I love candy. And as a result, I love Halloween.
When I say I love candy, I’m talking about complete and utter infatuation. An obsession—and an unhealthy one at that.
Sour Patch Kids. Twizzlers. Mounds bars. Red licorice Scotty dogs. Dots. Nerds. Ju Ju Bees. Reese Cups. Butterfingers. Sour Punch Straws. Laffy Taffy. Haribo Gummy Bears (if you eat any other kind, I seriously question your decisions in life).
Mom, if you’re reading this, I can finally admit. Even though you made candy readily available in the house, I still felt it was appropriate to hide a small candy stash underneath my bed so I could eat it throughout the night at my leisure. At any given time during my childhood, I would usually have a small Ziploc bag full of fun-size boxes of Nerds and Sour Patch Kids that I would open with the delicate stealth of a Ninja in the night so you wouldn’t hear down the hall. I also did this with Dr. Peppers—I had this awesome move where I would cough really loudly when I opened the pop-top so you wouldn’t hear the loud (and inexplicably pleasant) CRACK! of an aluminum can pop top. I’m sorry I deceived you…but if this was the worst thing I did as a kid, I think you fared alright.
I loved Halloween, yes, because of the candy, but more importantly I loved it because my Mom and Dad always made Halloween a very special time around our house. On Halloween, Mom would always cook some of our favorite appetizer-style foods: pigs in a blanket, sausage balls, pepperoni bites, and my all-time favorite…potato skins! We always had plenty of punch with rainbow sherbet in it. I don’t know when this tradition started, but I don’t remember a Halloween without it.
I was also a big fan of the costumes. Big fan. Mom and Dad always made sure I looked good…and comical. There was the year that I was a pirate. Dad wanted to make sure that I was a striking mini-swashbuckler, so he picked up a tray of facepaint and made sure that he painted a perfect five-o-clock shadow across my face. I was only about six or seven, and there’s just something rather hilarious about seeing a kid with facial hair. There was the year that I was the Genie from Aladdin, and Dad made sure that the blue facepaint perfectly matched my Genie costume. Or the year that I was a Dalmatian, and Dad painted black spots all over my face.
Okay…reflecting back on all of this, maybe he just liked seeing how many embarrassing ways he could paint my face.
Mom and Dad always took the time to make Halloween special—not just the day of, but the entire season leading up to it. My Mom is the queen of house decorations. We used to have a room in our house that we affectionately referred to as “the junk room” (sorry to reveal your secrets, Mom!). There were boxes and boxes and boxes of decorations for each and every season. Our house would be completely transformed during Halloween. I remember a light up jack-o-lantern in a witch hat that always hung on our front door. A fuzzy black spider that made a spook “ooooooh-oooooooooh-oooooooooooooh” noise every time you pressed it. From bathroom towels to cups and plates and everything in between, you always knew it was Halloween in the Bradshaw House.
Dad stuck to the outdoor, more-manly seasonal decorations. One of his favorites? Yard bags. You remember these, right? These were the huge orange garbage bags that, when filled up, look like big jack-o-lanterns or ghosts. I remembered being really excited to take these out into the yard and fill them up. To fill them up, you had to rake up all of the leaves in the yard and put them into these bags.
Looking back on this, I see how easily gullible I was as a child when it came to chores disguised as seasonal traditions…
We had one big problem, though. Our yard had a lot of little trees in it. We also had a lot of trees that had a lot of little tiny leaves—you know, those annoying little leaves that stick to everything and get tracked in your house no matter how many times you wipe your shoes off. These types of leaves weren’t always the best to fill up huge bags that looked like pumpkins, and frankly our yard just didn’t have enough leaves to fill them up with. So, Dad and I would rake up as many leaves as we could, and then fill the rest with crumpled up newspapers. Then, we would display the bags proudly in our front lawn so everyone could see….our yard waste? Once again, I was easily deceived when it came to child labor.
I think my Dad’s most impressive contribution to the Halloween decorating season, however, was his artistry and craftsmanship when it came to jack-o-lantern carving. My Dad was a builder in many respects. He built a gorgeous deck around our backyard swimming pool. He built the garage and foyer expansion onto our house. Most would call him a carpenter, but I considered him more of an artist. The things he built and constructed were beautiful. Dad took his time, and he always did things the right way.
Who would have thought that this obsession with quality and attention to detail would have extended to pumpkins that were bound to rot in two weeks? With my Dad, it was a no-brainer. Everything he made was top-notch, whether it was permanent or fleeting.
Every year that my parents would take me to the pumpkin patch to pick out pumpkins to carve for Halloween, Dad and I were always on the hunt for two particular pumpkins: a rounded fat one, and a tall skinny one.
After all, it wasn’t a Bradshaw Halloween without Bert and Ernie jack-o-lanterns.
You heard me. Bert and Ernie jack-o-lanterns.
Growing up, I was a Sesame Street addict. I was hooked from the first “Sunny days” of the theme song. So much so that one year, my dear, sweet Grandma Sharon almost lost her mind the day I made her watch the Sesame Street Christmas special at least 37 times. She still has flashbacks when she hears Feliz Navidad.
