In that blessed golden age when my sister and I still had Dad in our lives, years before we would begin taking turns conducting periodic manhunts in vain, we never saw him happier or more vibrant than when Mom would let him dress us in our Sunday finest so we could walk with him door-to-door around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and extolling the virtues of the Great Pumpkin.
Peanuts was the only reason Dad subscribed to the newspaper. Each morning he would unroll the new edition right there in our driveway in his robe and slippers, tear out the comics pages, throw the rest in the trash, and carefully trim out Charles Schulz’ bon mot of the day. He saved the strips in manila folders, one for each month, tucked away chronologically in a filing cabinet in the den. Before our proselytizing walkabouts began, we had no idea why his storage methods were so exacting, or so important to him. If an early downpour reached the paper before he did, he drove four blocks to the nearest newsstand and bought a second, intact copy. We could do whatever we wanted with the rest of the paper — clip out the recipes, solve the crossword, make papier-mâché sculptures — but the funny pages were his domain. For most folks, a picture is worth a thousand words. For Dad, every four-panel Charlie Brown microsermon was an epiphany of encyclopedic proportions.
I don’t know which strip was the key that unlocked the secret of his universe. I have no idea which line from the Book of Linus spoke to him and redefined his life. I know it was one November 7th, because he suddenly wouldn’t shut up about the Great Pumpkin even though Halloween had been a full week before. Everyone’s decorations were dismantled and reconsigned to their eleven-month hideaways. Dad didn’t care. Somehow he decided — or was persuaded by fictional macrocephalic children — that appeasing the Great Pumpkin was man’s noblest objective. It wasn’t enough to find a pumpkin patch in October and pray for its sincerity. No, Dad came to believe that his true calling was to cultivate other followers for the Great Pumpkin, stake out a patch they could maintain and harvest year-round, and thereby hold court for His Royal Pumpkinosity twelve months out of the year in a never-ending pageant of perfected sincerity.
Dad never got around to surveying nearby farmlands and deserted plains for a potential Greatest Pumpkin Patch of All Time because he never accomplished Step One to his satisfaction. Not that he didn’t try — that’s how he spent and depleted our ostensible Quality Time. More often than we would like, Dad would dress us kids to the nines and see if the three of us could coax any unwitting listeners into sharing his distinct, unjustifiable worldview. We always hoped Mom would intervene, but she actually encouraged it. She even giggled a little when she snapped that photo of us as we prepared for our first outing. She never stopped praying for him as long as she lived, but she didn’t stand in his way, either. It’s not as though either of us underage sidekicks had words of wisdom to bestow or testimonies to share, but Mom thought that Dad might be safer with us around. Her theory was that more belligerent audience members might be less inclined to respond to him with physical bullying if we innocent tykes were there to bear witness and hold them accountable.
Mom needn’t have worried. No one ever listened. He never completed the first paragraph of his memorized, mild-mannered pitch. He was too meek ever to wedge his foot inside anyone’s doorjamb. Most folks refused to unlatch their chains, if they bothered to open their door for us at all. Even the loneliest of elderly shut-ins thought him deranged and withdrew their welcome within seconds. That didn’t stop him from trying in his own impotent fashion, or from dragging us along as protective accessories, for three years.
That’s not a typo. Three long, boring, cautionary-tale years of the same metaphorical slamming of our heads into so many unyielding walls. While other kids showed off homework or played catch with their dad, ours had us out stumping on the Pumpkin trail. Three Halloweens came and went while his efforts remained unrewarded and ignominious. I don’t even know what possessed him to endure beyond that first November 9th. All I know is he refused to give up on his vision quest for as long as we knew him.
Three November 7ths later, we stopped knowing him because he vanished on us. He left no note, delivered no final speech to his family, and never told us what we did wrong. The only things we found missing were two suitcases, several of his best suits, and every last Peanuts file folder. Mom was shattered for a few days, but her friends from church stuck by her side and helped her through the inexplicable loss. A few of them were kind enough to spend time with my sister and me. We appreciated this because our friends had given us up long ago.
I wish I could say they had to console us through tears and trauma, but the reality is that we knew Dad was lost to us by the first November 14th. We may have been wee children ordered into service, but we could just tell how this nosedive in our relationship would end. Mom didn’t exactly — like I said, she never stopped praying for him, possibly because she felt partly culpable. I never tried to convince her otherwise.
My sister and I never stopped praying for him either, but we never talk about him. Those three years represented a bend in my life that I’ve never figured out how to straighten. To this day I dislike trying to convince anyone of anything they don’t already believe. I have no sympathy for lost causes or underdogs. And I absolutely, positively hate anything containing pumpkin.