What is it about Autumn that makes us so nostalgic? Songs like September Song, Autumn Leaves, Try to Remember… I used to think a lot about the falling leaves and the tangible proof that summer was over lying at my feet as I moved along the village street, and wonder why the sight made my glad. When I became a tour guide, I anticipated one of my busload of hecklers asking me about the changing of the leaves, and researching the process. As it turns out (layman’s explanation), the leaves are really yellow and orange and red– not green. In the Spring and Summer, the constant presence of the sun stimulates the chlorophyll (which happens to be green). When days get shorter and the sun comes up later and goes to bed earlier, there isn’t enough sunlight anymore to maintain that green color and the chlorophyll breaks down– revealing the leaf’s TRUE color– yellow… orange… red. I felt a surge of relief when I learned this. Maybe because I had long suspected that in Autumn the world is right; the changing leaves aren’t dying before our eyes, but rather becoming what they really are for a week or two before they fall to ground and form piles of hints. They seem to saying BE YOURSELF!
Since this blog is about decorating, art, collecting, entertaining… essentially HOME… I’m starting with an autumn memoir I wrote soon after we lost my father. I became manic about recording all the details of our loves together before I forgot anything. It’s comic in nature, so no need to brace yourself for anything heart-rending. Just ‘try to remember the kind of September when life was….
Most people, certainly New Englanders, when asked which their favorite season is, will unhesitatingly say Autumn. And I unhesitatingly agree. Those unexpected bursts of searing, stifling, maddening heat are safely behind us. This is the season of soothing sounds, soothing sights, warming drinks, and cooling temperatures. Colors mellow from lime and spearmint green to tangerine and auburn. Chill winds tickle your fingertips and nip at your turtleneck. Spiced rum and bourbon mingle with amber-colored cider in glasses rimmed with sugar. We all know that winter’s crystal frosts are hiding just behind a red barn or an ancient maple tree, but for the time being, we can bury that thought beneath a hooked rug or a warm quilt.
Soon, the leaves begin to fall. ‘Ashes to ashes’, you can almost hear the trees chanting each time you see the soft little sail of a leaf… floating, spiraling down into a muddy birdbath or rusted wheelbarrow. Your boots start to crunch along the sidewalk as you move through a pile of leaves that have found their final resting place. You crunch away the old year, leaf by leaf, and then return to the fireside where a slice of pecan pie is waiting. What isn’t to like about Autumn?
In our house, the seasons were all honored with great respect and excitement. We lived in anticipation of what was to come. The greatest symbol of this state of mind was the ever-changing twig wreath that festooned our front door; it had baby’s breath in Spring, bright tiger lilies in Summer, golden pears in Autumn, and mistletoe in Winter. The pillar candle on the table underwent the same chameleon-like changes. And in Autumn it was usually candy corn orange.
I loved the avalanches of leaves that fell into our yard every year– much more than my father did. To me, it was a confetti storm of all my favorite colors. My teacher showed me how to press them between wax paper and add little shavings of crayon before hitting them with the iron. I loved using the big ones as bookmarks and pressing the spotted leopard ones into my diary. I loved helping my dad nudge them into piles with my little fork-shaped rake. They looked like the Great Pyramids when I was small. My little sister loved to burrow through piles of really rotten, brown leaves, like a mole wearing a yellow parka all zipped up. Her little, pointy hood was always tied tightly and formed a sturdy cone. After tunneling through the center of the pile, she would emerge, like the head of a pimple, right in the middle of the mound, whimpering and wailing. That was always a fabulous snapshot for the family album—the tragic, yellow dunce cap, surfacing from beneath a pile of leaves.
If my father had a lackluster interest in harnessing the leaves, he surely made it up with his enthusiasm for scaring the neighbor kids on Halloween. That’s where all the real creative energy was spent. We listened to sound effect LPs on our turntable… someone suffering Chinese water torture… a hapless hiker crossing a treacherously unstable bridge… hurried footsteps followed by demented laughter and werewolf howls. We screened all the incoming LPs from beneath scareproof quilts to be sure they were horrible enough for Halloween night. If a friend came to the door and was not reduced to tears at the sound of piercing screams coming from within, then my father had failed. If garbage bag-caped heroes and kitty cats with felt triangles glued to their headbands didn’t believe that there was an un-euthanized victim being operated on just inside our living room door, then it wasn’t really Halloween.
My mother worked equally hard on our costumes. It was the age of making a costume without bothering about store-bought accessories. It wasn’t a matter of stinginess – there was just no good reason to go out and buy a caterpillar costume from the pharmacy when there were so many crappy old sleeping bags in the cellar. No one wanted to be the Wonder Woman from the store, because you’d be one of a tribe of avengers with frozen Lynda Carter smiles combing the same block. Much better to be a French whore in a leopard robe smoking an unlit cigarette with a pearl holder. One year, when my sister wanted to be a wildcat, my mother tore apart an old, faux-fur pillow cover and stitched one square to the chest of her white sweatshirt. She made the other half one into wristbands and ears. I called her ‘The Snowbeast’ that year because she looked like such an abominable fool. Whereas I usually went as a witch. I liked to look scary and have plenty of warts and green greasepaint. I liked the long, plastic black painted fingernails, although they did interfere with my lightning-fast snatches into candy bowls. I always wanted the miniature chocolate thing and not the damned apple.
