I walked home from school, mulling over and over the unfairness of life for a 12-year-old girl in the Ozarks. As I cleared the porch, I saw Miss Henrietta at the stove stirring a steamy pot.
I growled, “Miss Henrietta? Why does everything that’s fun cost us stuff we can’t afford?”
“What do you mean Lil? Where did that come from? What happened to good afternoon and how was your day? You got a burr under your saddle, Child? Do you have a better preface to the verbal explosion you just sent flying?”
“I’m sorry. I hope you had a nice day, but every kid in class is getting stuff for the church Halloween festival… costumes, candy, jack o lanterns…. you name it and they get to have it”
“You mean to tell me that every.single.thing. that is fun must be purchased? Wow, I didn’t know money had that kind of power” Miss Henrietta whistled that kind of sigh that sounds desolate and without hope. What about MCBs?”
“I know MCBs are the stuff money can’t buy, like sunsets and bear farts… but this is serious.”
“Lil, what makes Halloween fun to you?”
“I like making stuff, taffy or pumpkin faces, and pretending to be something else by dressing up.”
I twirled and pretended to be a dancer.
“Whoa there, that looks mighty close to having fun, and there’s no money involved.” Miss Henrietta guffawed,
pleased with herself.
I felt like I could cry, but she chimed in. After turning off the stove, folding her apron, and fetching her floppy hat, she said, “Lil, you want to walk to town with me, seems you need to air out your attitudes and a fall walk may improve your outlook too?”
She didn’t wait for my answer, but simply put on her old jacket and headed out the back door.
A half-block down the dirt road she said, “Why do jack o lanterns always have scary faces?” Miss Henrietta spoke as if speaking to the forest, knowing her, she might expect the trees to answer.
I started to think about it, “Why WERE jack o lanterns scary?” I couldn’t find an answer. About the time I began to run out of possibilities Miss Henrietta began a story.
“You know that my people were travelers and one thing that traveling gifts each traveler is the opportunity to see, hear, and experience different cultures and ideas of where stories come from. Where do Jack o Lanterns come from in YOUR story, Lil?”
She does that, she asks me something that takes me from today to a memory. “The first time I saw a jack o lantern it was in the window at the mercantile. It was a pumpkin with a face cut into it, the insides were scooped out and he had a candle in it lite at night, I didn’t know why I just liked the way it glowed like it was alive.”
“Did you believe it was alive Lil? or did it scare you?” Miss Henrietta looks at you when she asks a question like she really wants to know your answer.”
“No, I don’t think so, I just thought, that’s interesting, they made a man out of a pumpkin.”
As we passed the old apple orchard she squinted at me. “You know what I thought, Lil? I wondered what happened to his insides.”
Just her saying that gave me an idea like one of those lightbulbs in comic strips. “Miss Henrietta, what if I offered ‘Pumpkin scooping out’ for money? I bet every one of those Moms doesn’t like the mess their kids make scooping out the innards out of their pumpkins. I bet the town kids don’t even use the innards for anything but trash.”
“Now you’re getting creative, Lillian the Fearless. What would you do with all the innards, make a pie? feed the chickens? or bake some bread?”
“I don’t know yet, but I bet I could put up a sign at the mercantile and offer to clean out the pumpkins to prepare them for jack o lantern carving. I bet they’d pay me a nickel a pumpkin..and if I got 10 of them I would have enough to buy my own pumpkin”
We walked the tracks and through the tunnel into town and sure enough, out on the cart near the store was a fresh crop of pumpkins waiting to be jack o lanterns. The Mercantile had them displayed a full week before Halloween.
As I started into the Mercantile, Miss Henrietta stopped me at the door and reminded me about my big question. “Why does everything that is fun cost money we don’t have” and she asked me the question a different way. “Why do you believe you can’t have something before you consider HOW you might be able to afford it, seemed like in less than a walk to town you changed the table on your thinking from “I can’t” to “I can” now go see if you can put that plan into action.”
I went straight to the counter and asked the proprietor, who’s the father of my best friend, “Can I offer a service of cleaning out Jack o lanterns for your customers to save them the mess and trouble?”
He looked me up and down, he asked “You won’t make a mess in my store will you?”
“Oh no sir, we’d do this on a table on the side of the store in the alley.”
My heart stopped for a second with his words, “No young lady, you cannot sell that service.” but after I counted 10 Mississippis he added, “But I can hire you to clean out 10 of them, and I’ll charge the customer a nickel more for the cleaned ones to offer as a service.”
“Great.” Before I turned around to see Miss Henrietta’s smile, the storekeeper had put a knife, plastic, and a trash bag out for me to use and he started separating out 10 pumpkins.
It wasn’t long before I had all the pumpkins cleaned out. My fingers were wrinkled like I’d stayed in the creek too long. Each pumpkin had its top set back at a jaunty angle like little hats. Headed home I had the pumpkin innards in a bag, and not only with the 50 cents per pumpkin…but I also had my very own pumpkin.
Miss Henrietta was quiet for a good bit of the walk home then she stopped. “Well Miss Lilly of the Valley, businesswoman of the year, what will you complain about now?” She said with her very best British accent. Lilly was thinking deeply and didn’t hear Miss Henrietta’s words, but answered “What if we make bread from the pumpkin and next year we can sell the pumpkins to the store that we grow from these seeds?”
“Whoa, Nelly girl,” she grinned at me,” you’ve gone from ‘no fun allowed’ to ‘no time for fun for all the work you have planned up on the walk home.’ But pumpkin bread sounds mouth-watering to me, I like it with cinnamon butter fresh out of the oven.”
I brought the pumpkin home carried on the top of my head. It had warts all over it. It wasn’t solid orange like the typical ones but was green and gold and brown and orange and bumpy all over. When I got it to the table, I measured the pumpkin innards into 2 cup portions and put them into the refrigerator for later.
Miss Henrietta settled into her chair and had that look of faraway times and places. I knew it would be worth paying attention to hear another of Miss Henrietta’s amazing stories.