When I was a kid, October meant kicking your way through crunchy leaves in the front yard and making tissue paper ghosts to hang from trees. If you wanted a pumpkin to carve, you made your way to Cal’s Farm Market on 98th Street and walked down every row until you found the perfect medium for your masterpiece, which was gutted with sharp steak knives at your mother’s kitchen table.
There were no pumpkin festivals. No pumpkin catapult contests. No fancy corn mazes. If you wanted to get lost in corn, you asked for a day at grandma’s house, which abutted an entire field of the poky stuff. Within moments, you were screaming in panic for your older sister and brother, who had disappeared down one of the other rows. No maps. No neatly mowed paths. Just instinct, bliss and just the right amount of terror.
Not for my toddler. After he was born, we did all the things: Zoos. Museums. Carnivals. And, of course, fall pumpkin festivals. Such Halloween extravagance was new to me, and I wanted my child to reap the rewards of modern motherhood.
How lucky I was: I had not one but three major festivals to choose from. I convinced my unsuspecting parents and amicable older sister to join us, and together we picked the biggest, costliest and most crowded event in the area.
‘‘It has all the stuff,’’ I argued.
We drove 30 minutes to get there, then painfully shoved my stroller-bound toddler across the rutted dirt parking lot for another 10 minutes. We stood in line to get in. Add 20 minutes. We paid admission fees, and I tried not to calculate how many future college courses we had just sacrificed for a day of ‘‘chunkin punkins’’ and ‘‘amazing-mazes.’’
I exchanged the unwieldy stroller for a metal wagon, then dragged my toddler through a corn maze in unseasonably 80-degree weather. His only interest was in plucking each and every dried corn cob off the stalks, which I then had to convince him wasn’t fair to all the other kids. We got lost after the fifth turn, and spent the rest of the time trying to escape from the maze instead of reaching any of the so-called checkpoints. Everywhere I looked, teenagers and big kids were shrieking and having a great time. The toddlers? Not so much. Every last one of them was either asleep in a wagon or fussing when their parents peeled their grabby hands off yet another cob.
After we escaped and left my overheated father under a canopy to cool off, we stood in line again for the hay ride, then bumped along on a dirt road that looked fun but made the toddler cry. It was loud and too bouncy. When we slowed down for a few curious cows, one put his nose too close to the toddler’s foot. My child screamed for an eternity. Finally, we made it to the pumpkin patch and walked for what seemed like miles to find the perfect medium-size pumpkin that looked like it had been placed in the field, instead of actually growing there. Perhaps the festival folks had hit up Cal’s Market earlier in the day to find the best ones.
We bounced back over the dirt road, clutching our perfect pumpkin, then paid $20 to buy it at the end of the ride. (Freshman English Comp 101: gone.)
We paid another $10 for funnel cake, then stood in line again for the restrooms.
‘‘Do you want to do the chunkin’ punkin’ sweetie?’’ A pumpkin catapult! Hooray! Amazing! Except . . . the toddler, back in his stroller, was now sound asleep.
Despite a less-than-successful day, we did the same thing the next year, and the following.
By the time my second son was born, we’d learned. A little. We picked a smaller festival. A hay maze instead of a corn maze; grownups could see over the bales, rendering it impossible to get lost. No hay ride, but a handful of cheap carnival rides. Smelly goats that ate from our hands. And, of course, a pumpkin patch. This time, we paid $12 for a medium pumpkin. But twice that, since I now had two children. Even though the festival was much, much smaller, and actually more fun, I left feeling drained and like, somehow, I was missing something.
Then last year, it finally clicked.
My family and I were collectively exhausted. My dad, who always tagged along, was working through some health problems, and we worried a festival would be too much. And my sister’s youngest child was finally a teenager, who preferred to go to haunted corn mazes with her friends.
‘‘Why don’t you just come to my house this year?’’ my sister asked. ‘‘We can just . . . ‘‘
‘‘Yes! Yes!’’ I said.
So we did. The kids and I stopped and grabbed $6 jumbo pumpkins from a roadside stand on the way. My sister had a tasty - but simple - spread of spooky snacks waiting for us, with ghoulishly delightful names like Mummy Hot Dogs, Worm Pie and Witches Potion.
Instead of paying through the teeth for a torturous, hot day of overstimulation, we raked leaves into a big pile, and my boys stomped through it with their cherished older cousins. They ran foot races across the green space behind the house. We carved our jack-o’-lanterns on the back deck and marveled at how perfect these cheap, jumbo pumpkins were. We snacked and laughed and sat around in comfy chairs until the sun started to set. Then we drove home, tired and sated - without feeling drained.
This year, I asked my boys, now 3 and 7, what they wanted to do:
‘‘Do you want to go to a pumpkin festival, with mazes and rides and stuff? Or do you just want to go to Aunt K’s house?’’
‘‘Go to Aunt K’s House,’’ they said in unison, with great enthusiasm.
My kids get it. They don’t need all the things, at least not at this age. They just need their family, a perfect pumpkin and a pile of crunchy leaves.
Swanson lives in Colorado with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaLSwanson.