Words by Gigi Thibodeau
Photos by Jenn Bakos
One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the floor in my mother’s kitchen with newspaper pages spread beneath me. I can’t be more than four years old. Cradled between my knees is the prize I picked myself earlier that day from the hundreds of choices at the farm: a pumpkin of my very own.
My mother has cut a hole in the top and popped off the little stemmed cap. Now I am up to my elbows in pumpkin seeds and stringy pumpkin flesh. I scoop at the inside walls with the big spoon we usually use to serve mashed potatoes. The seeds slip between my fingers, which are stained orange and smell like my father’s garden and fallen leaves. It takes ages and ages to scrape the inside clean, but I don’t mind. Somehow even at four years old, I get it. This is autumn.
Decades later, as I lean into the giant cardboard box marked “fantasy pumpkins” at the grocery store, that memory returns. Other customers, too, gather around the box in search of just the right shape, the perfect stem, that prize that makes fall feel like fall.
Yes, nature is an alchemist, dropping the temperature, turning the leaves to gold. But we are magicians, too. Each one of us conjures autumn from memories that flicker as brightly as jack-o-lanterns.
Whether it be a tiny slip of a ghostly white gourd or a flaming-orange county fair monster fit for a giant’s feast; whether as knobbled as a troll’s warty nose or as smooth as a fairy godmother’s cheek, every humble pumpkin we place on our front stoop is the stuff of legends and fairy tales, taking us back to a time and place where a pumpkin could be head for a horseman, coach for a princess, house for a pumpkin eater’s wife. And each one we bake inside a buttery crust gathers those we love from near and far to taste the rich, sweet depth of an autumn day. Magic.
This is the fall I remember, the one I dream up each time I say “pumpkin spice latte,” an incantation summoning frost and bonfires and rattling bare branches.
As the cold descends, I scoop my prize again this year, saving the seeds to roast with salt and oil, carving my lantern to burn on a dark night when there’s magic in the air and in my own fingertips that lift the match to strike.