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Halloween and Me

© 1999, 2005 c.e. by Phaedra Bonewits

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It was cold and wet last night. Leaves, just arriving at the peak of their autumn colors, stuck to the sidewalks and the cars, slipping rather than crunching underfoot. No wind, not much wind down here in North Carolina, not like in Chicago where I grew up. I tucked my hair under my hat and inside my coat, scuffled through the leaves and rain and dark, and thought about Halloween.

I wrote a letter about Halloween the other day, the Halloween I loved when I was a kid. It’s been a while since I was a kid. I was born at mid-century, mid-20th century, I suppose I should say. I remember going with my friends to see Stanley Kubrick; we’d marvel at the fact that we’d be fifty in 2001. Both fifty and 2001 seemed remarkably, magically, far away. Not now, of course. Just a week or two ago, another of my friends turned fifty. I’m not far behind. And as I wrote that letter about Halloween, I realized how much the world us kids took for granted is gone now, as far away as the idealized turn of the century we saw in the movies, further in the past than Kubrick’s 2001 was in the future. And I realized, no one’s going to know what our growing-up world was like unless we remember, and tell our stories.

I want to tell Halloween stories.

I scared easy when I was a kid. For a long time, my folks wouldn’t let me watch Twilight Zone or Outer Limits or even wimpy old One Step Beyond; they were tired of the nightmares. Sending me out of the room didn’t really help much. I could still hear the audio, even if I was upstairs in bed. The scaredest I ever got was listening in bed to an episode of Way Out. I didn’t hear how it ended; Dad turned the set off before the end of the program. I wanted to scream, “Turn it back on!” but then they’d know I could hear it. So I lay there, scrunched under the blankets, fetal position, imagining more pure primal terror and horror than could ever have been conveyed through a cathode ray tube. I never did find out how it ended.

But they let me read whatever I wanted. I read a book of Robert Bloch’s short stories in the back seat of the family car during an interminable, pre-interstate drive to central Wisconsin. There was one story in particular, about the skull of the Marquise de Sade; I remember it to this day. I finished the story, set the book on the car seat, looked around, and realized that despite the warm sunshine, despite the tranquil farmlands visible through every window, despite my whole family being within an arm’s length, I was absolutely, completely scared out of my mind. Amazing. I took a little break and finished the book later. In daylight.

I hated scary movies, probably more for conceptual than empirical reasons. Translation: I was so scared of being scared I just wouldn’t go see them. Once my best friend Jeannie and Cathy Danaher from over the tracks got me to go to an afternoon horror movie double bill at the Marquette Theater up on 73rd Street. I really did want to see the second feature, a B-movie early ’60s version of The Phantom of the Opera. But the poster for the first half of the bill showed skeletons riding on horses. I just couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I had Jeannie and Cathy save me a seat while I spent the whole movie sitting in the bright pink powder room. Every now and then one or the other of them would come down to pee and try to get me to come upstairs. “It’s just men in skeleton suits,” they’d say. “I know,” I’d answer. “No, really, even in the movie, they’re just men who dress up like skeletons.” “Ok,” I’d say, “But I’m still staying here.” I did emerge to watch Phantom. I thought it was great. But it didn’t change my mind about scary movies. I admit, though, I watch House on Haunted Hill or 13 Ghosts on cable now and love them.

  Some things didn’t faze me in the least. The neighborhood where I grew up was inside the city limits but had been developed only in the ’40s and ’50s. As with other metro fringe areas, dead folk had moved in long before families. When we lived on 86th street, we were darned near surrounded by cemeteries, one on the other side of the railroad tracks at the end of the block, another on the other side of the next street over.
Our second house, on 84th Place, where we moved when I was in second grade, was only a couple of blocks further away. Resurrection Cemetery, resting (or roving) place for the ghost known as Resurrection Mary, was just a few miles to the southwest. We made a great one liner out of it later, “Our neighborhood is so dead, we’re surrounded by cemeteries.” Ok, a little lame, but in the school yard you don’t worry much about being too hip for the room.

