Donna Tavano: Stem Stalking

It is the season of the celebrated pumpkin, in one story a Cinderella coach, in reality a perfect vehicle to transport us from the jack o’lantern to the cornucopia centerpiece. A pumpkin is a gourd, squash, vegetable or fruit, depending on which reference material you choose to employ, always the diva of every bountiful autumnal display, resplendent in traditional orange, buttery warm white, and even trendy green and blue. These beauteous veggies can be bumpy or dimpled, appaloosaed or striped. Fans that don’t want the rot, but like the look, can opt for fake varieties in foam, which retain their good looks year after year. They can be carved and etched as intricate portraits, sports logos or just scary faces.

A few years ago, I began making stuffed velvet pumpkins, some as tiny as two inches, to la Grande Dame, a lady with girth of a foot or more. I search out harvest colored fabric and Halloween hues, with a smattering of a more sophisticated palette of champagne, peach and ivory. But the piece de resistance of each pumpkin is its stem – it must be real. And so the adventures begin. Consider that after Halloween and Thanksgiving, pumpkins, like the Cadbury Bunny, disappear, as do their gnarly, curvy, wonderful stems. So what’s a stem-seeking girl to do? She stalks porches and front yards, sidewalks and stores, encountering bewildered strangers who cannot fathom why a crazy woman is knocking at their door requesting permission to take custody of their melting, mildewed pumpkin.

After exhausting all possibilities and pleas for general stem gathering among friends, family and casual acquaintances, I sought spiritual guidance and information from the guru of all resourcing – eBay. It’s amazing to discover the odd and mysterious niche markets which have developed. Dirt, for example, can be procured from all over the globe, soil collectors counting on eBay to satisfy their addictions. If you need old snow fencing, driftwood, moss or seaweed, it can be had for a price. It, then, was not surprising to uncover a vigorous market for pumpkin stems (who knew) ranging from $2 to $11 per stem! Too pricey? There is an equally competitive field for faux pumpkin stems created from papier-mâché, wood, resin and rope, but sadly, not nearly a match for the real deal.

One afternoon recently I passed the First Congregational Church in Chatham, and bathing in the glow of orange pumpkins emanating from the front lawn, had an epiphany. Each fall they order hundreds of pumpkins from a Southwestern Indian reservation which are sold by the church to assist locals in need. Through the pumpkin vine, as it were, I received ministerial blessing to seek out a heap of rotten gourds, which hadn’t made the front yard cut at the church. They were supposedly beside the dumpster. Turned out, they weren’t, but there were a few in the disposal unit. With a disapproving husband in tow, I took the path of least resistance, wandering the grounds, inspecting for spoiled gourds or loose broken stems in the dirt. This garnered maybe 20 stems, mission complete, we were to head home. My husband was already in the car when I couldn’t resist a slight detour to the dumpster. I found a couple stems on the pavement, but made the mistake of peering into the container which held six or seven disgusting blobs of what once were pumpkins, covered with fuzzy gray mold and fruit flies. On the upside, I spotted at least a dozen stems scattered about. I glanced toward the car, not missing the frozen grimace set on my husband’s face. It almost derailed me, but overtaken by pumpkin stem lust, yes, I admit that I basically dove into the Ben Nickerson dumpster. Gathering my stems, I was in stem heaven, until I realized there was no escape. Unfortunately, there were no footholds to allow my exit. Gesturing toward my husband for help, there was no response. Finally, induced by my frantic shouting, he made his way to the dumpster damsel in distress.

“Some help here?” I pleaded. I managed to haul my non-agile 65-year-old hulk of a body to the edge where I imagined leaping into his arms, but as I looked at him, still wielding the keyhole saw we’d brought to hack stems, he resembled a villain from a Halloween horror movie. I suggested he lose the saw before my potentially lethal leap. I made it; the only ill effect was his endless droning on the way home regarding the embarrassing nature of my dumpster dive, blah, blah, blah…

This Thanksgiving, as my stems dry and ready themselves for next season, I ponder my own gratitude for a church whose many members unloaded thousands of pumpkins, for the bucolic beauty of pumpkins on the hilltop, for the hundreds of good folk who purchase them and whose dollars will help many. I am grateful to carve jack o’lanterns, roast pumpkin seeds and eat way too much homemade pumpkin pie. I am also grateful for a partner who was there to catch me when I needed it, for the enjoyment of making crafts which others enjoy, and for the twisted little pumpkin stem that started it all.