The year’s ‘last, loveliest smile’

‘Tis the best season at Forrest Hall Farm –
Mechanicsville, Maryland

Pandemic fall

We picked out pumpkins on Sunday.

It was a simple thing — something entirely normal in 2019, and 2018, and every year prior. But in 2020, the pandemic year, it felt amazing. Rebellious, even.

I keep thinking about Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. It was one of the first novels I read fresh out of college — back when the novelty of reading what I wanted to, whenever I wanted to was so exhilarating. Brooks’ historical novel — set in an English village during the time of the plague — is atmospheric, creepy, engrossing. It was deeply disturbing, too … enough that, though I’ve forgotten the exact language, I still remember the opening passages: how the fall of that year, the plague year, was redolent of rotting apples.

Man, I get it now.

Like just about everyone in 2020, I end most days exhausted. I fall asleep at 8 p.m. It’s not because I’ve had such a strenuous day … not physically, anyway. There’s the usual mental gymnastics of navigating full-time careers, the needs and desires of young children, the nurturing of relationships with family and friends. Then we spread on a layer of doubt and anxiety: the pandemic’s thick, unpredictable patina that seeps into and colors just about every aspect of daily life.

My 5-year-old son is in virtual kindergarten — “asynchronous kindergarten,” actually, given my husband and I are working outside the home full-time. So we try to keep up with the hours of daily recorded lessons from the school system at night, when I’m on my fourth cup of coffee. “Studying” is really just me scrubbing through the videos while the kids destroy the living room, or Spencer makes dinner, or I try to answer some emails.

I’m looking for any actual assignments … or some loose tidbit that could entice Oliver — a boy who barely pauses his activities long enough to eat, or use the restroom — to actually sit for a moment and watch. But he has no interest in observing his kindergarten teacher, a woman he’s never met or even seen in person, interact with 20 other kids on iPads who have no clue how to use the mute button. Because, you know … they’re five.

And can I blame him?

Of course not.

This is nuts.

Everyone is just muddling through as best they can. I trust that. But this sucks. He has zero interest in participating, and I have zero interest in forcing him. This is all weird and boring and unnatural for a naturally curious, busy kid. I don’t want to sour him on school before he’s ever actually stepped foot in a classroom. We also don’t have the wherewithal to attempt to develop a curriculum ourselves, and I’m barely hanging on as it is.

We’re not alone. I know this. The struggle bus is making all sorts of stops these days. Everything is weird and hard, and I want it to feel normal or find some sense of normal but I … can’t.

In the meantime, I’m in kindergarten again, jotting down sight words and studying math concepts. And it will be that way for the foreseeable future, at which time everything will change … again.

There are moments that I feel OK, though. Sunday afternoon was one of them. We weren’t out long, and didn’t do much … not even the morning on the local farm we’d planned, given the rain stuck around much longer than expected. But we made it to a tiny farm stand I’ve passed a thousand times along Route 5. Even in our masks, my fall-loving heart skipped a beat amongst the gourds and mums.

It isn’t a normal season. Not anything close to the fall we’d want.

But more than six months into this, the year of rotting apples …

Well, there’s still time to learn to make pie.

October weekend

Farm fun

An October weekend is sunny cornfields, mountains of laundry, a crisp morning with the first wisps of visible breath.

Apple-cider donuts. Driving with the windows down. Trying on our costumes weeks in advance, and “practicing” our trick-or-treating.

Dodging the candy aisle in Target. Begrudgingly tucking arms into jackets, all shed by lunchtime. Crunching through a yard full of leaves.

Packing away the shorts and tees, then shopping to cover the kids’ ever-longer limbs. Replacing their whole wardrobe as they grow taller. Listening hard as they grow funnier, and wiser.

Chili on the stovetop, cornbread in the oven. Pies and whipped cream with an extra “shot” right from the can. Watching “Boss Baby” while I wash bedding. Fielding requests for “Peppa Pig” as we dim the lights for bedtime, now earlier and earlier.

It’s the four of us settling down on a Sunday night, with the house smelling of Lysol and (most of) the toys all tucked away.

It’s another donut for good measure. Monday’s on its way.

Ollie apple donut

When autumn comes, it doesn’t ask

Pumpkins

When autumn comes, it doesn’t ask.
It just walks in where it left you last.
You never know when it starts
until there’s fog inside the glass
around your summer heart.