We could walk to the graves, and sometimes did, of our maternal grandparents and of the older brother who’d died soon after birth. In the spring you’d put flowers out on the graves and in the fall you’d cover them with a grave blanket, big bunches of evergreen branches fastened to a grave-sized wooden frame. We went to lots of wakes, mostly relatives of my grandparents’ generation. We learned to make our little prayer at the open coffin and imitated the polite condolence remarks we heard our parents say. We’d make sure to get a holy card with the deceased’s name on the back to add to the holy card collection already bulging out of our St. Joseph Missals. But I never, ever would kiss the corpse. Lucky for me, that was optional.

Once, when I was really small, pre-school probably, an older kid asked my big sister and I if we wanted to see a bone yard. Heck, yes, we did. I imagined an open pit full of bones, mostly femurs and skulls like on a pirate flag. Maybe some blood and gore, too, but mostly long, white bones. I couldn’t wait. The older kid took us by the hands and led us up the three-foot railroad track embankment and pointed at the cemetery. We were pretty unimpressed. Had we known the words, we might have said we got ripped off. We caught heck we got home, too, not because of the cemetery, but because we’d been up on the tracks. I guess they thought we’d get hit by a train, or something, though Big Sister and I felt we were already pretty aware of the whole “watch out for trains” thing. I do remember sometimes seeing hobos, in worn suits and brown fedoras, hop down from box cars. Maybe my folks were worried about hobos, too.

Cemeteries made great playgrounds. We didn’t have parks to play in, just backyards and the occasional Park District swings and slides over gravel ground cover. The closest green grass park with trees was half a mile to the bus stop and a bus ride away. So, we played in the vacant lots where houses hadn’t been built yet, prairies we called them, and over in the cemetery in the huge back sections that hadn’t been, well, hadn’t been planted yet. Just through the fence of the cemetery across the tracks was an huge open field with big ol’ hill right in the middle. The hill was quite a novelty in a flat Midwest neighborhood where the only other elevation was the three-foot embankment at the tracks. We sledded down the hill in the winter and flew kites in the field in the spring. I don’t remember anyone ever getting in trouble for going through the fence. I remember my Dad being with us, hauling sleds and fixing kites. We knew the hill was made from dirt scooped out from grave sites, but that was no big deal. We played outside a lot, every day, all by ourselves. That was no big deal, either.

Halloween was a big deal.

I’d ponder for weeks what I’d be. My mom didn’t sew, so costumes were borrowed or bought or improvised. The store-bought ones were cheap fabric jump suits with brittle plastic full-face masks. They never seemed to meet my expectations, not so much as to quality or durability, but as a matter of pure aesthetics. To my way of thinking, a proper costume was supposed to make you look like the whatever or whoever you were supposed to be. Too many store-bought ones had ok masks but thoroughly pointless jump suits. Instead of imitating the clothes or body of the whatever they were supposed to be, they’d just have a picture or logo of the whatever on the costumes’ chest. Well, what the heck was the point of that? I wanted to look like whatever, not look like I liked whatever! I liked to stare at the pages in the Sears catalog where they showed wonderful costumes, no jump suits, but real costumes: princesses and Miss Americas and cowgirls. I’d go back to that page over and over again, imagining myself in first one and then another. Someone told me the costumes were pretty cheesy, seams glued instead of sewn so they’d fall apart if you tried to wash them. I accepted that, but it didn’t dim my ardor. I’d still go back to that page over and over again.

I never got a Sears catalog costume, but I remember when my favorite outfit was a cowgirl suit. I couldn’t have been much older than five or six, maybe even younger. I have no idea where it came from. I had the fringed blouse and skirt, and maybe the hat, too. I know I didn’t have gun belt or boots, dastardly omissions that, despite my pleading, were never rectified. Of course, I never got a rocking horse either, but I’ll save that story for a therapist.