One of the girls on my street started having costume parties. The theme of one was that we were supposed to go as our mothers. I looked so freakishly like my mother that I won the prize. I still look exactly like her, but as a small child, wobbling around in red heels with a little polka dot scarf tied tight around my neck… how surreal for the adults! Another year, the theme was movie stars. I loved the films my parents loved and had pictures of my heartthrobs, Gene Wilder and Alan Alda, on my bedroom walls. I didn’t really know what movies or actors were cool, so I went to the party as one of my favorite actresses, Mae West. None of the kids knew who I was, but the parents roared. I wore the indispensible leopard print robe again and a big blond wig that looked like something out of Restoration comedy. I kept saying, ‘Come up and see me sometime,’ and fake puffing on a long cigarette my father taught me how to hold expertly in the holder.
“Say it again!” my mother baited.
“Come up and see me sometime,” I slurred with a sultry, breathy voice.
My sister was too little to be anything sexy or scary. She liked being a clown; the hood of her sweatshirt framed with a crown of balloons. My mother said she was the Statue of Liberty with a balloon tiara, but I wasn’t having it– I snarled and added more black paint to my hollow witch’s eyes. My dad pulled us around in a red wagon, with Candace, our Scott terrier, bedecked in an orange bow and running behind. Like all serious trick-or-treaters, we had to start out early. Our goal was to cross Middle Highway (the busiest road at the far end of our street) and dip into the network of streets back in there – after we’d picked our own neighborhood into a dry, dead bone. We expected setbacks at the usual stops, and that had to be taken into consideration during the planning. Several of the neighbors were very close friends and thus we would have to waste time going inside their houses and twirling around in front of grandparents and young mothers who weren’t making the Halloween circuit. During those moments, I twirled and smiled, and tried to get my back as close to the door and my hand as close to the knob as possible. My brain was crowded with visions of Kit-Kats and peanut butter cups being snatched up by the fistful from the fast-emptying bowls across Middle Highway.
One of our neighbors, the Youngs, made as big a deal out of Halloween as we did. That always slowed us up. It was my friend Amy’s house and her mom even dressed up–like a good witch with a wig and white wings. She usually had something interactive going on in the yard; something like a scavenger hunt or a haunted walk. Her mom liked to make punch or cider with plastic spiders frozen inside ice cubes floating on top. I was mildly interested in the shenanigans until the year Amy’s brother was hiding inside the parked car in their driveway. He jumped out when I walked by and I wet myself a little. I didn’t mention it because, obviously, I didn’t want to have to go home to change out of my witch’s tights. My sister was safe in the wagon, and my father howled with laughter when I ricocheted off the garage door.
Further up the road was the house of Whitey the dog. Whitey jumped through the screen door so many times, we never knew if the screen was there or not. Whitey hated Candace, and to further complicate things, Whitey’s owner always had good candy. My sister and I would tentatively sidle up the driveway, keeping an eye on Whitey and holding our plastic pumpkin buckets up as shields. Half the time, Whitey would bark at us (Candace the dog’s people) from behind the door. Then it would open and the old lady who lived there would slip out onto the stoop and offer the big, heavy bowl overflowing with full-sized candy bars. She would hiss, ‘Shut it, Whitey. For Christ sake, shut it’. Candace wagged her tail frantically in a nah-nah-na-nah-nah rhythm from the street. Other times, right as we were approaching, Whitney would bark ferociously from inside the door and then suddenly leap through the screen (that wasn’t always there) and come tearing toward us; stopping short right at the edge of the yard to snarl and spit at Candace. Then we would have to move on, candyless, shaken, and sometimes damp.
The best part of the night was the same for all five of us. My sister and I loved to get home, peel off our masks and plunk down on the floor to sort our loot into piles and prepare to do swapsies. My mom loved our return because she had company again, and she was always so proud of our plundering. My dad loved getting back for a different reason; he could unhook Candace’s collar, tear off his jacket, and slide down beside the front door that was left ajar for trick-or-treaters. If my mom had turned down the LP of tortured cries and demented laughing, he’d turn it back up. He had the ears of a screech owl and could hear someone approaching from half a mile off– maybe by the sound of their footsteps or the vibration of the flagstones as they approached. He’d tuck himself low, like a hunter, hidden from sight behind the solid part of the screen door. When the visitor was right up on the step, he’d spring up with a ‘NYAAA’ or a ‘MWAAA’. Never a simple ‘BOO’. Kids would run away, terrified and emotional, back to their dads waiting at the end of the driveway. They’d already heard the sounds of someone walking over an unstable bridge and wondered what on earth was going on inside our house. Often, the little victims would be led back, in tears, by the hand of their dad. By then my dad would be standing up, looking dapper and well, not at all like a person who had been lying in wait on his stomach two minutes earlier. As soon as their retreating silhouettes disappeared behind the bushes, he’d drop down again, waiting for his next victim.
