Sunday, November 1, 2020

Three Wild Pumpkins, a Small French Boy, and His Curious Grandmother

The three pumpkins sprouted unintended from our compost pile. Their appearance there was quite a surprise as it has been a few years since I carved “American” style pumpkins (French pumpkins are flat and red and only for eating). It seemed a miracle that some seeds had survived and germinated after several long, hot summers laying dormant.

The small French boy normally lives in Bordeaux, but was in our small village visiting his curious grandmother.

The curious grandmother is not curious as the French typically use the word, “interesting or peculiar”, but curious as an American would typically use the word, “interested or inquisitive”.

I spent the summer defending the pumpkin vines from Tom and his impatience to dig into the compost pile. By the end of August it was obvious that I was only going to harvest three poorly formed, medium sized, pumpkins. Tom picked them, set them aside, and used up the compost pile by the end of that afternoon. The pumpkins sat out in the shade of the magnolia tree through the months of September and October.

I hadn’t quite decided who I would share my orange gems with, so when my friend mentioned her grandson was coming to visit, and that she was looking for activities to keep Small French Boy occupied, I knew I’d found the perfect audience.

At three o’clock on the dot Small French Boy arrived, grand mere in tow. He was eager to play with the dogs, he was eager to come up to the house to see what project awaited, but he didn’t seem all that eager to approach the three pumpkins lined up on the table. His eyes did light up momentarily as he cradled one of the pumpkins in his arms, but that spark of interest changed to confusion as he tried to work out what he was supposed to do next. He thought hugging the pumpkin was as much of an interaction as he was going to have with that oversized vegetable. Small French Boy was entering a foreign experience. He had no frame of reference for creating a jack-o-lantern. He’d never designed a face to fit a pumpkin’s unique shape. He didn’t understand that it helped to trace a face on the pumpkin and then carve out the design leaving gapping holes. He didn't know that we would place a candle inside the transformed pumpkin so that the gapping holes would glow a spooky jack-o-lantern face. He didn’t know that he could take the jack-o-lanterns home and set them shinning on his doorstep. 

Curious Grandmother looked a little perplexed too. She had never carved a pumpkin either. This came as a surprise to me. 

I knew what we were up to, but the two of them were baffled. Cut off a lid, scoop out the guts, trace out a face, all steps repeated every October from my earliest memories, steps so ingrained they seem to have “naturally” passed on from parent to child.

Stars, triangles, eyebrows, scraggly teeth?

Why do we have to clean the insides out? 

Why do we put a candle inside? 

When will it be dark?

I’d forgotten how slimy the inside of a pumpkin is. I tried to get Small French Boy to repeat the word slimy in english. Small French Boy was having nothing to do with slimy, not the word, not the muck. My coercions to touch the goo brought on tears so I had to back off. I had assumed that my excitement for all of this would translate to immediate joy for Small French Boy. Why had I assumed this?

I too had experienced a similar lack of understanding of a seasonal celebration when we first started coming to France. About mid-October I was befuddled by the sudden arrival of thousands and thousands of beautiful chrysanthemums for sale, but there was not a one to be seen on a front stoop or in a garden.  My experiences with chrysanthemums were all about big potted plants on the front stoop to celebrate the last glorious colors of Autumn. Here in France chrysanthemums are only used to decorate gravesides to commemorate deceased family. In one country the flowers are welcoming. In the other the flowers are saying we miss you. I had no starting point to understand why suddenly there was a parade of villagers on their way to the cemetery. What are the steps? What are the tools? What is the vocabulary? That lack of reference must be how Small French Boy was feeling as I badgered him about drawing a scale sized face for an orange gourd that normally is for eating. He has only experienced jack-o-lanterns as pictures or plastic toys.

In the end Small French Boy played with the dogs while Curious Grandmother watched me struggle to cut the silly faces. 

How do you know how much to cut? 

Why can’t you cut more? 

It’s not a good idea to burn it in the house? It will stink? It already does.

Where should I place them? 

It’s funny what three poorly formed, medium sized pumpkins can bring into one’s life. The joy of a child’s surprise, the humbling awareness of our cultural differences or maybe even misunderstandings, and the universal marvel of things that glow in the dark. 

Thank goodness that Curious Grand Mother is intelligently interested and Curious American Susan is interestingly peculiar. Thank goodness for the time to share an openness for curiosity with Small French Boy and all that that curiosity can lead to.

That night I received a picture of a very happy Small French boy and his magical, glowing jack-o-lanterns.


Kathie K said...


Anonymous said...

Small French Boy's smile says it all! Thank you for the beautiful photos and story that lifted me from election craziness today.

Mary Jo said...

Wonderful story. Beautiful pictures. Thanks for giving yet another dimension to my favorite time of year.

Lynne said...

What a fun experience for the small French boy and his grandmother.
And then the excitement to see the pumpkins all aglow!