Kittie Howard

Friday, October 16, 2009

SOMEONE STOLE MY PUMPKIN -- (Beginning of the Louisiana Stories)

Fall is special. I love it when the leaves begin to turn and, like bright orange and red feathers, flutter to the ground. And, as the weather turns into crisper days, sometimes with a drizzle of rain, I love to snuggle into jeans, a turtleneck, and hoodie and walk through the leaves, the right loafer lightly kicking them up, just to enjoy their fluttery descent once again. I also like to think about things during these walks. There's no need to explain what runs through my mind. You probably have your own favorite way to meditate or talk to God or commune with Nature and know about things that run through the mind.

I usually return home rejuvenated, that the only problem is there is no problem and where's my cookie? Fall is the only time of the year cookies, especially oatmeal raisin cookies, tickle the taste buds, not every day, for sure, but after a nice walk through our mini forest, absolutely. I'm pretty sure this results from when I was a kid growing up in a small town in predominantly rural South Central Louisiana.

The school bus didn't pick up 'townies'. Every week day I'd meet my friend Marilyn at a designated street corner, and we'd walk the long mile to school, chatting non-stop about This and That. It never seemed like we walked a mile. Exercise was part of our lifestyle. We all had mandatory P.E. at school. Early fall meant basketball for all the girls, football and basketball for however the boys split up. There were no exceptions; everyone had to sign up.

Actually, no one complained. We girls would run our 10 laps around the gym before practice began and think nothing of it. So, by the time the school day ended at 3:15 and Marilyn and I had walked the long mile home, we were hungry for a snack.

In each house near me the routine was the same: Drop books on the counter, hop on the bike, and peddle as fast as the wind to Mr. Morel's. For one cent we could purchase two huge oatmeal raisin cookies. A Nehi strawberry pop was a nickle more. But, since those in my group received a nickel a day allowance, we'd usually settle for the cookies and save the Nehi for a weekend purchase, minus the cookies, and save the rest (because we knew saving money was important.) We couldn't have it all and knew it.

There were two bakeries in my small town. Mr. Morel knew when the hungry hoard would run laughing and giggling into his store and had the cookies waiting. Sometimes they were still warm. Mr. Morel never really said much. He wore baggy pants and a white shirt with suspenders and had small glasses that sat down on his nose. We thought he was maybe a hundred years old.

We knew that if we didn't say Please and Thank You he'd tell our parents we were rude and something awful would happen. We never figured out what that would be. No one ever really said. But we never took any chances and always minded our manners.

There were also times when Mr. Morel was busy at his desk at the back of the store, behind a bookcase, where he couldn't see us. But he knew the ritual, recognized the excited brouhaha, and would call out for us to take our cookies and leave the pennies on the counter. And we did, always with a chorused Thank You, Mr. Morel before leaving. No one ever cheated Mr. Morel. No one.

After munching our cookies, we'd hop back onto our bikes and ride and race each other for another hour or so, until it was time for dinner, always at 5:00. We kids knew to wash our hands, set the dinner table, and otherwise help out. We didn't think to think otherwise. That's just the way it was. And we didn't complain about doing our homework after dinner. And parents didn't supervise us. It was quite clear who did what in our relationships; no one questioned otherwise.

As such, the days passed. Fall deepened into Thanksgiving, when grandparents and relatives from New Orleans visited. What, with my parents, five kids, and a ton of relatives, by the time Christmas approached, the sounds of laughter and kids playing games (sometimes arguing) and the teasing aromas of holiday pies and cookies, happy excitement filled the house.

My father always purchased a Christmas tree. The fresh-cut scent filled the living room. After waiting a couple of days for the branches to fall, we'd gather to decorate the tree. My father managed the lights. My mother placed the angel at the top. I hung ornaments just below the middle of the tree. And so it went, with each of us having an age-appropriate responsibility, until we finished our tasks, stepped back, and beamed with pride at what we'd accomplished.

I don't remember the exact year, but I do remember that, one year, about a week before Christmas, my father had the idea to drive around and look at the brightly-lit Christmas trees shining from living room windows. And so we did. And it was a lot of fun, with all of us oohing and ahhing over the lights.

That is, until we left our neighborhood and drove farther, to the edge of town and beyond, where the school bus stopped, where some of my classmates lived. The merriment that had filled our car soon turned into a puzzled silence. Very few had Christmas trees. In the three houses where my classmates lived, there wasn't a Christmas tree, even a hint that Christmas was coming. Of course I knew where my classmates lived. Except during winter (too much slick rain) we peddled our bikes everywhere and were regularly inside of each other's houses.

My father saw my sadness and began to explain, in the way that parents did, that my classmates' parents lacked the money to buy a tree, the lights or ornaments. I remember listening intently, but still feeling sad, when my father pulled into a long driveway. We went inside. I didn't know these people, but they seemed to be waiting for us. In proper Southern fashion, we were ushered into the living room. There, standing next to drawn curtains, was a tall tree, without lights or glass ornaments, but with brightly painted tin cans hanging. It was a Cajun Christmas tree!

These days, Cajun Christmas trees are a major competitive Christmas ritual in Cajun Louisiana. Back when I was a kid, it was Christmas spirit without the money. And, so, we kids sat politely and sipped Kool-Aid. The adults sipped egg nog and laughed and talked. Soon, it felt like Christmas in that small room with the Cajun Christmas tree.

When we returned home, full of holiday spirit and a bit wiser for my tender years, we just opened the door and walked in. No one locked doors in those days. There was no need.

And, just like I've grown up to enjoy that fall cookie, I've also grown up believing in that Cajun Christmas tree. Holiday spirit is in the heart, not with anything one buys. Nor can anyone steal holiday spirit.

So, imagine my surprise, my sadness, when I awoke Monday morning to discover that someone had stolen my pumpkin outside.

As much as anyone could love a pumpkin, my inner child loved the one we had selected. Our pumpkin was a vibrant orange, like the leaves that turn, and was almost perfectly round. Too round was too perfect. We wanted a pumpkin with a few flaws, like life, not always smoothe, but made more beautiful from life's challenges. We wanted a pumpkin with little crow's feet that smiled.

Five days later I'm still perturbed about the stolen pumpkin, the bright orange pumpkin with the green stem, the one among many in the bin that screamed Buy Me, Buy Me! And, so, we did, my inner child and I.

I know, I know, it's silly to personalize a pumpkin. But there's more to it than that. The pumpkin personalizes the Spirit of the Season, a time of warmth, good cheer and all those Hallmark words that everyone wants to be real.

Anyway, I'm still an adult and have to say that it's been a very good week, pumpkin aside, with hectic activities, visits with old friends and enough to keep me beyond busy to shake the stolen pumpkin. But I haven't. I can't stop wondering, what's so wrong Out There that someone would steal a two-dollar pumpkin? Harry and I live in an established neighborhood with few kids and little outside traffic. Stealing a pumpkin is too mean-spirited and just doesn't fit.

I guess I need to take a long walk and watch the leaves flutter and think about things.

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