Last week I was ill. It was the flu. I spent four days in bed, rising only in the late afternoon to go to work, which I probably shouldn’t have done. I wear my great sense of responsibility around my neck like a anchor. Though sometimes I have the feeling that I am still not sure to what or to whom.
Andrés was in Valencia and I was on my own. I stared at the pillowcase. I sipped broth. I blew my nose. I drank juice. I cried. I felt alone. I sweated. I had the chills. I slept and slept.
On Friday I woke up after a 12-hour sleep. I felt better than I had in days. I leapt from my bed. I put on I’m walking on sunshine by Katrina and the Waves. I threw open the bedroom window, stripped the bed of its sickly sheets and let the autumn sunshine do the rest. I danced and made soup. After a couple of hours of prancing about I felt weak. I went back to bed. I had the chills. I cursed viruses everywhere. I wondered: Why me?
Being sick makes me feel the opposite of alive. It makes me feel sad. Sad is the opposite of alive.
I was depressed; I always am when I’m sick. There is nothing as depressing as flu. The flu is our deepest weaknesses incarnate.
Yet there in my feverish reverie I made a startling discovery. I felt something stir within me. Then there was an image, a vivid one, and its message was clear: it’s time to carve pumpkins.
My Friday morning rise and fall represented only a minor setback. By Saturday I was still weak. And about 4 pounds thinner. But I was determined. Not wanting to overdo it, I avoided over stimulation. I put on the Cure and gently bopped. I cleaned the bathroom. This routine act filled me with life and purpose. After so many days shut up in bed I was finally doing something that felt worthwhile. I have never felt so fulfilled. At least that’s what I felt at the time.
I went to the market. The walk and crisp fall air invigorated me and awoke my slumbering muscles.
Pumpkins aren’t a big thing in Barcelona. But I remembered having seen some at one of the stalls in Sant Antoni market. I bought two. A big one and a little one. I brought them home.
I had never carved a pumpkin before. I had so many questions. How do I keep the lid from falling in? How much pulp needs to be scraped out? Will the candle show? How many seeds can I expect? Are they as orange inside as I imagine? Is it hard to make the teeth? The BBC has a great website on jack-o-lantern making that cleared it all right up. I recommend checking it out the first time you carve a pumpkin.
I carved the pumpkins. The big one turned out to be a loveable brute. The small one’s mean. Why is it that the small ones are so often mean?
From the pumpkins I got seeds. Toasted ones. I like leaving a bit of the pulp with the seeds. I sprinkled some with cumin and they went fast. I also made a loaf of pumpkin bread with a recipe I found on Internet. I had to make some minor adjustments. We had it for breakfast three days in a row.
My pumpkining filled me with great satisfaction. Despite my faltering immune system, I felt strong. Despite my sniffles and runny nose, I felt vibrant. Despite my lingering depression, I felt alive.
On Monday afternoon, I was heading to work. I still looked like shit, like I had the flu. I saw my neighbors. I sometimes see them in their kitchen window when I look through my kitchen window. Or I see them hanging the wash when I’m hanging the wash. On Monday I saw them downstairs. They looked as though they were going away on a trip of some kind. They had two overnight bags, a big basket, two large potted plants and three big bouquets of flowers.
Are you going away on some kind of trip, I asked.
We’re going to visit my parents, she answered. Pobretes. They’re buried in my hometown.
Of course, I said. November 1st. The Day of the Dead. It’s a nice tradition. (I meant this. I do think it’s a nice tradition. People picnic by the graves of their loved ones.)
No sirve de mucho, but we do it anyway.
Ya, I answered.
But I didn’t mean this. I didn’t agree that there was not much point in having a picnic on the graves of their loved ones. But I said Ya anyway because it seemed like the polite thing to do. I could have asked why they were doing it if they thought there was no point. I could have defended their tradition of picnicking with the dead as a beautiful commemoration. I could have shouted But you’re alive! I could have pointed out that she didn't have the flu.
Autumn is my favorite season. That is why I decided to carve pumpkins. Not for fall’s sake, but for mine. In celebration of my waning flu. I plan on doing it every year. It brought me back.
On November 1st, the Day of the Dead, I stayed home in my pjs. Still not fully recovered, I rested. I padded around the flat in my slippers, flopping on the sofa to read, organizing pictures, admiring my pumpkins, even though you could see the candle in the little one. I made a pumpkin risotto in honor of the season. And I made panellets for all those visiting their loved ones in cemeteries. On the 31st of October, All Hallow’s Eve, Catalan families come together for the castanyada. They roast chestnuts and sweet potatoes. They eat panellets and drink moscatel. They often take the leftovers to the cemetery the next day.
I plan on making panellets every year as well in commemoration of this spring.
240 g sugar
grated lemon rind (about 1/2 a lemon)
Add the sugar, crushed almond and lemon rind. Mix with a fork.
The recipe yields about a dozen or so of each. Place panellets on a butter baking sheet. Cook at a high temperature for 8-10 minutes.