“Something’s Missing,”
John Mayer

What reminds you of fall?

For me, it’s John Mayer’s “Heavier Things.” Buying the album on CD that first fall of my freshman year with cash from my first job. Watching the fog clear on the windshield of my old Corolla — the one before the one I’m currently selling, now that the minivan life has taken its hold. Listening to “Clarity” while I felt both too young and too old at college.

It’s dinner in the slow cooker — stews, chili. Chicken and wild rice soup.

Warm quilts. Sweatpants. Candy corn.

Stowing away flip-flops, digging out boots. Warm, sunny afternoons and crisp evenings.

Mums on porches. Mornings thick with dew. Finding last season’s jackets and slipping little arms into their sleeves, wondering if anything still fits.

This year, it’s also my son pointing out each crispy leaf, asking if we’re any closer to Halloween. Excitedly announcing that “it’s fall time!” with a commitment to giving a home to any lonely pumpkin we see … just like his mama.

My heart is not a summer heart. I adore spring, when my babies were born, and winter has its cozy charms.

But fall is still my favorite. Let’s get started.

 

Totally necessary fall bucket list

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Do I make these every year?

Maybe.

Am I totally, completely OK with that?

Definitely.

Now that Oliver is so fun and aware of the world around him, one of my favorite things to do is to drag him to seemingly “ordinary” activities and watch him just … take it all in.

They say that to live again is to view the world through the eyes of a child. And I can’t think of any better way to describe that. A fallen leaf, a cardboard box, a Target receipt — all items of intense interest to my 17-month-old, and seeing him try to make sense of these things gives me a fresh perspective, too.

Since fall is undoubtedly my favorite season, I’m dreaming of corn mazes and hot apple cider and cozy fleece and pumpkin patches. Last fall I was dealing with some pretty intense anxiety as a first-time parent, and honestly? Autumn was a bit of a blur.

But this year? I am better. Gold feels golden again. I am less the husk of a tired mother and more the somewhat-capable, excited and “normal”-ish woman that I remember from so many years ago.

There are never enough days in October and November, so I’m not going to worry if we can’t get to every single one of these delectably-autumnal activities. But I’m going to make a concentrated push to fill the family calendar with fun (and funnel cake!), and to soak up my favorite of seasons with our family of three before we’re zombie people again next year.

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Johnson Family Fall Bucket List

  1. Visit a pumpkin patch and find the perfect gourds for carving. We always bring pumpkins home, but don’t necessarily carve them for Halloween — definitely want to do that this year. Ollie is going to flip out at the sight of pumpkin guts!
  2. Hit as many craft fairs as humanly possible. I spent several days compiling a master list of all the local shows happening this fall for my magazine at work, and to be honest? That “work” was not work at all. Sometimes I open the link just to salivate at the idea of all the fun shopping we’ll be doing. Craft fairs are an annual tradition with my mom and sister, and I am SO EXCITED about these.
  3. Check out a corn maze. Many farms here in Southern Maryland open their doors for folks wishing to “get lost” in family-friendly mazes, and Spence and I hit a few early in our relationship. Those are happy memories for me, and I can’t wait to take Oliver.
  4. Make hot cider. In a slow cooker. Maybe with this recipe, or this one.
  5. Host a Halloween gathering. This spooky holiday falls on a Monday this year (bleh), but I’m hoping we can convince our family and some friends to swing by while we give out candy. Our neighborhood is pretty quiet, so we don’t get many trick-or-treaters, but we’ll be taking Ollie out to hit a few houses! And definitely watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “Hocus Pocus.”
  6. Speaking of which… watch “Hocus Pocus”! Tradition. My husband tries to get me to sit down for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” on Halloween, too, but my 31-year-old self still gets spooked by that one. I don’t know how a scaredy cat like me wound up with ardent Tim Burton fan, but … here we are. (Don’t mind me — just hiding behind the couch.)
  7. Rake leaves and jump in the piles. Ah, to be young again.
  8. Roast pumpkin seeds. Our attempt at this last year was a big fail, but I’m convinced we didn’t give the seeds the attention they deserved. This will dovetail nicely with carving our jack-o-lanterns. I’m stoked!

So there you have it, friends — our to-do list for the next few months. Anything on your fall bucket list, too? Any additional suggestions? I’m always up for some new autumn fun.