobo.  It was the only time of the year we were allowed to wear makeup and I practically trembled as I drew my mother’s red lipstick across my mouth, blotting it on a tissue, and hoping it would not entirely wash off before school the next day.

The naked trees that lined Green Street were draped with toilet paper that drifted in the breeze like silent ghosts. My siblings and I paraded down Green Street, chorusing “Trick-or-treat!” and holding our pillow cases out to catch candy, cookies and apples. It was thrilling to dress in costumes and masks, and become someone else for an evening.  It was thrilling to be out after dark and to sneak peeks at the moon in case a witch flew by on her broom.  It was more thrilling to know there would be a candy bar in my lunch the next day.  I would sift through my goodies, keeping the “good stuff” (AKA chocolate) and throwing out the broken bits of popcorn ball that lay in the bottom of the bag.

When I had children of my own, we prepared for Halloween much as I had as a child.  We made our own costumes- aliens from outer space, princesses, and of course, hippies.  My daughters found the embroidered jeans jacket I wore in college and beads I had “borrowed” from my older sister during the 60s.  All it took was a little face paint to transform them into miniature versions of their mother and aunt.

Like generations before us, we carved pumpkins to make glowing jack-o-lanterns to welcome costumed children who trooped through our housing development to garner as much booty as their bags would hold.  My children would join them, returning with flushed cheeks and excited plans for stashing candy bars in their lunch boxes for school the next day.  They would empty their bags into a large bowl, and for the next week, everyone was allowed to gorge himself on sweets that ruined suppers and brought a gleam to our dentist’s eye.  I consoled myself with the reminder that it was only once a year, and besides, when the kids went to bed, I would snitch a candy bar from their cache.

I can’t figure out if things have changed that much since my kids were young, or if I just didn’t pay attention to the ads in the newspaper flyers.  It does seem that Halloween has become another opportunity for American commercialism to steal our children’s innocent fun.  But as parents, we get to make the rules.  We can sift through the bag and find the good stuff.  It’s all what we put into it- what we decide will matter.  For me, I’ll always cherish the memories of painting faces, sorting candy and lighting jack-o-lanterns.

And I do swear I saw a witch fly across the sky one enchanted Halloween night.

My Favorite Things- or at least a few of them…

It’s only late October and I’m already in full Christmas-preparedness mode.  I’ve dusted off my sewing machine and started the search for special gifts for special loved ones.  Whenever I spy something unusual and special- the kind of thing that I know one of my children would love- I hear tiny ensembles play Jingle Bells in my head.  If the gift sings to me, I know it is a keeper.  If not, I leave it behind.

Today I snagged a one-of-a-kind catch that makes me so excited that I can barely keep it a secret until the yule log blazes.  Scoring such an item got me thinking of my family’s favorite things, and thinking of those things led me to think of my favorite things.  Most of these are not items that can be wrapped in colored paper or stuffed into a stocking, but at my age, there isn’t a bunch of “stuff” I want or need anyway.  However, if you want to join me in a little mental vacation, smile through the following list with me.  And then, make one of your own.

                  Twenty Favorite Things

  1. The smell of percale sheets that have been dried outside on a cold blustery day.
  2. Drinking my first cup of morning coffee under the covers while I watch the morning news and check my email.
  3. The sound of my children laughing when they don’t know I am listening.
  4. Turning up the car radio so it’s one decibel below the point of breaking glass.
  5. Watching someone I love open a gift I made especially for them.
  6. A long hot shower on a frigid January morning.
  7. Dinner with as many family and friends as can be crowded around one table.
  8. Toasted homemade bread slathered with melting butter.
  9. An August breeze that smells of newly mown hay.
  10. Catching a wave in the Atlantic Ocean and riding it all the way to shore.
  11.  Finishing an entire crossword puzzle without cheating.
  12. Dinner and a margarita on a sunny deck after work.
  13. A ninety minute massage by a therapist who doesn’t want to chatter and ask questions.
  14. The memory of my parents laughing at Johnny Carson while I lay in my bed.
  15. Kissing the head of my newborn baby.
  16. Trying on a pair of pants and finding that they are too loose.
  17. Comfortable shoes.
  18. Standing next to my brothers, or anyone else who towers over me, so for once in my life I do not feel like a giraffe.
  19. Hitting a harmony so the notes hang in the air as if they are crystalized.
  20. Knowing that I get to live another day to enjoy numbers 1-19.

