No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds—
British poet and humorist Thomas Hood wrote these lines in his 19th-century poem “November.” For almost half my life, I felt the same way about the eleventh month.
When I was a kid, November 1 meant a couple of unpleasant things. One, it was All Saint’s Day; although we got off school, it was also a holy day of obligation, which meant we had to go to Mass. Mornings only. It put a bit of a crimp in the Halloween festivities of the night before, especially since trick-or-treat in Cincinnati in those days lasted from around 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., which meant we usually stayed up a bit later but still had to rise and shine next morning for church. It was a double-whammy if November 1 came on a Saturday. That meant no break from morning Mass that week, since we already attended every morning before classes started at school.
On those sleepy mornings, with our bags of candy tantalizing us (we had to fast before communion) and the carved jack-o-lantern blackened and beginning to suck in its teeth as it withered, there was no sense of festivity. In fact, one glance out the front window revealed a stark, grim sight: Bare trees, frosted rooftops, gray skies, and smoke rising from the chimney of the neighbor’s house down the hill.
I imagine I registered that image one year when I was eight or nine, but it became my fixed visual image of November. I doubt every November 1 was that cold or that fires hadn’t been lit earlier in the fall. With the black and orange crepe paper and glowing pumpkin faces stripped away, though, suddenly autumn wasn’t such a merry season.
It didn’t help that major tragedies hit in November within a short span of my childhood. President Kennedy was assassinated (1963) and we had two jet crashes at the Greater Cincinnati airport (1965 and 1967). For an impressionable, even haunted child, the funereal images seared my consciousness: Jackie Kennedy’s blood-stained stockings, details of the President’s gunshot wound, the round-the-clock mourning on television complete with the live murder of Oswald and the spooked horse with the backward boots in the stirrups. The plane crashes brought up discussions of body parts, heads and limbs of victims hanging out of plane windows, jet and human debris littering a bare-branched orchard. I was nine when Kennedy was shot, 11 when the first plane crashed. The experiences marked me deeply, and it was decades before I could peel back the layers of mourning crepe to see what November could also represent.
The change was so gradual, I don’t remember exactly when my perspective changed. Sometime in my late ’20s the colors of November changed from black and gray to warm brown, muted yellow, and cinnamon wine. Maybe I simply outgrew the drama of a goth November, or, in aging, began to appreciate the new palette with its associations of coziness, a warm hearth, spicy fragrances, and stirring chill.
Now I welcome November as a third “season” of the autumn festival, which began with September’s harvest celebration blended with late summer pleasures, then evolved into a party time of decorated porches, the heaped bounty of pumpkins, and raining confetti of bright leaves. November is quieter, and that’s a good thing. We could all use a snuggly rest before the celebratory marathon of the December holidays.
NUDGE: How do you view November? Is it a bleak downer or a time to savor quieter sites and sensations? What does November look like in your region? What activities set November apart from the other 11 months?