Ghosts of Halloween Past

“Hold still,” my mom said through the pins clamped between her lips. She tugged as the gray fabric pulled at my arms. “We’ve got to cut this more if we want it to look like a shark,” she determined, her eyebrows crinkled, “Hmm, now how do we do this?” She studied the fabric. “Ok, take it off,” she said.

She laid the costume on the ground, took a pencil, and under the arm, she drew an arc. “That should do it,” she said. She slipped the piece beneath the needle of the machine, and stitched the line she’d drawn. Exactly. I couldn’t even see the pencil line anymore. “I hate sewing,” she complained as she cut the ends of the thread.

It was Halloween Eve – mischief night to some — but to me, wardrobe and dress rehearsal. The day before my favorite day of the year. The next day I’d go to school and everyone would compliment my costume or shout out in the hall. This was the best costume yet. So far I’d been a chocolate chip cookie, a nun and the Pillsbury Dough boy. The chocolate chip cookie in third grade started it all. Our neighborhood ran a costume contest every year. I was too old for it now but my cookie costume had placed second years ago, when Amy’s Statue of Liberty won first prize. I was mad because my costume was better but they gave it to her because she had brain cancer. I didn’t forgive those judges until after Amy died.

I loved when people recognized my costume in the halls. “Michelin Man,” they’d say about my dough boy costume, and when I told them who I really was, they’d kick the stuffing that’d collected in the bottom and I squealed “Tee hee.” On Halloween, I could start a conversation with anyone. People really wanted to talk to me. We didn’t have a contest at school but it didn’t matter. That day I was the belle of the ball.

My mother hated to sew. She went to fashion high school. I don’t know why, because the piano was her first and only love, but that’s the story. She loved fashion but she hated sewing. But I benefited from my mom’s misdirected education. Every Halloween my mom would make me a costume. It was great having a mom who could sew because I wanted such elaborate costumes. Besides the chocolate chip cookie and the Pillsbury Dough Boy, I was a shark, a nun, and my personal favorite, Cousin It from the Addams family. We’d work on the costumes all week and then on the eve of Halloween we’d finish, with my mom sewing furiously and me yawning and rubbing my eyes until 11:30 when they were finally done.

Then I’d get to the bus stop at 7 a.m. and my day in the sun would begin. I woke up tired, but all the compliments and attention electrified me. I spent class time writing notes to my friends about all the attention, and tugging and primping my costume for my next curtain call between classes. Then the shouts and laughs started again.

After school the younger kids would trick or treat. The little kids had the afternoon, but the night belonged to us. That was when the bombs dropped on Lake MacGregor. I’d toss aside my painfully elaborate costume and dress as a bum with a pillowcase groaning with eggs and shaving cream. I’d meet up with the other bums and we’d bomb some houses. We’d bomb people we didn’t like. No tricks, just vandalism. If someone’d ratted on us smoking, we’d bomb their house, or their car, or their mailbox. But mostly we bombed each other.

Halloween was the night that gangs roamed the street. Upscale, suburban, honor-student gangs. Red Mills would meet up with Lake MacGregor and we’d throw eggs at each other. We’d break eggs on heads. We’d bump into someone in the dark and shower them with shaving cream. Shaving cream was just fun. Breaking an egg on a head hurts. And I never did it, but sometimes the older kids would mug the little kids for their candy. Somebody mugged me and Alison once and I still had bad memories.

On Halloween night, the cops would cruise our neighborhood in an effort to mediate the mayhem. Anyone caught with eggs or shaving cream got a free ride home in the squad car. Once they took Joel, from the richer side of town. Everybody joked that he went down yelling, “You can’t do this to me! My Dad’s a doctor!”

So when I returned home last year for Halloween I was understandably excited. It was Rose’s first real Halloween and she’d spend it in my hometown. She’d meet my best friend, my sister really, and it would be just like the old days, except this time I’d had to make my own costume because we’d come to bury my mother.

I’d been making my own costumes for some time now. I was 41 and just starting a family. It was the first time my father would meet Rose. In a month, she’d be two.

My mom had been gone for eight years by the time she died. Alzheimer’s slowly encroached upon every system in her body, making it a slow, painful death for everyone. By the time her body gave out we’d grieved, and lamented, and lashed out enough to accept the dull feeling of relief. Throughout the 13 years of her decline my helplessness had evolved into numbness, dry tears and a longing for her final breath.

So Halloween was a fitting time to go home. I loved costumes but never warmed to the creepy aspects of the celebration. Halloween was the day my own tormentors couldn’t get to me. Even my father got a kick out of my costumes. He’d take pictures and compliment my creativity. But this year it was death that brought us together.

We spent the first day at the funeral. After a cookie-cutter Greek Orthodox ceremony at the church, I’d read my eulogy and we loaded into the cars. We rode with my dad, who drove straight to the cemetery leaving the procession to sort itself out. As we drove down the back route my dad had dictated in the directions, I fielded calls from lost cousins. “You’re supposed to wait for the HEARSE!”

“I know, Dina, I know.” But my dad never noticed nor subscribed to proper decorum.

At the cemetery, we waited for the lost cousins but people complained that they had other commitments so we started the ceremony. I watched the pallbearers carry the coffin to its perch above the grave, and set the two flower arrangements – from my best friend’s family – our neighbors for 35 years – and my office –around the coffin. My dad didn’t want flowers or donations or anyone to know, really. Although my mother had taught piano to half the town, my dad insisted a wake was superfluous. If we’d had a wake, he’d have been forced to admit that Mom died of Alzheimer’s. And of course, it would have cost money — a concept to which my dad was most averse. It was safer to pretend that mom was like a stone dropped into a pond – she caused some ripples then disappeared, as if she’d never existed.

He got his wish. Her brother and sister didn’t stay for the luncheon. Her sister was too upset and her brother’s son/driver had to work an evening shift, so we had lunch with the few remaining mourners and our family priest. My dad had chosen an Italian restaurant, God bless him, so I got my New York food fix my first day home. No matter how numb you feel, a good veal marsala will bring you back to the pleasures of the flesh.

We spent the rest of the week at my best friend’s house, watching Rose fall in love with her aunt and uncle and rehashing the funeral. We tried to figure out what to do for Halloween. Rose had to trick or treat – she was old enough now and for God’s sake, she was my daughter so I had to teach her about Halloween. We had to coordinate with Cathi’s sister’s kids and we considered doing it in our old neighborhood – her parents still lived next door to my dad – but in the end, her sister’s kids chose their own trick-or-treating territory.

And it was fun. I dressed as a polygamist from a radical Mormon sect, Rose was a parrot, and Matt had planned on a traditional all-white suit to compliment my outfit, but the funeral had pre-empted his costume hunt, so he followed us, drinking “coffee” out of a to-go cup and taking pictures.

Polly want some candy!

Rose loved trick-or-treating and bugged us to go back out once we’d come in for more “coffee.” We laughed amongst the mayhem that only nine young kids in a 1950s-era cottage can provide, and left tired and happy, feeling lucky to have spent my favorite holiday with my chosen “family.” I realized that much as my dad had tried, my mom’s life wasn’t just a ripple in a pond. She left me with 40 years worth of treasured memories, a line of custom-handmade costumes and the opportunity to spend Rose’s first Halloween with the people I loved the most.