These cool October mornings bode well for the pies destined to emerge from our oven in November. I would never refuse a slice of pumpkin, but the seasonal favorite at our house growing up was Mom’s butternut squash pie. Right now the Waltham’s in our garden are pulling the last bit of sweetness from their withering vines and waiting for that touch of frost to seal in the flavor.
Every season has it’s own particular beauty and benefit, but for many of us the passage of time is marked by the anticipation, fellowship and faith that happens between October and December. This is the time when some of the best childhood memories are born.
I remember walking in the October woods with my grandfather, leaves crunching , the smell of oaky, arboraceous ripeness, warm sun on our backs in the morning chill. Age, gravity, even time itself stepped aside for him to share with us the secret pleasure of a chinquapin patch that no one else knew about. I now know the tender ache of his faraway gaze that day, back to his own childhood, and our memories are links in a chain that reaches so far back in time that memory becomes mythology.
October at our house brought growing anticipation of candy and costumes. I remember our mother patiently cutting and sewing to bring our fantasies to life, and Batman was a much friendlier face back then. Almost all the neighbors had prepared for the night, gathering enough candy to buy every dentist in the county a new boat. Yes, we really did roam the neighborhoods in little Charlie Brown gangs, glad on a chilly night for the extra warmth of that bed sheet with holes cut out that didn’t quite match up to our eyes, eight year old pirates and ghosts, bold adventurers, with someone’s mom or dad at a discreet but watchful distance behind.
For many of us tied to these mountains or to the vast wooded countryside of the rural South, October marked a rite of passage as old as humanity. I was lucky to have a father and two grandfathers to share the traditions of the first hunt, which had to be repeated to give each one the opportunity to impart their own secret wisdom. I realize now that their sense of fulfillment in passing along that gift was just as important, or perhaps more so, than our excitement in receiving it.
There are many today who would deny the first hundred thousand years or so of our most basic heritage, but there was nothing at all of sport in those careful and reverent harvests. Nothing was wasted, and perhaps in acknowledgement of our Native American ancestry, there were never any trophies made. On this October day, however, the deer munching on the partridge pea below the garden have names, and they gather here for safety during hunting season. That doesn’t mean that when I look at “Fred” “with the fine rack of antlers that I don’t consider how good he might taste in a pot of chili, and Fred, looking back at me, knows this as well as he stomps and snorts.
October apples make the best cider; ask any yellow jacket. If I had a nickel for every apple we ate, put in a bucket, stepped on, or threw at each other with welt-raising vigor, I would have a house full of nickels. I can still smell the apples drying on Granny’s front porch, and taste the dried apple pies she made. Alas, some things just don’t “progress,” and much is lost as the years roll by. It seems much harder to get an apple tree to grow these days, and I can’t quite get the apples to taste the way she made them.
We are all links in a chain. If we are fortunate, we will become a treasured part of someone else’s memory. It’s ironic, isn’t it? When we are young and restless we strive to break anything that resembles a chain because we think they imprison us. As we get older, we realize that we need some of those chains, the ones that keep us from losing our load, the ones that measure the ground we walk on, and the ones that weigh the anchors we need in a storm.
The colors of October are coming, and all too soon, the tourists will descend upon us again to take selfies in the leaves and embrace the drive-by scenery through the windshield. It’s going to take a lot longer on the weekends to get from one side of town to the other, but it’s hard to resent the intrusion knowing what they seek but don’t quite understand.
We’re all tourists here, or as my grandmother used to sing, “Poor wayfaring strangers, traveling through this world alone.” Every one of us is trying to link a chain of memories that gives our lives meaning. Sadly, each year the crowds contain more people with chains forged of popular culture, adult fantasies no more real than the ghosts of Halloweens past, but less friendly.
This October, let’s take a moment to count our blessings, grateful for our memories forged from fresh air, clean water, and room to breathe, from soil under our fingernails, neighbors we know, little country churches and stars in the clear night sky. We have strong chains tied to these mountains, and maybe, just maybe, during this time of year when we’re going to share what we have with a lot of strangers, like it or not, we can help them forge a stronger link from having been here among us.