My brother and I tumbled downstairs, windbreakers zipped to our chins, eager to see how our pumpkins had fared after sitting on the stoop overnight. I opened the screen door, inhaling autumn’s air and then suddenly stopped short, causing my brother to bump into me.
Look, Tommy! I pointed. Our pumpkins shrunk! I stood, stunned by the tiny gourds before me, no larger than an apple.
How was this possible? One day prior, we had visited a pumpkin patch, and for the first time ever had been allowed to choose our very own. My brother had picked a handsome, oval-shaped pumpkin, slim and tall, with a perfectly straight stem. My pumpkin was round and squat and bright, far heavier than I could carry. It’s green stem swayed to one side in a soft curl.
My brother might have been younger, but was far wiser to the ways of the world.
Our pumpkins didn’t shrink, Kristin. They are right there. He pointed to the road in front of our home.
I turned and stared at a gigantic mound of lumpy orange debris.
But how…? I began, my eyes filling in realization that they were destroyed.
Someone stole them, smashed them, and played a trick on us, my brother said matter-of-factly. He grabbed my hand. C’mon. Let’s go tell Mom and Dad.
And just like that, my world changed. Bad things could happen, and for no reason at all.
Growing up in this old New England farmhouse was magical.
The house itself, large and stately, sat on a fine piece of land, which included two expansive fields, several black-soiled vegetable gardens brimming with carrots, beans, and tasseled corn, a tangled raspberry patch, plus a pretty pond full of fish and turtles, complete with a small and roaring dam. A millstone adorned our front yard, flat beneath a maple tree. We enjoyed many lunchbox picnics on that round slab, which doubled as home base for our games of tag.
The farmhouse itself had been divided into four apartments, three of which were rented out and the fourth inhabited by our landlords, a retired couple who owned and tended the property.
Norman Golden was our landlord, a tall and imposing man, who hid behind untamed eyebrows and frequent sarcasm. Behind all of the bluster, however, was a heart of kindness. He spent hours repairing anything and everything, and then, as time allowed, tinkered in his breezeway, a wood-working and inventing area which separated the main house from the garage.
His wife, Mary, spent most of her time working outdoors, perpetually bent over those scrupulous garden rows, yanking weeds, and laughing at her husband’s ways, scolding him with a gentle: Oh, Norman. Stop scaring the children. She clearly adored him, and I delighted in their banter and easy camaraderie as they labored over their beloved property.
On the first of every month, my father descended the back, narrow staircase, rent check in hand, and Tommy and I followed, eager to visit. Mr. Golden beckoned us gruffly into their hazy kitchen, ash trays smoldering with stubby cigarettes as we took a seat at the formica table, knowing well what was next. Mrs. Golden pushed up the window by way of apology, waving her hand in invitation for the swirling smoke to disappear.
Mr. Golden’s voice was commanding and his wiry eyebrows remained furrowed as he shuffled over the linoleum floor, clad in white undershirt and khakis: his indoor attire. Would you kids like a piece of chocolate cake?
We responded with a vigorous nod.
Well that’s too bad. We don’t have any.
We giggled every time.
The script remained unchanged and I adored it. Deep down, I would have been somehow disappointed if he had actually produced a slice of cake.
He humphed as he sat down at the table, and lifted his juice glass. The ice cubes clinked as he swirled the drink, referring to it as heart medicine, asking my brother and me if we wanted our own glass.
Norman! his wife clucked. Stop that. This too remained the same, and for years I believed that he was sipping apple juice.
But the real reason I enjoyed going downstairs on rent day, was to hear stories. Mr. Golden was full of them, and despite his wife’s admonitions, he rarely held back.
You kids stay away from that dam across the street, hear me now? One hundred years ago some kids were roughhousing, and one fell and cracked her head.
We nodded, wide-eyed.
And the road out front? Just because our street is quiet, doesn’t mean a car isn’t coming. You look both ways five times before you cross. Understand? One time I was almost flattened by a semi out there.
Mary rolled her eyes.
And the edge of the woods in the back field? It’s a bog, full of quicksand. My ancestor lost a cow back there. The cow disappeared, and my ancestor went a’lookin. The cow never came back and neither did he. The ground just swallowed them up. And then his son followed, even though his mother told him not to. He almost disappeared too, but managed to escape, jumping out of his boots which sunk in the bog.
This gave me pause to consider. It also put the fear into us, which was his plan all along, I am quite sure. We respected the property boundaries, taking great care to avoid both the dam and woods.
One cool fall day, on the first of the month, his story felt less like a tall-tale.
Sometimes kids just don’t listen. I remember one time my two boys were wrestling in the living room. I told them to quit, but they were in high school and kept going. George pushed Michael off the sofa, and he landed on the coffee table. The legs gave way and our dog was pinned underneath and died.
The kitchen clock ticked.
Mr. Golden ceased his storytelling, staring vacantly beyond the kitchen window, across the street to the pond. His wife turned to the sink, wiping off an already clean dish, as my father cleared his throat and stood, pushing in his chair.
My eyes remained fastened upon Mr. Golden’s face.
We must be going, Norman. My father guided us to the back door.
I wanted to say something kind, but could not speak.
Bad things just happen for no good reason at all, he murmured, lighting a cigarette as we left.
Mr. Golden was incensed about our pumpkin loss, and in an unusual turnabout, dropped all sarcasm and informed us in no uncertain terms that if he had witnessed those cowards stealing our pumpkins, he would have made good use of his shotgun.
I did not want anyone to be injured, but I felt the care tucked within his speech.
Decades have swept by since that time, and now I think of Mr. Golden, our New England farmhouse, the smashed pumpkins, and disrupted plans. It was all so very long ago, and there were chapters of this story that were impossible for me to know as a little girl. The Golden’s son, George, had died suddenly as a young man. Norman’s grief was compounded by the realization that the relational bridge between he and his son had never been repaired.
His coping strategy? Hypervigilance and plenty of heart medicine.
The day our pumpkins were smashed, my young life felt disrupted. I had not yet learned that a disturbance of our plans holds holy purpose. Bad things do happen, and while I have no snappy answers for the why, my comfort is planted in the knowing that those very things have been permitted by our Father.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, passes through the hands of God without his consent. Every scalding pain, aching sorrow, and ongoing burden is used by God for good, and for his glory to burn brightly.
Even today, I have reminded myself to bow low before God, my: Yes, Lord in the midst of pain. A glowstick shines in the pitch of night only after it has been broken.
Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand (Proverbs 19:21).
This is my heart medicine.