GROWING up in the ’80s, my brother and I sold pumpkins door to door every October. Whenever 4-foot children selling Halloween squash ring your doorbell, you’re hamstrung into purchasing one, or risk being labeled the local curmudgeon. But it bears mentioning that we were the only children in Corning, N.Y., our small town upstate, with our very own pumpkin supplier and that we had a virtual monopoly on the market.
Each spring, Grandpa Charlie planted a pumpkin patch with the sole purpose of providing us with a crop. As far as pumpkin connections went, he was exactly what you would want — green thumb, hard worker, uncomplaining about the sowing and the toiling and the harvesting and the battling of wildlife that dined on our fruit.
While our grandfather was breaking his back with meaningful work, my brother and I were going door to door with a notebook and a capitalist pout, convincing neighbors that our product was better than anything they would find at the local grocery store and that they ought to order ahead. We targeted homes with children. “You’ll want at least three jack-o’-lanterns on the porch,” we told them. “All the neighbors are doing it.”
We were constantly soliciting neighbors for donations — for our Boy Scout troops, school walkathons, sports teams — but when it came to the annual pumpkin sale, we were raising money only to have money to spend.
The day of the sale, Grandpa Charlie would load all the pumpkins into his old red Ford pickup, and then let us ride atop the bounty like conquering entrepreneurs. We stopped at each house, allowing our paying customers to rub the ectoderm and work the stem, choosing the one they wanted. A small pumpkin went for a buck, medium for two. A perfectly shaped large pumpkin went for $3.
At the time, it must have been a lot of money for children. But Grandpa Charlie never asked for his cut, and we never thought to offer it. For him it was about the ritual of spending time with his grandsons and finding out the essentials: How many pumpkins had we actually sold and how many were we giving away to friends? What was our favorite chocolate bar? How was school? Where were we planning to eat lunch? Once at lunch — always fish sandwiches from McDonald’s in the bed of that old pickup — he’d ask what were we planning to do with the money, whether we had remembered to save the best pumpkins for ourselves, and who we thought would win the pennant that year, the Yankees or the Red Sox?
We went home with our cash, Grandpa Charlie with his memories. Our father, on the other hand, was left with a backyard full of defective pumpkins. Every year, the dozens of misshapen and wart-ridden gourds that could not be turned into proper Jack-o’-lanterns ended up sitting on our lawn until January. We always gave our word that we would sell them all, always meant to follow through and always ended up unloading our failed surplus from the pickup. We knew it was winter by the snow on the ground and the sight of our dad — ax in hand — slashing rotten, frozen pumpkins into portions suitable to be placed into bags and carted to the curb.
For every pumpkin mogul, there is someone who has to stand in a dusty field, watering the seedlings, and someone who has to stand in six inches of snow, carving apart the undesirables.
Why did we do it each year? Our grandfather was a farmer. Our father was a businessman. As children we brought those trades together. The evidence points to one conclusion: We did it for the money. And yet, I don’t recall any significance about the cash. I vaguely remember collecting it, counting it, making plans for it, but have no lasting memories of actually spending the haul — that which today is my most beneficial result of labor.
Instead, I remember the old Ford truck. Dirt everywhere. Piles of leaves. The smell of autumn. That my grandfather put ketchup on his fish sandwich. Him telling us to lift the pumpkins not by the stem, but by the base, the stem not a handle but a life force. I remember my dad in the snow, executing the leftovers before they got their second wind and pushed their roots in the direction of our basement. I remember standing atop a mound of pumpkins in the back end of that Ford — which would be forbidden in today’s cautionary environment — as Grandpa Charlie drove us down the street, and feeling invincible.
Those were perfect days. I think of them whenever I see a pumpkin.
A story by Jon Methven on The New York Times