My father was afraid of fire. His fear extended to the smallest things: candles, Christmas lights and especially pumpkins.
In 1970, soon after he'd bought a house in the Oakland Hills, a fire destroyed 37 homes. For my father, the threat of another fire was too great to risk for a jack-o'-lantern. On Halloween night, this was his concession -- a flashlight inside each pumpkin we'd carved. Christmas was another issue. For years, we put together an artificial tree, decorating it only with ornaments and tinsel. Even holiday lights were too dangerous.
Then, one October, my brother rode his bike to where firefighters watched over the remains of a small brush fire. Suddenly, the winds changed. The firefighters yelled at my brother to get out. For all his caution, my father couldn't stop the flames. That Halloween, 11 days after our house and so many others burned down, I put candles in the pumpkin that I carved at a friend's house while my parents dealt with the insurance company. At Christmas, we got a fir tree that smelled like a real forest. And my father went to a hardware store for twinkling lights that came with fire hazard warnings.
Now it's the season for fires again, and for pumpkins. I get out the LED lights I bought for our pumpkins once I had children of my own. They flicker and dance, almost like flames.
My son is fascinated by emergencies. When he hears sirens, he asks if our house is in danger. I tell him that we no longer live in the fire-prone hills, and besides, it's unlikely that someone's home would burn down twice. But my son is persistent, so I tell him things he can do in a fire: stop, drop, and roll, call 911, stay low to the ground if there's smoke. And then I tell him that this year, we'll turn our pumpkins into real jack-o'-lanterns. Long after he is asleep, I will think of my father as I blow the candles out.