I wore my cowgirl outfit a lot. I wore it when we went to see Santa Claus at the Fair Store downtown on State Street. One whole upper floor of the Fair Store was a kiddy wonderland, with carnival rides and all sorts of dandy stuff. We were standing in line to see Santa, when up walks a Cowboy. Full regalia, wonderful twang. He walked passed all the other kids and came over to talk to me. And there I was, about up to his knee, in my yellow fringed shirt and brown skirt. I got all shy and tongue-tied, ’cause he was talking to me just like I was a real cowgirl like him and I knew he was real and I was just pretending. But it was pretty cool, nonetheless.

I don’t remember ever being a cowgirl for Halloween, though. Maybe I’d outgrown the clothes by the time Halloween rolled around again, or maybe I didn’t want to waste my dress-up night wearing an outfit I could wear any time. I’d ask someone if I did wear it, but I’ll wager no one in the family remembers that outfit but me.

My mom didn’t sew, but lots of people in our extended family did. And I mean extended. We had relatives like folks just don’t have relatives anymore, especially on my Mother’s side. Dad’s big concentration of family was way up in the middle of Wisconsin. We knew they were there, but we didn’t see so much of them, except for Dad’s sisters and his parents.

The Schuch family, on the other hand, was huge and nearby. Mom’s parents had died before we were born. They were immigrants, same as my Dad’s folks, only from Austria instead of Poland. Off the boat from the Old Country, is what we’d call them then. Mom and Dad’s generation was the first to be born in America and not on a farm. That was nothing unusual in mid-century Chicago. We’d ask other kids, “What are you?” and they’d say Irish or German or Latvian or Italian, no hyphenated anything. Those of us with two nationalities, like our Polish and Austrian, were not uncommon, but still a minority. And we’d all look with wonder at kids like Jeannie who could rattle of half a dozen or more nationalities, or kids who didn’t even know how long ago their relatives had come off the boat, or kids who could trace a family tree back generation after generation. For a lot of us, what we knew of family history went back as far as the boat, period. Anything earlier was in the realm of folklore and legend.

Grandma and Grandpa Schuch had seven kids who lived to adulthood, all but one of whom lived in Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s. All seven were married and had kids, some a couple, some a considerable number, like Uncle Ed and Aunt Dolores who had eleven. Family gatherings in small apartments or post-war houses got unwieldly pretty early in the game, so for most of my youth, Schuch family parties were held in the rental hall behind Ringbauer’s tavern.

Christmas was the biggie, with lots of food, presents for all the kids, some uncle or cousin drafted into playing Santa and Uncle Harvey’s ancient artificial Christmas tree. Older than Baby Jesus that tree was, moth-eaten, spindly and pathetic, and all of maybe three feet tall. But every year, it’d come out of the box along with the Santa suit. And we’d all watch Uncle Harvey set up the tree, eat and drink, dance polkas and do skits, snigger some more about the tree, help in the kitchen and sneak peaks through the kitchen door into dim and mysterious Dad’s world of the tavern out front. We’d sing “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” along with Gene Autry on the Wurlitzer and dance a Hokey Pokey or two. The littlest kids would lay out an invisible running track in a big oval around the room, and run or toddle continuously, never stopping except — maybe — for Santa or food until they collapsed asleep on the coats piled up on chairs along the wall. I don’t remember being a runner, but I must have been. Every other little kid was.

The Schuchs still have a Christmas party every year, fifty-ish years after they started. It moved out of the back of Ringbauer’s long ago, first to a church basement in Kenosha and then to a volunteer firemen’s hall just outside of the next town north of there. There’s no glorious bubbling Wurlitzer and no more funky tree; I believe the duck dance replaced the Hokey Pokey a while back. But the last time I made it to one, the little kids were still running laps around the hall.

