Halloween Moon

By Ann Marie Staples

 Maybe you're there, too. If you aren't, you will be soon enough. I'm referring to this flashbacky time of life when without warning, a deeply stored memory will burst open in response to some unlikely stimulus. For example, yesterday I had to relive the humiliating ineffectiveness of my white go-go boots on ice. This lesson-in-sensible-shoes memory struck when a raindrop from the church steeple blasted the sloped pavement at my feet. Just like that, my mother's I-told-you-so laugh, my sister's groan, the stares of passing parishioners all played back too clearly. I'd sooner not relive this particular memory too many times.
 There are other memories, though, that I knock myself out trying to play back. One specific series of memories is so powerful that I've just about mastered retrieving it by merely thinking about the sights and smells that set it off.
I imagine the raw, crispy smell of maple leaves dying in a chilled October dusk. I feel the mild steady wind that makes my nose run. It makes me want to get back to my warm house. Yet, watching a thousand jumbled leaves swirling down in the street light glow makes me want the car to take its time getting home.
It's all from a time before the town's population tripled. Not too long before muscle cars cruised our single lane streets -- before our stars faded over the urban sprawl. When gas cost 19 cents a gallon and if you were handy you could support a thrifty housewife and two kids on $79.50 a week.
Back then, somebody else was trying to relive an even older memory. Deep in the oldest part of his brain lived sights and odors that explained it all -- seasons, nature, creation. Every Autumn they scratched their way into his consciousness until he relived them. He had fun trying to show them to me.
Every October after supper he found an excuse to go search for the sights and smells that opened the memories. One night he needed razor blades from Collins Variety Store. The next, he had to get a quart of 10-40 oil from Blanchette's Sonoco. He ventured out every night on this sort of inexpensive urgent errand. He could have walked to most places, but not with a little kid on a school night. 
He had to take the car back out not only for my sake, but because walking would include meeting neighbors. Don't misunderstand -- it's not that he wasn't sociable. I'm telling you about the favorite uncle at weddings and the beating heart of every party. It's just that neighbors would ruin the mood. This wasn't like watching July fireflies from behind the porch screens. It wasn't sharing his August cucumbers with the Malone's next door. It wasn't flooding a January snow bank for the kids across the street to skate on. He couldn't believe in his memories and follow his senses with distracting sensible adults.
He timed it so we got into the car at dusk and drove slowly to our destination. I listened to him discuss local and national news with the owner while doing business. By then we had plenty of darkness to showcase sparkling stars and enhance earthy smells, still making my seven o'clock curfew.
We observed the same ritual every evening from the waxing September moon through to the end of October. Every after-supper we drove slowly, him leaning over the steering wheel for a broader view through the windshield. Me peering upward through condensation from my right cheek pressed against the side window. We tracked the moon's shape and position. We counted stars and opened the windows to smell leaves. He put out his cigarette so we could smell them better. We sat too long at stop signs.
As darkness fell earlier every evening, his causes for local errand running ran out. With urgency and longer twilight we then began searching for roadside orchard stands. 
You have to understand, we absolutely needed MacIntosh apples. We had corn from his backyard garden and teepees from the stalks. But, MacIntoshes were something he'd neither had time nor space to grow. When we found apples, we piled them into the back seat so we could smell them while sky watching. We bit into them gluing our fingers together with the squirting juice. We compared and added their scent to the maple leaves. When after a few trips we'd poured more than a bushel of MacIntoshes into the kitchen, she made us stop.
We needed pumpkins. They, too, took up too much space in his garden, so we had to find some from a grower with more land. Our after-supper rides took us to foreign back roads where we watched the sky and added the scent of farm animals. Eventually, we happened on a pumpkin grower with cows. So, we timed our next errand to help with milking. He waited until I sat comfortably on the cow's hay bale and identified her moo's parts of speech. Then we visited Mrs. Winkley's paddock. Musty ponies licked overripe MacIntoshes from my palm, trampled on soggy maple leaves, snorted steam onto my pink nose. I peered into their huge eyes. They stuck their warm muzzle in my hair. The smell of fresh dung made me cough and laugh. We remembered the mild spring manure in the rich garden and the heavy tomatoes it brought on fuzzy green plants.
The evenings got colder. The sky behind the stars got blacker. Then one night the stars were gone. Rounding our quiet street corner, he stopped the car, barely pulling over. He rolled down his window, stuck his left arm out, and pointed at the glowing orange orb. "There," he hollered, "There's the Halloween Moon!"
"Can you smell the air?" he asked with the enthusiasm of a small child. 
"It smells clean," I was surprised to reply over exhaust fumes.
"When I was a little boy," he said, "this is when we killed the animals for meat during the winter. This is when we cut down trees to cook with. This is when we burned the old garden." He was a boy, again, on a Vermont maple sugar plantation. For five intense seconds of total clarity he understood all of nature, again. 
I felt the world sleeping. It had shown its colors and sharpened its smells to help me remember what I was learning. Baby animals had grown. The garden dried. The huge flaming moon marked that dead moment between the sweet harvest and unknown winter havoc ahead.
My memories of old Halloweens are fully uncovered, now. It isn't the candy, or the masquerading fun that float to the top. It's the replaying of our after-supper errands in my head while trick-or-treating. It's the watching for shocking sweet scents of rot and cold cemetery air. These are the smells that assure me Spring will burst from the soggy earth. These I need to remember forever. I probably will. He still does.
 The eighteen years he lived in Florida re-filed the scents, mercifully. Still, he was able to find alternate satisfaction in wetlands and vast strawberry fields. But, last year he moved to Wyoming to live with my sister. It has all started, again.
From our weekly telephone calls, I hear his senses grow keener as Autumn begins. In his eighty-seventh year, he searches the wind-bitten evenings for smells and sights that take him to the clear instant when nature juxtaposes death and birth. He limits his journeys to two per week and turns to dried pastures rather than maple groves for smells. He studies the western skies with my sister's stepchild. He points at the Halloween Moon.

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Photograph by Rhea Côté Robbins, Full moon reflecting in the Penobscot River