April 13, 2019

Chapter 11 - The Search for the Perfect Pumpkin

A few of the traditional Cannata Family cruises were always dedicated to preparing for a coming Holiday. Spring, summer, autumn and winter all had a regularly scheduled cruise that was seasonal in nature and had a specific purpose.

The Christmas cruise served two purposes. It was the shortest in length and because of the winter weather was limited to specific areas. The first goal was to find a Christmas tree for the living room. As long as it was affordable, had at least one good looking side, reached the ceiling and could be tied to the roof, we weren't too picky about size and shape. It was always put in the same corner so we could hide the bad side against the walls. As long as it had one good angle it would work since, by the time it was decorated, it was so loaded with ornaments and lights you really couldn't see the tree itself at all.

The other reason for the Christmas cruise was to travel around and look at all the houses decorated with Christmas lights. My father had a route that he always followed and seemed to know every street or house where the owners went overboard. There were houses that made the Griswold's family Christmas display look like a flashlight. He would take us to streets where each home was in serious competition with the rest of the houses on the street and the combined glow could be seen from the surface of the moon. The lights were nice, but I was never a big fan of Christmas and all the mangers and baby Jesus statues took the fun out of it for me. It also signaled the end of the Cruise season until the coming spring.

Winter was the hardest season on the family wagon. And since my father did all the repairs at home on the street in front of our house, the cold, wet snow and lack of available work-space made working on the car difficult. It was hard to find open space that wasn't claimed as a parking spot by a neighbor's barrel or chair. Winter limited repairs to only the ones absolutely necessary to keep it moving.

The elements often took a severe toll on our car which was usually long past its prime by the time we came into possession of it. The term 'New Car' was beyond inaccurate when we used it to describe the latest vehicle my dad would bring home. It was a delusional description that we used to make us feel better since the possibility of us ever actually getting a genuine 'New' car was about the same as the possibility of driving to the moon.
Winters being as hard as they were gave birth to the annual Spring Shakedown cruise.

Once the roads were free of snow, ice, potholes and salt my father would take the car out for a long spin to assess its general condition. How far it went before breaking down and what actually broke would give him a sense of just what he needed to repair in order to keep it road worthy for another year.

The trip would be a long one but not one of great distance. He would circle around and crisscross the city in general, always keeping within walking distance of a train or bus line. It was important that we would be able to get home if the car proved him wrong when he guessed its limits. We would run errands, stop for ice creams and check out the city to see what had changed over the long winter months. It was always nice to find the city still there and make it home at the end of the day with most of the car still intact.

As the school year came to a close and with summer fast approaching my father would make all the repairs he felt were required to have the car ready for the summer excursions once schools let out. Over the summer vacation, frequent trips to beaches, parks and cookouts as well as regular trips to the local drive-ins kept the car busy.

The big summer cruise was always based around the 4th of July and centered on taking us to the best possible fireworks display that was within reach. A picnic lunch and supper would be packed, the brood would be loaded and we would head off early to find a good space for viewing. The grill would be fired up and we would eat and play and wait until dark for the light show. We would all oh and ah as the explosions and sparks flew in the air. My father usually missed most of it because he was asleep behind the wheel charging up for the ride home. It was the Cannata family version of a tailgate party.

It was always considered a successful outing if none of the fireworks witnessed were the result of a malfunction in the family car and we all made it home without any smoke or loud bangs coming from the engine. It was an annual event that I always enjoyed.

But for me it was the coming of autumn that heralded the family cruise I enjoyed the most. I was born in September as were most of my brothers and considered my birthday the start of the year despite the fact that the leaves were changing and New Years Day was on the horizon. The arrival of October kicked off the best of the holidays and October was when we went on the most important and serious cruise we made as a family.

