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Jenna Kowaleski column: Yearning for that absurdly huge, happy pumpkin

"Joe Pumpkin" is the kind that Linus stays up all night in the pumpkin patch waiting for.

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Proctor student Paul Wolfe is shown with his pumpkin, estimated at around 400 pounds, Oct. 5, 2021. Columnist Jenna Kowaleski call this a "Joe Pumpkin": "the biggest possible pumpkin you can imagine. ... It’s the pumpkin that’s so absurdly huge, it’ll make you giggle just looking at it."
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram
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As autumn air seeps into our dark mornings and progressively earlier evenings like frost on a pane of glass, I’m reminded of a specific autumn memory from my childhood.

My mom, dad, sister and I would pile into the minivan and drive from the suburbs to one of the few nearby farms that had managed to dodge Milwaukee-area urbanization.

Jenna Kowaleski
Jenna Kowaleski

I’m sure that there were plenty of fall activities available, but my dad would barrel us past the petting zoo and apple picking to line up at the tractor-pulled hayride. We were headed to the pumpkin patch.

Deposited in the farmer’s field, we’d carefully comb the patch of orange squash, stepping over curling green vines. We each would select our own pumpkin using the following three criteria:

  • It had a good “face”;
  • It wasn’t punctured or rotting;
  • We were able to lift our own pumpkin, meaning our selections were always proportionate to our height.

Including Dad, who always got the "Joe Pumpkin."
A "Joe Pumpkin" is the biggest possible pumpkin you can imagine. It’s the kind of pumpkin that Linus stays up all night in the pumpkin patch waiting for. It’s the pumpkin that’s so absurdly huge, it’ll make you giggle just looking at it. And my dad always found one.

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Selections made, we’d load up our pumpkins into the back of the hayride, and then the car, as my mom would run to buy us treats. Caramel from the caramel apples sticking in our teeth and hay from the hayride sticking out of our socks, we’d head home.

That night, we would each sketch a crazy face onto our own pumpkin. My dad would carve out the tops and, while my mom, sister and I gutted the pumpkins and sorted through the gelatinous squish of pumpkin guts for slippery seeds to roast, my dad would carefully carve along our squiggly lines to bring our jack-o'-lantern visions to life.

Then, he would sketch on the Joe Pumpkin and carve out his own smiling design. Joe Pumpkins were happy pumpkins.

At the end of the evening, we’d sit the pumpkins on our three-step porch at the top of our short driveway, lighting up our little community. I loved watching the blaze from the candle dance in the eyes of my creation and in the big Joe Pumpkin. Every morning those hollow eyes would watch us pack into the minivan for school and every evening they’d welcome us home.

One morning, my dad opened the blinds to our floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked our front porch and driveway, and I could see that he was upset. I army-crawled between his feet and looked out. Through the smears left by our dog’s nose, I saw our Joe Pumpkin. Big old Joe. Indestructible, heavy, perfectly carved, smashed on our driveway.

Alongside Joe were the remaining chunks of our other masterpieces. We had made them together to brighten our neighborhood. And there they were, dashed.

I, like any reasonable child, cried. It wasn’t just about the pumpkins. It was that I fundamentally didn’t understand why someone would go out of their way, up our driveway, to do something so cruel.

For the rest of my childhood, we still picked and carved pumpkins, but we’d sit them inside, behind the window, overlooking our front porch.

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And now, I have a son. I want to pick pumpkins with him, finding one so big it makes him giggle. I want to carve them with him. I want him to squish his hands in the seedy guts.

The question is, should we leave the pumpkins out at night, a festive decoration to light up our neighborhood? Or should I bring them inside where they’re safe?

What do I want him to remember? Besides the hayrides and caramel apples and the drawing silly faces on bloated vegetables, do I want him to see how we lit up our community in our own small way, trusting others to appreciate, and not smash, our family project? Or do I teach him to protect himself from potential disappointment?

Parenting: an ongoing minefield of tricks and treats.

Jenna has lived, hiked and written in the Duluth Hillside for a decade. Find more of her scribblings at jmackenziewrites.wordpress.com .

Related Topics: DULUTH
Jenna Kowaleski, of Duluth, is a freelance Lifestyle columnist for the Duluth News Tribune.
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