Christmas wasn’t the only time to party. When the Schuch brothers and sisters were younger, there were lots of parties. Uncle Harvey and Aunt Caroline had home movies of parties at Ringbauer’s from back when we were too young to remember. At the Halloween parties, all the adults were in costume, and, by appearances, all having a rowdy good time. I was quite impressed with one shot of my own sweet mother dressed like a hobo and drunk as a skunk. I don’t remember us in the movies; maybe by the time Uncle Harvey was brave enough to crack out the camera we were already asleep in a heap of coats somewhere, or maybe I just don’t remember. It was a long time ago. The movies were ruined in a basement flood back in the ’70s, long before films were routinely copied to videotape. Too bad. But at least the flood got that creepy little Christmas tree, too.

Halloween costumes for adults, like the hobo outfit, were improvised from whatever was on hand plus a little burnt cork, or hand sewn by one of the aunts, then passed from uncle to uncle or aunt to aunt. I remember a wonderful Italianate clown costume my dad wore, and a Superman suit, too. I remember a snapshot of the five of us all dressed for a party. Dad’s clown costume is gold and cream satin, and Mom is done up like an Italian Gypsy. I don’t remember what us three girls were wearing. I do remember thinking I looked cuter than Big Sister.

My absolute favorite home-sewn hand-me-down costume was the Little Dutch Girl. It had a blue dress and a white apron and a wig with a little white hat. The yarn wig had bangs and big thick yellow braids that must have gone down to my waist. I couldn’t wait to wear it, but I was eight before I was big enough. I know I was eight because that was the year we drove around Lake Michigan. In Holland, Michigan, we visited a store that sold wooden shoes. I knew I was going to be the Little Dutch Girl, and I wanted those shoes! I didn’t get them. I still think they would have been great. Ah, well, another story for the therapist.

My next most memorable costume was a collaboration between me and my mother. My sister and our friends an I were big into Barbies those days, but eternally light on cash, so we’d improvise our own doll clothes. Somewhere along the line we’d started wrapping flimsy square scarves (not the serviceable cotton kerchiefs, the nylon ones that were so much more fashionable) around Barbie for a toga-like effect. I have no idea where we got the idea; maybe it was the influence of all those Biblical epics at the movies those days. I really liked the toga-girl thing, so I got the idea that I could create the same look for myself by wrapping up in a bed sheet. So Ma gave me a sheet and I wrapped myself up just the way we’d wrap the doll, but the danged sheet didn’t work on me the same way the scarves worked on Barbie. I fiddled and fussed with it, alternating between frustration and despair, knowing that we’d have to leave soon for the party, and not knowing what else to do. I’d all but given up when Ma lifted a trailing edge from the waist and pinned it to the shoulder. It worked. We picked one fold out of the cascade and pinned gold rick-rack to it. It was perfect. I loved it. I walked around all night feeling like I was queen of the Nile. Come to think of it, I still like wrapping myself in scarves.

The Schuch costume parties usually weren’t on Halloween itself. Halloween had to be held in reserve as the night of the Sacred and Holy Candy Grab.

Without a doubt, trick or treating was the reason for the season, but that is not to say it was a piece of cake. My biggest problem was with the weather. I don’t care how beautiful the weather had been for all of October or how it would be for any of November, Halloween night stays in my memory as inevitably rainy or cold or both. Now, as you might suspect, I was a bit fussy about my costume. Why, in the name of Chocolate, would I want to put a COAT over my carefully chosen costume? What in the world was the point of that? Completely out of the question, Ma. Ma, of course, did not share my views on the subject. Unfortunately for me, my mother not only was and is as stubborn as I am, but back then she was bigger than me, too. So I had to wear the danged coat, grumbling all the way. Even over the Little Dutch Girl I had to wear a coat. There was no justice, but at least there was loot.

