The First Halloween

The all-purpose table had been cleared of dinner dishes and now held four pumpkins, two knives, six magic markers, and several squat orange candles. Claire had switched off the harsh overhead fluorescent. She’d lit dozens of candles and dragged two lamps in from the living room, hoping to create the right “atmosphere.” The floor lamps cast angular shadows against the walls, illuminating the corners, highlighting the odd spider web. The rest of the room, its imperfections hidden by dim lighting, looked appropriately eerie, Claire decided.

Her children sat at the table radiating varying stages of anxiety. She had forced this little ritual on them, citing the importance of “continuity.” Important to whom, she wondered.

“Mom, Becca’s doing it wrong.” Sadie’s whiny voice cut through the stuffy kitchen air like a dentist’s drill. She glared at her older sister.

“Shut up, brat. I’m making art.” Becca had carved out a single baleful orb and was assessing her work. Her own eyes, heavily lined and shadowed, cut to her mother.

“What? All the 7th grade girls are doing it.”

Guilt is surely a child’s most potent weapon, thought Claire, rubbing a spot between her eyebrows. She exhaled slowly, maneuvered the knife away from her youngest son’s exploratory little hands and forced a smile.

“Let Becca do her thing, Sadie. How’s your pumpkin coming along?”

“Wanna cut, Momma.” Robby was leaning out of his high chair, reaching for the scissors. Claire slapped a marker and a smaller pumpkin in front of him.

“Draw a face.”

“It’s not right, Becca,” Sadie persisted.

“I’ll do this dumb pumpkin any way I want, cretin.” Becca waved her hand in dismissal. “I can’t help it if you lack imagination.”

“Mom!”

“Girls . . .”

“Becca’s not doing it the way Daddy showed us!”

Ah, there it is, Claire thought with a sudden pang.

“Duh, he’s gone, idiot!” Becca’s face looked surprisingly harsh by candlelight.

“You’re the idiot, Becca!”

Robby, ever alert to any discord between his two sisters, chimed in with a plaintive wail. “I wanna Dadda punkin! Want Dadda punkin now!”

“BE QUIET!” Claire pounded the table, sending knives and markers flying. The children froze, stunned into silence by her outburst. She regarded them bleakly: restless older daughter, resentful middle child and a small boy suddenly marooned among so many injured women. “Here’s how we’ll do it,” she said firmly. Picking up a knife, she made a series of shallow cuts on the remaining pumpkin to indicate a face. She worked quickly, her labors informed by years of medical training and months of suppressed grief.

Within a few minutes, she had the outlines of an expressive-looking face whose sad eyes belied its wide smile. She stood back, feeling oddly satisfied. Robby clapped his hands in delight. “Good punkin,” he crowed.

“It is.” Claire leaned back to survey her handiwork.

“I like your pumpkin idea, Mom,” Becca ventured.

“Me too,” her sister added.

“Not my pumpkin, gang,” their mother announced. “This one will be our pumpkin.”

Claire moved the pumpkin to the center of the table and placed a candle carefully inside. The squash glowed like a beneficent Buddha. Its round eyes twinkled. The curved nose flickered, almost as if it were breathing. The pumpkin smiled at its new family, ta toothy grin spread across its surface. They smiled back.