“Mom, I wanna be a cat,” my daughter said, the year we saw the musical, Cats, on Broadway. Marika loved dressing up. Halloween was her favorite holiday, and every year I’d sew gowns and paint her face. She’d sit stock-still-serious with only her eyes roving, occasionally meeting my own eyes as I painted whiskers or pink clouds of rouge across her pristine porcelain cheeks. There were only a couple of years out of twenty that I did not transform her into a fairy princess, a garbage-monster, a witch, a genie…. After she died, it took a long time before I was able to apply makeup or wear a costume myself.
Saturday, friends invited me to carve pumpkins. The same friends had had my family over for holidays since our children were little. But four years out from the death of my daughter, my heart still sputtered when confronted with holiday traditions.
“Do you remember if we carved pumpkins when you were a kid?” I asked my son, hoping to extend the invitation.
“Mom, I’m sure we carved pumpkins,” he said, and buried himself under his blanket, uninterested. Alone, I joined my friends and two of their grown children, aware that I had only vague memories of drawing faces on pumpkins.
The old familiar kitchen table was covered with pumpkins, bowls for the seeds and scrapings, and tools for cutting and scooping. After drawing on the bumpy orange surface with Sharpie markers, I picked up a tiny serrated pumpkin-carving knife.
“How cute,” I said, turning it over in my hand. That’s when I realized I had no idea what to do next. Someone else had always taken over for me at that point. Squeamish around knives, I’d always let a husband, or a friend, or a friend’s husband do the carving. But now, my friends were busy with their own projects. With quivering hands, I made a hesitant stab and started to saw. Before long I surprised myself, gouging and sawing the pumpkin’s flesh with vigor.
I carved my own pumpkin.
I am free, I thought. I’m strong. I can do this. No one would need to carve for me ever again. Maybe I could even carve a Thanksgiving turkey.
Last year I wore a costume. This year I carved a pumpkin. Who knows what I’ll be able to do next! But I’m pretty sure I’ll never, ever be able to paint on a child’s face again.
Cheers to my friend’s son Andrew whose cat-pumpkin was much friendlier than my own. What stresses you about Halloween? How have you surprised yourself lately?