“Tell us when you have another one,” my sister and I would shout from the carpet, legs spread to accommodate a pile of wrapped chocolates. The fruit just got kicked across the carpet, followed by Candace who thought anything that moved was a wayward tennis ball.
The Halloween spirit was not reserved for the Autumn; it was a year-round state of mind. When my older sister lived with us she had a summer sleepover party with all her very old, very cool friends. My dad told scary stories in which the punch line always involved grabbing the neck of the person who was closest to him. When the girls went up to bed, horribly frightened, he’d creep up to the landing outside their room full of giggles– having either painted his face grotesquely or wrapped himself in toilet paper like the mummy monster. The girls predictably exploded into hysteria when he burst in. They wriggled inside their sleeping bags like larvae. Only one of them ever stood up and started beating him with a coat hanger. He left the room in pain but still very satisfied with the result. A minute later the girls came running down, in a pack, to my mother. The one that still clutched the coat hanger screamed, “It was floating and its eyes were glowing!”
My mother popped her head into the bathroom where my father was changing: “You were good tonight, Louie.”
My mother claims he started scaring her before they were even married.She reported nights of wet hands grabbing her ankles from under the bed as she tried to make her stumbling way toward sleep. Other nights, he would hide in my sister’s closet (sometimes for hours), crouched up in a ball and laughing to himself. He knew her last action before bed would be to open the closet door and kick her slippers inside. Although I often got chased by the ‘mummy man’ wrapped in toilet paper, my younger sister was most often the hapless victim. I was more of a protégé, an apprentice. My father could see that I was fascinated and deeply impressed by the skill and planning that went into his ‘scare-scares’.
Right around the time of junior high, I was reading all his paperback mysteries and feeling very inspired to do scare-scares of my own. I was anxious to take up the baton and begin performing. I chose a bad time to execute my first attack since someone had just broken into our house the week before. When you’re young you forget those little things quickly. We’d come home from grocery shopping, and my mother set the bags down on the kitchen island. She nipped downstairs to the unfinished basement to change over the laundry—only to find the legs of someone kicking frantically in an effort to pull himself back out through the narrow window he’d broken. Being a child, this week-old incident was like ancient history to me. So, I crept down the basement steps when my mother was in the small laundry room at the back of the cellar. I could hear the dryer door open and close. I knew she’d made the transfer of clothes and was heading back my way, in the dark. I stood just outside the doorway at the foot of the stairs and shouted “Boo!” as loudly as I could.
In the absolute blackness, I was conscious of a fist punching my right jaw, and I slid down the faux wood paneling onto the stone floor. She quickly switched on the light and bent over me, part-worried, part-laughing, part-irate. She helped drag me upstairs and latched the six or seven locks that had recently been fixed to the basement door behind us. My father was immediately on the scene, laughing, asking us to repeat the series of events, and then laughing harder. He reminded me that ‘boo’ was one of the least effective scary sounds, and seemed to make people madder than ‘mwaaa’ or ‘nyaaa’ or even ‘blahh’. I had to go to school in the morning with a bruise on my cheek. I told my friends that I fell down the stairs, but since the nuns didn’t ask, I assumed (shamefully) that my mom already told them she punched my face after a botched scare-scare.
A couple of Halloweens ago, one of the last my father was here for, I invited him and my mom over to my house to celebrate. I was living in an old bungalow, with a boxy front porch up a series of steep, stone steps. We were all inside filling the little french-fry paper pockets with handfuls of the good candy. I had the scary music piped outside, so kids could hear it from the street. I dumped a big pile of leaves onto the porch and arranged them artfully around the base of the old rocking chair. Other leaves had been used to stuff an old pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. I blew up a balloon and strapped a mask to it, with big straw hat shading its ghoulishness. From inside the front room, I ran a nylon string out beneath the slightly cracked window and tied it invisibly to the rattan weaving on the rocking chair.
“I think one’s coming,” my father shouted, crouching on the floor with only one eyeball peering out the corner pane. I dropped down and started tugging on the nylon string, setting the dead thing in the rocking chair into motion the moment a kid started up the steps. Then I’d stop. And the rocking chair would stop. And the kid would stop. Then the kid would get greedy and start up again.
“Okay,” my father coached, “He’s on the move.”
And I’d tug on the string again. We could feel the rocking chair rolling over the boards on the porch, but all we could hear was the recording of footsteps on swampy ground and bat wings flapping. When my father started laughing, I knew we had a runner. Our magic was defeating the neighborhood kids, just like it did twenty years ago. When I lunged to switch off the scary music, I could hear little footsteps running away up the street. To my father, that was sweet music. To me, it was the sound of the season. And candy corn orange is still the color. And in between the crunching of fallen leaves, it’s easy to remember it all.