October was harvest time and out in the country, farms were bringing in their crops and the roadside stands were brimming over with fresh fruits, vegetables and all the assorted bounty that comes in from the fields of the local farmers. While we made an occasional weekend foray out to the country to pick up some seasonal favorites at cheap cost, there was one ride that entailed long planning, strict scheduling and involved all the kids.

That was when we went in search of the Perfect Pumpkin.

Picking out a well formed and shapely pumpkin was a serious and important step in order to get ready for Halloween. The annual autumn cruise was when we all went in search of the pumpkin that we would carve for Halloween. Each Cannata got to choose his or her own pumpkin. And we never went home until everyone was happy with the pumpkin they picked.
Much to their credit and a testament to their incredible and somewhat insane commitment, my parents would spend the day traveling to farms or roadside stands, across the length and breadth of the state of Massachusetts, occasionally crossing New England state lines, until each kid had found their perfect pumpkin.

Along the way we would load up the car with bags of apples, fresh corn, squash and other food stuff; some to be consumed immediately and some that would be held for the Thanksgiving Holiday ahead. But they never lost sight of the primary purpose of the trip which was to procure a pumpkin for every eligible child.

Every trip would feature the predictable and routine sibling squabbles. Every year my parents dealt with them with astonishing patience. At home, if we started fighting with each other, they would be quick to give the unruly kids a sharp slap to the head without ever bothering to find out what the fight was about. But on the pumpkin search they showed remarkable restraint and, regardless of the level of hostilities, my parents rarely lost their temper and never took a weapon to any of us that I can recall.

They would play referee when the dispute involved claims of who saw a particular pumpkin first. They would help judge the quality of a potential pumpkin for the face planned for it. They would suggest appropriate sizes and soothe the hurt feeling when they had to deny a sibling a pumpkin that was bigger than they were. One rule was you had to be able to lift it in order to buy it. When one of us accidentally dropped a pumpkin and it broke they never got angry and would help us bury it in the pile so we wouldn't get in trouble' and of course so they wouldn't have to pay for it.

At the end of the day we would drive home with the car loaded to the limits with food, kids and pumpkins of every possible shape and size. With the tail end dragging on the ground from the over-sized load and the gaggle of kids debating the merits of each one and all proclaiming their pumpkin the best of the lot, my father would pilot the creaking car steadily homeward. They always bought an extra one or two in anticipation of someone dropping theirs before it got to the house, something that happened at least once every year. 

Pumpkins somehow even managed on occasion to escape our grasp and more than one had met their fate after falling from an open window of the moving car. A trail of apple cores tossed from the car would lead from the last stand to our house.

Once home, at the first available opportunity we would set to carving faces into our pumpkin and proudly display them on our front stoop until after Halloween night. Much to my amazement, with all the knives flying around the kitchen table, while at times the blood on the terribly scary pumpkin face wasn't always fake, no Cannata ever lost a hand or finger.

When the pumpkins were carved and set out on the stoop it was a sight to behold. Our front 'porch' which was three cement stairs about 4 feet wide going up to the front door, would have so many pumpkins and other assorted decorations there was barely enough space to walk up the stairs. At least one or two would fall victim to he Halloween revelers who would step, kick or fall on them while trick or treating.

After Halloween we would watch and wait to see whose pumpkin lasted the longest and whose rotted and fell in on itself first. We hated to just throw them away so we would leave them on the step until nature reclaimed them or my mother finally tossed them out at night while we slept. 

While we hated to see them go, the disappointment was muted because by then we were in full preparation mode for the Thanksgiving feast ahead. The other pumpkin and apples and corn we had gathered on our road trip were about to meet their fate. We knew Halloween was over when my mother started looking for all the pans she would need for the week of cooking that would bring us the best meal of the year.

On Thanksgiving I always gave thanks for the family car having made it through another year. I would wish that my parents would get a genuine 'New' car for Christmas because I felt it was the one thing that they absolutely deserved more than anything in the world.

Santa never brought one though, which is one reason why I thought Christmas sucked.

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