Childhood's hour

November 23, 1995|By Barbara Mallonee

AFFECTION IS an aimless thing, lighting its way across the landscape of childhood, more shine than beam.

How else to account for a term of endearment like ''pumpkin?'' From a dark rumble of voices above, a hand, waving genially, would descend, brisker than a benediction, squashing a velvet hair ribbon flat. ''Hello, pumpkin!'' was even better than ''honey'' or ''sweetheart'' or ''buster.'' ''Pumpkin'' was pure gesture, jolly, dismissive; it required no answering back.

Reluctant to be seen or heard, children in my neighborhood got ourselves dismissed from any table as fast as we possibly could. On Thanksgiving, we slipped out the door with great dispatch, undeterred by dessert. None of us liked pumpkin pie. Not its color. Not its taste. Not its texture, slick and thick like custard, porridge, paste.

Pumpkins piled

If we didn't like pie, we did like the sight of bright pumpkins dotting hillsides and piled up at roadside stands. Inexorably, autumn turned gray and dull. Morning fog crawled in among the cornstalks as we cut across the fields to school, clouds banked on the horizon like wool blankets on cedar shelves.

As the leaves that sailed across the fields turned sodden, in straggly patches blazed copper pumpkins, some as small as melons, others large as a harvest moon, and round, as though one boisterous windstorm could send them rolling merrily down the rutted lanes and through the village streets.

There was a casualness to pumpkins; they seemed to come and go with little to-do in a world about to grow dark with a sense of foreboding and loss. A simple gift, Thanksgiving was a last bounteous hurrah for brave souls come ashore at Plymouth Rock to found a nation whose lush forests and farmland inspired pageant rather than ritual or myth. In calico and buckskin and feathers, packed in the school gym, we warbled, ''Come, Ye Thankful People, Come'' and ''We Gather Together'' and ''Over the River and Through the Woods.'' We looked forward to turkey and cranberries and corn -- and if we didn't crave pumpkin pie (or pecan or mince), we could appreciate all the same that it was a species of humble pie, less decadent, less sinful than chiffon or meringue or rum raisin or French chocolate silk.

Not that Thanksgiving hadn't its dark side, as sobering as the conversion of a toothy pumpkin into pie, cheesecake or torte. For each year, as we milled about in a wash of inattention, one of us -- a tall cousin, sibling, friend -- was suddenly singled out by a beaming uncle or aunt.

''Well, hello, pumpkin!'' The hand on the head would pause. One could sense a face, far above, lighting up. ''How are you?'' Before our eyes, our cohort grew even taller. Chin upthrust, he began to speak. And then, to our horror, still talking, he got in line for pie.

We shrank back as we watched him drawn into the limelight, then swept into that blazing inferno where adults settle into cigars and gossip and dishes and talk. Low as bushels to the ground, the rest of us worked our way to the side-porch door and bolted out into the night. Reluctant to look forward, we never looked back.

''Today I should carry the pumpkins and squash from the back porch to the attic,'' wrote E.B. White in 1941. ''The nights are too frosty to leave them outdoors any longer.'' But he spent the day happily writing instead, skirting the snares adulthood a'hunting sets out.

On those cold Thanksgivings when I was a child, apple pie, frosted cake, chocolate pudding would have given us cause to pause. Instead we vanished into the oblivion of creek and wood, the windows a faint glow behind us, in the dark night air the promise of mud and sleet.

To be young and negligible: The pleasures of a prolonged childhood are plenty and fleet. Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

Barbara Mallonee teaches in the Writing and Media Department at Loyola College.

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