In our home we celebrate the arrival of the months and seasons with literature and food––preferably both. Which is why I crave November.
On the summer solstice, I read to my daughter from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, with its beautiful evocation of the first day of summer. When she was a girl, my grandmother picked dandelions, which were transubstantiated into wine in her parents’ speakeasy in the western New York hamlet of Lime Rock. Every few years my wife, daughter and I pull out the family recipe and get to work picking the gorgeous yellow flowers––they are not weeds!––for our own batch of the nectar. I suppose this violates some child-labor statute or other, but, as in Bradbury’s novel, the bottles of wine may be uncorked over the years to bring back sweet memories.
When July ripens the berries on the vines that overspread our yard, we share biscuits and baseball stories. Casey can strike out all he wants to––blackberry-raspberry shortcake is always a hit.
Some months are feasts, others are famine. In October we read Poe and Hawthorne and eat pumpkins that have been cooked, puréed and otherwise rendered delicious. December is all cookies and sentiment: Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Christmas Jenny” and, of course, Clement Moore’s Saint Nick visit are inspiring accompaniments.
August, on the other hand, has motivated fewer poets than any of its 11 sister months. William D. Gallagher, the Ohio poet of the 1840s, composed an ode titled “August,” but even he couldn’t do much better than “Tediously pass the hours/And vegetation wilts, with blister’d root.” We eschew the wilted greens in the garden in favor of juicy tomatoes beneath melted mozzarella and fresh basil.
But August yields to September, and one of my favorite rituals: the first day to drink cider. Impatiently I drive past the Roanoke Apple Farms, waiting for the magic word “Cider” to appear on the message board. Finally comes the day when we gobble a bagful of cider donuts while driving home with our jugs, passing long rows of maples, which are just beginning to wear their autumnal colors. We stop first at my parents’ home, decanting the cider for all assembled. They pronounce it excellent. Temporarily sated, we walk the grounds of the nearby New York State School for the Blind, gathering chestnuts from the grove of trees that has sustained generations of my family. The squirrels eye us petulantly as we pull away the husks to reveal the shiny brown nuts. “How beautiful!” my daughter Gretel exclaims, and I am thankful for yet another September. We sit under a chestnut tree, reading favorite poems about the month. They all seem to rhyme “goldenrod” with “God.” We understand why.
The lessons of September are relearned two months later. We greet November, from which William Cullen Bryant begged “one smile more, distant departing sun.” At mid-month, my wife bakes a carrot-pineapple cake that is the gustatory highlight of my birthday. A week later, my grandmother, who picked dandelions for wine so many springs ago, will hand-crank the stale bread that becomes dressing on our Thanksgiving table. She greets my father’s jab, “Pepperidge Farm?” with a glare cold enough to freeze Miles Standish. Like our Pilgrim forebears, we are grateful for many things this November––the blessings of family most of all.