Other kids were ghosts and pirates, hobos, princesses, gypsies, spacemen made out of boxes and tin foil, clowns, comic book characters or anything else they could dream up. We had spooky ones, too — skeleton suits and Frankenstein and the Mummy, Dracula and witches, too. Some kids would have arrows through their heads or bloody knifes stuck into their shirts, but I can’t remember anything on par with modern movie characters like the Elm Street guy or the creep in the hockey mask.

I suppose I hardly need to say that trick or treat now isn’t like trick or treat was. I suppose we must have been supervised or toted door to door when we were really, really little, but honestly I don’t remember it happening. No cars followed at the curb, no parents at the door with you, only little packs of little kids running door to door marveling at a universe that could produce so much bounty for so little effort. No special dates or times were set aside for trick or treating. If it was Halloween, day or night, you had the right to stand on a front porch hollering “trick or treat!” No doorbell ringing; grown-ups used doorbells, kids stood on the porch and yelled. Mostly though, we’d wait till after school and after dark. That was the time for the real action, and none of this adult supervision stuff, neither.

We went to every house on every block until we reached our “out without escort” geographical limit, or had so much stuff we had to go home and dump it. Apples of course, full-sized candy bars, homemade treats, even pennies or the occasional nickel. My mom often made up something special, like ghost candy pops. Does anyone still call them suckers? We’d drape a white paper napkin over one, tie it around the stick and draw a ghost face on it. Once we gave out homemade popcorn balls, orangy-tinted and wrapped in waxed paper. If we ran out of food treats, we’d give nickels instead, maybe wrapped in a twist of waxed paper so they’d have a little style. Ma liked to jazz stuff up that way.

One year on 86th Street, we were heading out to Grandma and Grandpa Heyman’s right after trick or treat. (Sensible people that they were, my parents recognized the futility of leaving before trick or treat.) I know I was little, ’cause Baby Sister wasn’t born yet. I might have been pre-school. Big sister and I got back from trick or treating, exhausted, cranky and ready to sleep in the car all the way to Wisconsin. But first we had to deal with the loot. Each of us had two full paper grocery bags full of goodies. Imagine that, a couple of preschoolers out on their own after dark grossing four grocery bags’ worth of unsuspicious loot. Amazing. We struck a deal with Dad that we’d each bring one bag with us and leave one at home for later. Or maybe we just thought we bargained with Dad. I’ll bet he’d already had that planned before we even got home.

We were older when we lived on 84th, so our range was wider. All us kids were hardy walkers. No soccer moms in this neighborhood, a lot of moms didn’t know how to drive, mine included, and even if they could drive, few families could afford an extra car. We walked or biked to school and to our friends’ houses and to the stores over on Kedzie Avenue, half a mile away, without a second thought. One year, I’ll bet I was only eight or nine, we discovered institutional trick or treating. We walked all the way up to Kedzie Avenue, sashayed into the Saving and Loan, and, to our delight, breezed out with candy. The Jewel Food Store gave us candy, the insurance guy gave us candy, and sweetest of all, the bakery gave us each two hot fresh donuts a piece. Kid bliss. I didn’t eat both donuts, I carefully brought one home and presented it to my dad so he could have it for breakfast in the morning. I remember him looking a little nonplused. Every year after that we made sure to hit the bakery, but we never got donuts again. Maybe we told too many other kids, or maybe the word just got around.

Word always got around on the houses that gave the good stuff. Nickels were good, pennies were ok, boxes of raisins, blech, who cares. I never did like raisins, nor candy corn neither. Hershey’s kisses were great, full-sized chocolate bars were heaven on earth. Rolls of Sweet Tarts and Necco wafers were pretty good, too, even if they weren’t chocolate.

One house on the next block always put a big bowl of candy out on the front steps. Kids would run up, take a piece or two, and run on to the next house. I’m not sure if they weren’t home or they didn’t want to be answering the door all night. One thing is for sure, if you weren’t going to be answering the door, the place better look like nobody was home or, depending on the hour, that everyone had gone to bed. Otherwise, kids would still be trouping up to your door all night, and the later it got, the older the kids would be. Who knows, you might wake up in the next morning to find your house or car splattered with eggs or your windows soaped or your shrubbery t.p.ed.

