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
I wrote a letter about Halloween the other
day, the Halloween I loved when I was a kid. Its 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; wed marvel at the fact that wed
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. Im 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 Kubricks 2001 was in the future. And I realized, no
ones 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 wouldnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 theyd 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 Blochs 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 arms 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 wouldnt 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 couldnt 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. Its just men in skeleton
suits, theyd say. I know, Id answer.
No, really, even in the movie, theyre just men who
dress up like skeletons. Ok, Id say,
But Im still staying here. I did emerge to
watch Phantom. I thought it was great. But it didnt change
my mind about scary movies. I admit, though, I watch House on
Haunted Hill or 13 Ghosts on cable now and love them.
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, were surrounded by cemeteries.
Ok, a little lame, but in the school yard you dont worry
much about being too hip for the room.
||Some things didnt 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.
We could walk to the graves, and sometimes
did, of our maternal grandparents and of the older brother whod
died soon after birth. In the spring youd put flowers out
on the graves and in the fall youd 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. Wed make sure to get
a holy card with the deceaseds 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 couldnt 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 wed
been up on the tracks. I guess they thought wed 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 didnt
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
hadnt been built yet, prairies we called them, and over
in the cemetery in the huge back sections that hadnt been,
well, hadnt 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 dont 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.
Id ponder for weeks what Id be.
My mom didnt 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, theyd
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. Id 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 theyd fall apart if you tried to wash them.
I accepted that, but it didnt dim my ardor. Id 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 couldnt
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 didnt have gun
belt or boots, dastardly omissions that, despite my pleading,
were never rectified. Of course, I never got a rocking horse
either, but Ill 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 dont remember ever being a cowgirl
for Halloween, though. Maybe Id outgrown the clothes by
the time Halloween rolled around again, or maybe I didnt
want to waste my dress-up night wearing an outfit I could wear
any time. Id ask someone if I did wear it, but Ill
wager no one in the family remembers that outfit but me.
My mom didnt sew, but lots of people
in our extended family did. And I mean extended. We had relatives
like folks just dont have relatives anymore, especially
on my Mothers side. Dads big concentration of family
was way up in the middle of Wisconsin. We knew they were there,
but we didnt see so much of them, except for Dads
sisters and his parents.
The Schuch family, on the other hand, was
huge and nearby. Moms parents had died before we were born.
They were immigrants, same as my Dads folks, only from
Austria instead of Poland. Off the boat from the Old Country,
is what wed call them then. Mom and Dads generation
was the first to be born in America and not on a farm. That was
nothing unusual in mid-century Chicago. Wed ask other kids,
What are you? and theyd 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 wed all look with wonder at kids
like Jeannie who could rattle of half a dozen or more nationalities,
or kids who didnt 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 Ringbauers tavern.
Christmas was the biggie, with lots of food,
presents for all the kids, some uncle or cousin drafted into
playing Santa and Uncle Harveys 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,
itd come out of the box along with the Santa suit. And
wed 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 Dads world of the tavern out front.
Wed 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 dont 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 Ringbauers long ago, first to a church basement
in Kenosha and then to a volunteer firemens hall just outside
of the next town north of there. Theres 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 wasnt 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 Ringbauers 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 dont 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 dont 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
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. Dads
clown costume is gold and cream satin, and Mom is done up like
an Italian Gypsy. I dont 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 couldnt 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 didnt 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
wed improvise our own doll clothes. Somewhere along the
line wed 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 wed wrap
the doll, but the danged sheet didnt work on me the same
way the scarves worked on Barbie. I fiddled and fussed with it,
alternating between frustration and despair, knowing that wed
have to leave soon for the party, and not knowing what else to
do. Id 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 werent
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 dont
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 cant remember anything on par with modern
movie characters like the Elm Street guy or the creep in the
I suppose I hardly need to say that trick
or treat now isnt 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 dont 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, wed 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? Wed
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, wed give nickels instead, maybe wrapped
in a twist of waxed paper so theyd 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 Heymans 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 wasnt 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 wed each bring one bag with us and leave
one at home for later. Or maybe we just thought we bargained
with Dad. Ill bet hed 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 didnt 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, Ill
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 didnt 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. Hersheys 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 werent 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. Im not sure
if they werent home or they didnt want to be answering
the door all night. One thing is for sure, if you werent
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
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 dont 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. Id do that when I was a kid. Sometimes
Im not quite sure if Im 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 werent 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 wed
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.
Wed 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 Hallorans 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, its Halloween! That was my costume.
We were over in Kathy Hallorans 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 dont 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 kids hands willing to scoop out slimey,
stringy guts and seeds. About every other year, wed 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 wed 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 Id
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. Its the
cheap fillet knife, you see, the blades 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