The Kitchen Table

During the years when I was growing up at 30 Green Street, a young couple, Bill and Alice, lived diagonally across the street from us.  When I was in elementary school, I walked their cocker spaniel, Suzie, and when I got old enough, I answered their business phone when they went out to dinner.  I was their children’s first babysitter.  They held my wedding reception in their home. And on an almost daily basis, they had coffee at my parents’ kitchen table.

This was the way of life in the neighborhood where I was raised.  Neighbors spent almost as much time at each other’s homes as they did their own.  Everybody used the back door, and rarely rang a doorbell.  Instead, we gave a quick knock, cautiously opened the door and called, “Anybody home?”

In my neighborhood, we held impromptu pot luck dinners, pooling our salad, pasta and sauce, carrying chairs to each other’s homes to cram around the table.  We cooked out and played no-rules croquet games in each other’s yards during the summer.  We shoveled each other’s sidewalks during the winter.  When someone’s car broke down, men rolled up their sleeves to make repairs.  When someone died, women delivered casseroles and comfort.

At my parents’ house at 30 Green Street the coffee was hot and plentiful and everyone was welcome for a cup and a chat.  It always amazed me that people flocked to our old house. Its old plaster walls were riddled with crumbling holes and peeling wallpaper.  The furniture was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs.  The rugs were faded and threadbare.  And the kitchen table- the altar around which all people gathered- was rickety and small, with warped extenders that wouldn’t stay open unless a matchbook was wedged between the leaf and the support that held it up.

It was at the kitchen table that I struggled with algebra, kneaded bread, and learned to sew on buttons.  At the table I gave haircuts to my brothers and taught my sisters how to apply makeup.  At the end of the summer, my mother and I would can tomatoes from her garden, lining dozens of Ball jars on the kitchen table and listening for the lids to pop as they cooled.

I think my parents’ guiding belief was “if you brew it, they will come,” because our kitchen table was always surrounded by people sipping coffee.  On Saturday mornings, the lady who delivered eggs stopped for a quick cup and to update my parents on how the chickens were laying.  Tuesdays, Ernie the dry cleaner hung the clean wool suits in front of the cellar door and had a few slurps before trotting back to his truck.  Young mothers spooned sugar into their cups as they asked for my mother’s advice on potty training and temper tantrums.   Elderly neighbors sipped and shared small town gossip. The insurance man always drank two cups.  Father Kennedy, our priest from St. Patrick’s, usually had one.

One evening when I was nine, my father sat at the kitchen table with a man from the car dealership where he worked.  I had been sent to bed and was dawdling in the bathroom when I heard their voices through the metal grate between the bathroom floor and the kitchen below.  I got down on my knees to listen more closely and could see their steaming cups of coffee on the kitchen table.  The visitor’s voice cracked with emotion as he told Dad how sad he was since the death of his father.  My father’s voice was low and gentle, and reassuring.  I don’t remember the words he said, but I remember going to bed that night proud that my father was someone who could give solace to a broken heart.

If the kitchen table was the mecca for conversation, coffee was the vehicle by which it was served. When I was very young, my father would pour his own coffee, and then pour a small amount into my cup and fill the rest with milk. He would stir in a spoonful of sugar and we would sit and talk.  He did this with all of his children, encouraging us to share our opinions about school, sports and politics.  At the kitchen table there was no rank. Everyone’s ideas were welcome. Everyone had equal value.

The kitchen table was Switzerland- a place on neutral ground over which family arguments were solved. At the table, broken hearts were soothed and tears were dried.  At the table, my parents lectured me about my grades, my boyfriends, and my lapses in judgment.  One Sunday morning during my teen years, I sat at the kitchen table nursing a headache left by too much wine and not enough sleep.  My father entered the door, carrying a wine bottle I had hidden under the front steps and sternly declared, “Three o’clock in the morning is too late, and don’t ever leave your trash lying around like that again.”  Then he poured me a cup of coffee.  I never made either mistake again.

Last week I received word that Bill had passed on.  Sunday there will be a memorial service for him and I will again return to my old neighborhood.  I will hug his children and share their tears, because although we are adults, we are orphans.

And after the food and the embraces and the tears, I will walk very quietly by the house at 30 Green Street, because I am sure if I listen closely, I will hear laughter from the kitchen table.

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