Since the dawn of man, Homo sapiens have derived comfort from seasonal milestones. These events help maintain a cyclical sense of continuity that tells us that no matter what cataclysmic turns may befall us, the world as we know it will carry on.
Autumn has a particularly abundant selection of such occurrences. Rural folk look to the first frost to delineate one season from the last. Thick, hardy vines, which, the day before, trailed sturdily among the pumpkins and squash, lie watery and withered on the soil, itself now redolent of seasonal decay. City people watch for fur coats to sprout among the shoppers and businesspeople hurrying along the broad avenues, their shadows growing longer daily as the sun struggles in vain to reach its proud heights of June and July.
For me, fall is heralded by the arrival on store shelves of the first bags of candy corn. These bite-sized confections -- known technically as melocremes -- state, by their very presence, "There's no turning back: Ready or not, here comes fall."
Each year I consume vast quantities of the stuff, but perhaps never as much as on a 10-day driving trip my late husband Bruce and I took through Montana in the early 1990s. I need snacks on a long drives, especially snacks that will satisfy my insatiable sweet tooth. And since this was The Year of Losing Weight, those snacks had to be fat-free, a characteristic that, happily, candy corn possesses.
The previous December, after bidding our final Christmas party guest farewell, Bruce leaned over me as I slouched in the big comfy chair, chin on my chest, covered in cookie crumbs. "Honey, you're really gaining a lot of weight," he said, clearly fearing the argument that was to come. I just laughed. He was right, after all. True love (and pints of Häagen-Dasz every night) will do that. Under the tree that Christmas was a gift certificate for "One Thinner Husband." I was very clear that it didn't have to be me. Six months and 50 pounds later, Bruce, deciding a tune-up was better than a trade-in, redeemed the certificate for little(r) old me.
Sitting in the passenger seat, my feet up on the dashboard, I shoved fistfuls of candy corn into my mouth with impunity as we drove through the Rockies. Bruce and I sang along to the oldies station on the radio, and when we stopped to pee by the side of the road, we got a kick of a sign that read, "Rattlesnakes Have Been Observed." The passive voice gave the warning a halfhearted feel that made the serpentine menaces seem almost benign. I pictured the maraca-playing animated snake from the credits of The Lady Eve waiting patiently by the side of the road to welcome visitors to the Treasure State.
We were thrilled the first time we crossed the continental divide, and by the 20th time we crossed that demarcation, we screamed out the window, "Who cares?!" We went on hikes, praying we'd see a bear, only to run like scared ninnies when we rounded a corner and found a buffalo sleeping in the sun. We rented a cabin on a lake and dined al fresco as the sun fell lazily behind a snow-capped mountain across the water. And we hiked into Glacier Park, where winter had leapfrogged fall and made us glad we had brought our heavy coats and warm hats.
But most of all we laughed. And laughed and laughed. These were 10 days in our marriage after I was fat and before Bruce was sick, and it was a time I will forever use as the standard by which I judge "happy,"
We returned to New York City to find that summer was still very much in evidence; that relatively temperate island has a way of holding on until the last possible moment. But I had half a bag of candy corn left from the trip, which proved the season really was about to change.
Bruce had to work the day after we flew home and blew me a kiss from the bedroom door on his way out. As I dragged my sleepy, unemployed butt into the kitchen to start the coffee, I saw that on the kitchen table, spelled out in letters of orange, yellow and white candy corn, were eight letters: I L O V E Y O U.
And so, every year toward the end of September, as my teeth sink into the crystallized outer shell of the season's first striated melocreme, I hop into my confectionary time machine and find myself whisked back to 10 happy days in Montana. There the sky is always big, the candy-corn crop plentiful, and, from time to time, rattlesnakes have been observed.