Another house farther up the street was much older than any of the other houses in the neighborhood. It looked like a farm house, and might well have been one before the surrounding farmland was turned into post-war housing. It was surrounded by what the real estate folks like to call “mature landscaping” — lots of big, dark trees and bushes — old people lived in it, and we were scared of it. I don’t remember ever trick or treating there. I do seem to remember some kids did and said the old lady in the house was nice and had good stuff. Maybe that was me, even, or maybe I just made up a story about the house in my head. I’d do that when I was a kid. Sometimes I’m not quite sure if I’m remembering what happened or remembering one of my stories.

Us kids liked to have our own Halloween parties, too. The best part was if you made your basement into a little haunted house and brought your pals through it blindfolded. We had some ingenious special effects, the most memorable of which was the cold spaghetti that substituted for a plateful of worms.

We started having parties when we were at the age when we weren’t sure if we still wanted to go trick or treating or not. Oh, we wanted the loot, sure, but we did not want to be thought of as little kids anymore. If we’d put aside our misgivings and go anyway, it was in the company of a few close friends our own age. None of this running out the door and joining the first batch kids that went by, no sir. We’d go in threes or fours, a little embarrassed and always a little underdressed. After all, a big elaborate costume meant you were planning on going trick or treating, right? I remember when I took a tour of door duty, the older boys would look like they had done nothing more than rumple their clothes and smear some burnt cork on their faces.

One year Big Sister and I dressed up as Sonny and Cher. This was when they were first making it big, not later during the glitzy TV show years. I had long dark hair, Big Sister had chin-length fair hair, and was a couple of inches shorter than me to boot. Perfect. We raided various closets to put together cool outfits, slathered a whole bunch of eye makeup on me and headed over to the Halloran’s basement, half a block away. We must have gotten home pretty late, though, ’cause Dad was waiting for us. He yelled, we cried. The corker was when he turned on me and said “and you, young lady, staying out till all hours dressed like that, with all that makeup — I never want to see you wear makeup like that again.” I snapped. “Daaad, it’s Halloween! That was my costume. We were over in Kathy Halloran’s basement, just us and Jeannie and Cathy and Kathy and her mom, and Mrs. Halloran helped me take off all that eye gunk anyway, ’cause it got all messed up when we bobbed for apples!” Dad got real quiet after that and told us to clean up and go to bed. I never heard anything about makeup or clothes from him again.

I don’t remember a whole lot of other special traditions for Halloween. We did carve a jack o’ lantern every year with elaborate ritual requiring careful assessment of pumpkins for sale, many layers of newspaper, on the kitchen table, and many kid’s hands willing to scoop out slimey, stringy guts and seeds. About every other year, we’d try to roast the seeds, a messy and tedious job not quite worth the payout, in my opinion, but mine was but one voice, so about every other year we’d give it another shot. While us kids were busy disemboweling the sacrificial squash, Dad would draw a face out on newspaper, austere in its simplicity, but always with something unexpected like almond eyes or shell-like ears. The pattern pieces would be cut out and traced onto the pumpkin; the actual carving was done by Dad. The finished product would sit on a table in the middle of the picture window, facing outward for all the neighborhood to see. I would fuss over the candle. I liked to have the lid on the jack o’ lantern. Usually, I was out of luck; if the squash was too squat or the candle too tall, the flame would singe the lid. But sometimes I’d luck out, and the lid would stay on until Ma thought it was a fire hazard and took it off.

I still carve a mean pumpkin. It’s the cheap fillet knife, you see, the blade’s flexible enough to make good curves. And a serrated grapefruit spoon is the Gods’ gift to pumpkin disembowelment. But I never, ever try to save the seeds.

Copyright © 1999, 2005 c.e., Phaedra Bonewits. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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