I notice a hint of fall today. The sun’s intensity is fading as if by a dimmer switch. There’s a crispness in the air that only occurs this time of year. Halloween, one of my grandmother’s favorite holidays is just around the corner. She loved arranging spooky do-das and greeting children in costumes at her door.
During Thanksgiving she would artfully display the pilgrim and Indian village on the buffet table in her dining room. Plastic eggs in pastel blues, pinks and yellows hung like giant gumdrops from the redbud tree in the front yard of my grandparents unassuming brick home—long before it became an Easter trend.
Gram savored the little things in life—a hot cup of decaf Sanka, a game of Yahtzee, hand cream.
When I recently turned 38, something about being this side of forty gave me pause and I began to take stock of my genetic heritage. I can thank my Dad for a dry sense of humor. Yet never knowing his parents or siblings well, I look to my maternal side where there is a bigger body of evidence as to where my traits originate. My face, which I like well enough, most resembles grandma’s middle child—Aunt Jane. Gram had three other daughters; my mom Carol, Aunt Patty, and Aunt Susan. Uncle Bobby, the baby, died shortly before I was born. I glean from my Mom and all of my aunts a keen sensitivity and a penchant for comfort foods like pasta.
There are darker hereditary traits in the family tree. I come by anxiety and depression naturally. My mom and aunts have all been treated for one or both mental maladies. Grandma herself was said to be a worrier. I never picked up on this as a child. Instead I’d latch on to her soft hands. She’d often put one over her mouth when something surprised her. I can still taste the tanginess of the blue-cheese in her cheese balls. I make a mean one myself. We loved doing crafts. Once she helped me create a log cabin out of shoe polish and masking tape for a school project. Grandma never grew tired of my need to play crazy eights or my requests for more orange Hi-C.
Gram learned to drive in her twenties, wouldn’t traverse interstates, and over time limited herself to traveling just the five blocks to the beauty shop. Eventually she quit navigating her red and white ’57 Ford Fairlane altogether, relying on her feet to take her to get her hair done. My driving patterns have changed too. High overpasses, bridges and mountain roads scare me. I avoid interstates most of the time.
Still, there are more desirable traits I wish we shared. Grandma never swore, refraining from the f-bombs that I occasionally blurt. The closest she came to cursing was shouting, “Oh Jeez!” Although we both liked to read and write she never went to college. I’ve garnered a BA and MA in English and half of a graduate degree in creative writing. I have a need to achieve and for me just one degree is not enough. One cup of caffeinated Starbucks coffee is not enough. If I’m torn between two pair of earrings at an art fair I’ll buy both. For Grandma, being a mother was enough.
After my grandfather died, Gram succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. She moved in with Mom and I’d come over and sit with her when I could. I’d read from “Little Women,” and being the English major that I was, pose discussion points.
“Who is your favorite character?” I asked one day.
The illness changed her voice and the answer came slowly, as if an echo from the depths of a deep canyon.
She died before we could finish the story.
Soon I’ll be breaking out my own Halloween decorations—wicker pumpkins with lights, the hanging ghoul that laughs and flashes red, glowing eyes when you walk by its sensor. My sons, ten and eleven, will go trick-or-treating. Perhaps I’ll send them with just their Dad so I can stay home and wait for the costumed children to ring our bell. I usually leave a bowl of candy on the front steps and walk with the boys, then rush home and wait for more trick-or-treaters. Depending on when the holiday falls, I’ll sometimes have a neighborhood party complete with sandwiches shaped like witches’ fingers and sparkly punch with floating, plastic eyeballs.
This year though, maybe just doing one thing will be enough.
Colleen Wells writes from Franklin, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, two sons, four dogs, and three cats. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul, ORION, The Georgetown Review, and online at VerbSap.