October memories

Sorting through my mom’s papers after she died, I found a copy of this essay, which I wrote after my father’s passing in 1992. First published in the October 1998 edition of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, it’s also included in my book, Writing Home.

img_1483-1Lately I’ve been thinking of these lines from Anne Mary Lawler’s poem about the seasons: October dresses in flame and gold, Like a woman afraid of growing old. 

This is a potent month for memories. Yesterday I watched while my son and the children next door tumbled like acrobats in the fallen leaves. (Is there a kid in the Midwest who hasn’t done this?) And later in the evening, I sniffed the familiar aroma of wood-burning fires, another indisputable sign that winter is on its way.

For me, the smoky scents of October always evoke a favorite memory of my father raking leaves in the small backyard of our first home. The memory is more than three decades old, but it glows as vividly as the logs crackling in the grate tonight.

When I was growing up — before environmental laws — everyone in my neighborhood raked leaves into neat brown piles, then burned them near the curb or in backyard bonfires. Dry and brittle as bones, the leaves and twigs snapped furiously when introduced to a match. In those days, October weekends seemed to drift in clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

Like most fathers, mine worked on weekdays, and often spent his weekends doing yard work. Long before the term “quality time” was coined by childcare experts, Dad would enlist my help raking leaves on Sunday after church.

I offered very little assistance, preferring to toss his neatly piled leaves back into the air, or to roll in what remained of his handiwork. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy my reckless company — and I enjoyed the novelty of helping him. Unlike my mom, who would have seized the opportunity for “girl talk,” my dad didn’t always communicate with words.

On those brisk autumn afternoons, with the sun glinting through bare branches of oak and maple, it was enough for us to be together. He raked, I rolled, and nothing of dire importance was ever said.

IMG_0043Still, young as I was, I felt the ancient ache and pull of October.

By then, I understood the seasons were cyclical; that the easy days of summer would return as surely as apples had ripened every fall. But I’d also begun to grasp the concept that time trudges ahead in a straight line, like it or not, ruffling the smooth texture of our days as it marches forward. I couldn’t have explained it quite this way, but suddenly I knew I’d have to “yield with a grace,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “the end of a love or a season.”

I recall watching my handsome young father in his plaid flannel shirt while he whistled and tended his banks of smoldering leaves, their acrid smoke filling my nostrils and forcing tears. I remember wishing that everything could stay the same — that I wouldn’t have to grow up or grow old; that autumn afternoons wouldn’t bleed to winter.

It was as if I had glimpsed the distant future and seen my father’s empty chair at our Thanksgiving table.

Of course, Dad had no idea that I had stumbled on a vast, disturbing truth and was forever changed by it. He worked contentedly, pausing only to watch me or to loosen the dried leaves from the long teeth of his rake. And that is the way I like to remember him: arrested in time on that golden fall afternoon, living in the moment, always whistling.

— Cindy La Ferle

Why I still love Halloween

The darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve…. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked.” — Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree

Witch3Halloween always stirs a delicious caldron of memories. Baby boomers are a nostalgic bunch, and most of us can recall at least one costume we wore in grade school. Wearing yards of pink tulle and a homemade foil crown, I dressed up as Miss America when I was in the first grade in 1960. And who could forget trick-or-treating in packs until our pillowcases were too heavy to lug around the block?

While the holiday suffered a lull in the 1970s, the “season of the witch” now competes with Christmastime as the biggest party season of the year. And with all due respect to religious groups refusing to celebrate it, I never thought of Halloween as inherently evil. What most people seem to enjoy about the holiday is the creativity factor.

Stepping over age limits, Halloween extends an open invitation to play dress-up. It inspires us to raid attics and local thrift shops for the most outlandish outfits we can jumble together. If only for one magical night, it gives us permission to drop the dull disguise of conformity.

For wardrobe junkies like me, Halloween is reason enough to hoard pieces of vintage clothing and jewelry that, by all rights, should have been donated to charity ages ago. My husband now refers to our attic as “the clothing museum,” and with good reason. Friends who have trouble rustling up an outfit will often call for help during dress-up emergencies. (“Can I borrow one of your medieval jester hats for a clown costume?” is not an unusual request.) Over the years, in fact, Ive collected so many crazy hats that we have to store them in a large steamer trunk behind the living room couch. Those hats get the most wear near Halloween, when even the most reserved engineer who visits will try on a pith helmet or a plumed pirate hat and wear it to the dinner table.

Cinsy witch 2

And why not? Historically speaking, the holiday has always been a celebration of the harvest, a madcap prelude to the more dignified ceremonials of Thanksgiving.

Halloweens roots weave back more than 2,000 years to the early Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It was originally known as the festival of Samhain, according to Caitlin Matthews, a Celtic scholar and author of The Celtic Book of Days (Destiny Books). The festival, she explains, marked the end of the farming season and the beginning of the Celtic new year. Lavish banquet tables were prepared for the ancestors, who were believed to pierce the veil between the living and the dead on the eve of Samhain. It was also time to rekindle the bonfires that would sustain the clans in winter.

“In the Christian era,” Matthews writes, “the festival was reassigned to the Feast of All Saints; however, many of the customs surrounding modern Halloween still concern this ancient understanding of the accessibility of the dead.”