Of the entire cast of characters on Sesame Street, my absolute favorite was Ernie. I had a stuffed Ernie that went with me everywhere I went. My Mom had to sew his nose back on a few times, and his orange felt skin and bright blue jeans faded and tinged. On the show, Ernie was cool and funny and always knew how to get the best of his banana-colored roommate. He had a killer laugh.
And he was so much more sophisticated than that tickle-fiend Elmo.
By association, because I liked Ernie, I also had to like Bert (even though I liked Ernie better). They are a classic American duo—right up there with Lucille and Ethel, Batman and Robin, and macaroni and cheese. They were the toddler’s Abbott and Costello.
I don’t remember when it started, but since before I can remember, I had always liked Ernie. Maybe that’s why Dad chose to carve our jack-o-lanterns into unbelievable replicas of my favorite puppet duo.
I remember watching Dad carve the pumpkins every year. It took a few hours for him to complete. Dad had patterns that he and Mom had picked up around Halloween one year. Dad worked on the pumpkins with the patience and attention to detail of a renowned artist. Every year, he would tape the patterns onto the perfectly selected pumpkins that mirrored the head shapes of Bert and Ernie. Then, Dad would use a tiny stick pin to meticulously poke holes into the lines of each pattern. Slowly and methodically, he worked until each shape he would need to cut was temporarily outlined with holes. Then, with a set of carving knives that I’m sure were the best he could find (because that’s what Dad always did), Dad would work to carve out all the pieces.
I wish I still had those patterns because my description doesn’t do it justice. There were more cuts and slices in this carving job than a plastic surgeon performs in a year. Dad would glide through each piece until the pumpkins had an uncanny resemblance to my favorite pals from Sesame Street. We would put candles in the jack-o-lanterns and proudly display them on our front porch, as many trick-or-treaters and their parents would profess their admiration when they graced our home.
As I grew older, Dad would eventually ask me to help him each year—but they never looked as good as his. I’ve never had the patience or artistry that my Dad had when it came to working with his hands. If anything, my feeble attempts to recreate Ernie on a pumpkin made me appreciate Dad’s work even more.
And now that he’s gone, I appreciate Dad’s pumpkin carving skills more than ever. I have an unbelievable admiration for the time and energy Dad spent every year on those special pumpkins.
And I’m also grateful that his subject matter never changed.
Being such a talented in the art of pumpkin carving, I’m sure there were other things my Dad wanted to carve over the years. Dad could have carved monsters and spooky faces. He could have carved the images of celebrities. He could have free-handed and imagined his own brilliant creations.
But Dad always carved Bert and Ernie—not because he wanted to, but because it always brought a smile to my face. Looking back, I’m confident of that.
None of this is out of character for my Dad, because Dad was always doing whatever he could to make people happy. As his only son, I was often the beneficiary of the love he put out into the world.
Now that he’s gone, I don’t just remember the big acts of love and generosity. I remember the little ones, too, like carving Bert and Ernie pumpkins on Halloween. Or spending time making sure my costume was elaborate enough to make the neighbors laugh. Or making sure I had a military grade flashlight to walk with as I trick-or-treated so I was always safe. I probably didn’t tell him how much I appreciated all of those things at the time. Immaturity does that when you’re young. Now, though, I’m unbelievably grateful for all of those moments—and wishing, more than anything, I could have them back to experience all over again.
Halloween might be a minor holiday for some families, but it’s always a significant one for my family because Mom and Dad made it so much fun when I was growing up. It was more than pumpkins. It was a spirit of excitement that invaded our house because of everything they did to make the holiday special.
Now, Halloween feels different because those pumpkins aren’t there anymore—and neither is my Dad. I miss him desperately every day, but I especially miss him on those big days that were always so much fun.
Halloween can be a difficult holiday because it’s the start of a season where Dad’s absence is felt in a particularly strong way. He’s not here to carve Bert and Ernie pumpkins on Halloween. He’s not around to carve the turkey for our family on Thanksgiving. He’s not there on Christmas day to take pictures of our family dog rip open Christmas presents with her teeth.
I’m unbelievably sad because I feel Dad’s absence around this time of the year, but I’m ridiculously thankful to know that I have 26 years full of amazing memories with him. I’ll always have the pain of Dad’s absence with me, but when times get tough around Halloween or on any other day, I’ll always have the happy memories, too.
And someday, maybe I’ll get good enough to carve a few Bert and Ernie pumpkins for kids of my own. They won’t be as good, but I’ll give it my best. That’s what Dad would have wanted.
Dad, I really, really miss you on Halloween—and every other holiday for that matter. The Bert and Ernie jack-o-lanterns you carved for us every year were spectacular. Not just because of your talent, but because you took the time to do them over and over again when I’m sure you had other things you would rather carve. My childhood was special because I had tremendous, loving parents. I wish I had said it more then, but thank you. Thank you for always doing the little things to leave me with big memories. Thank you for showing me on the holidays and every day that you loved me and that you cared about me. And thanks for all the Bert and Ernie pumpkins. I wish I could have them one more time, but until I get to see you and thank you face to face, seeya Bub.
“Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love makes up for many of your faults.” 1 Peter 4:8 (TLB)