GRAVESAnd we can thank our Irish immigrants for the jack-o’-lantern, which reputedly wards off evil spirits. This custom evolved from the old practice of carving out large turnips and squash, then illuminating them with candles. The term jack-o’-lantern was derived from a folk tale involving a crafty Irishman named Jack, who outwitted the Devil.

On cool autumn nights, when the moon is bright and leaves scatter nervously across the sidewalk, a bittersweet chill runs up and down my spine.

Like my Celtic ancestors, Im moved to take stock of how much Ive accomplished throughout the year, and how many things Ive left undone. My to-do list is yards long. There are parts of the world I havent seen; stories I havent written; debts and favors to repay. I marvel at the mellow beauty of the season, which has always been my favorite, but also feel a little sad that one more year is drawing to its close.

All said and done, I like to think of Halloween as the big good-bye party we throw for autumn. All in good fun.

This piece is reprinted from my story collection, Writing Home. For information on where to purchase a copy, click the links at the top of this page. Photos (copyright Cindy La Ferle) show our Halloween decorations over the years.

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Music and mad science

Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.” — Julia Cameron

At our house, Halloween weekend is always a celebration of creativity and make-believe, whether we’re stirring up a batch of Hell’s Kitchen Chili or putting the finishing touches on our costumes.  Which makes it the perfect time to introduce you to Doug’s brand-new CD, “Professor Pandemonium’s Cabinet of Wonders.”

As Doug likes to explain it, his album is a musical variation of an old curiosity cabinet — a wild assemblage that could just as easily belong to a mad scientist. Crack open the cover of the CD and youll discover 16 catchy tunes that are classified as “steampunk pop.” Like a potion from the medicine wagon in the Wizard of Oz, the whole mix is a little hard to describe. Start with the Beatles “Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” and add equal parts Ray Bradburys novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Danny Elfmanns film, “Nightmare Before Christmas.”  Like a costume party, it’s pure fun — and highly entertaining.

I’ve always been a fan of the Victorian circus, so right now, my favorite song from the album is the dark and mysterious “Pandemonium Ensues.” I keep telling Doug that it ought to be included in the soundtrack of a Dr. Seuss film — it’s that atmospheric and cool. But not all the tunes are Halloweenish. “Just Be Friends” and “There Is No Time” are pretty mainstream, each with a lovely hook that stays with me. “Let Monkeys Rule” — which has its own video on YouTube — is pure political commentary on how our inability to get along is endangering our world and thwarting our own progress.

OK, I’ll admit I’m slightly biased. And five years of piano lessons didn’t make me a music critic, by any stretch. But this is my husband’s newest endeavor and I’ve got bragging rights. In any event, I’m the luckiest woman I know — married to such a creative guy who’s full of surprises. For reviews and information about the new CD, as well as a glimpse inside the professor’s cabinet, visit Professor Pandemonium’s Cabinet of Wonders. — CL

–Top photo of Douglas La Ferle (a.k.a. Professor Pandemonion) in his laboratory by Cindy La Ferle–

Halloween “Secrets”

Bring forth the raisins and the nuts-
Tonight All-Hallows’ Spectre struts
Along the moonlit way.”
~John Kendrick Bangs

Anyone who’s known me for a while knows that I’m crazy about Halloween. Like many Baby Boomers, I harbor a ridiculously fierce nostalgia for the holiday. What else would you expect from someone who counts watching The Addams Family on TV as a treasured childhood memory? Not surprisingly, there are few things I enjoy more than dressing up in a costume and handing out candy to the neighborhood kids.

For years, my husband Doug created an artful “Disney haunted house” landscape — replete with a cemetery and a mummy with glowing red eyes — at the entrance where the kids come to trick-or-treat. When our son Nate grew up and left for college, we toned it down a bit, but the neighbors were devastated the year we were out of town on Halloween and didn’t decorate. So we keep the tradition going as best we can.

Inside, I still dress the house with paper skeletons, pumpkins, and shiny black-feathered ravens. I own a small collection of vintage Halloween decorations, which I display on the living-room mantel in a nest of autumn leaves and a string of orange lights. Even when I’m not hosting a big Halloween bash, friends and neighbors like to stop by for a drink and a few ghost stories (or magic tricks) around the fireplace on Halloween night after the trick-or-treaters head home.

While I’ve never been a fan of blood-and-guts “slasher” films, I enjoy scary movies, especially in October. I prefer classic horror films, thrillers, and ghost stories — Psycho, Rebecca, Something Wicked This Way Comes, John Carpenter’s original Halloween, The Others, The Addams Family, The Haunting, The Shining, Practical Magic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Nightmare Before Christmas …. you get the idea.

This Sunday, October 24, happens to be our 30th wedding anniversary. After a celebration dinner, Doug and I will be glued to the TV set, watching the premiere of Secrets in the Walls, a Lifetime horror film in which we worked as background extras last fall. If our brief appearance didn’t land on the cutting room floor, you’ll catch a glimpse of us (as a nurse and a doctor) in the hospital scene. Starring Jeri Ryan, the production was filmed in Ferndale and metro-Detroit. It revisits a time-honored theme: a creepy old house haunted by a spirit that won’t let go. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!