Halloween used to be my favorite holiday, even as an adult – costumes, candy, potential mayhem – in the best season of the year, complete with pumpkins and clever cobwebby decorations – what’s not to like? But as I get older and increasingly curmudgeonly, I chaff over any holiday, considering them all “enforced celebrations.” Nobody’s going to tell me when to have fun. Not at my age. Still I will admit, I was thrilled when I came home recently and was greeted at the front door by a familiar large light blue ghost. Years ago, my husband Rick had drawn and cut this phantom out of plywood. He asked our young daughter what color she wanted it to be. “Blue,” she immediately replied. “A blue ghost?” I asked. Rick painted his creation light blue and you know what? It worked. Now white ghosts look wrong to me. They, pardon the pun, pale in comparison. Ours has two sides: my favorite is the one that has an O for a mouth.
Rick also put up some other old Halloween decorations inside the house, including pumpkin lights, a black and orange garland on the lighting fixture above the dining room table, a large plastic spider web and the really amateurish plywood cutouts I painted decades ago for our young daughter, both politically incorrect: a hunchback with a wonky eye, a stereotypical witch with a wart on her nose – let’s face it, neither is a light blue ghost.
Even as a kid in Brooklyn, stuck in a crappy store-bought pink princess costume at a party where all the kids had the coolest get ups: a rock star with a real guitar, a hippie with a mini dress, psychedelic stockings and a flower painted on her cheek. One of my classmates came late – dressed as an accident victim complete with crutches, an arm sling and “bloody” skull bandages. Discouraged, I took off the babyish dress and tiara and sat in my street clothes alone on a nubby couch. Still I enjoyed the festivities: the older brother who lunged from the depths of the closet as we hung up our coats, all the kids bobbing for apples (even though I bit my own lip and possibly someone else’s) the mother telling a ghost story about the gangsters of Canarsie – at the end of which, another brother dressed as a dead mobster burst through the basement window.
Halloween was always fun, including the year I had my full candy bag snatched by an older boy, who was shocked when I gave chase. I was just about up to him when one of my friends called out to me, “What are you gonna do when you catch him?” I stopped, he looked back at me and ran off. My brother Arnie heard what happened and we went back out, past my mother’s curfew, to get more candy while Arnie harangued our neighbors, “Awww, give the kid some more, she just got her bag stolen.” And some of them, tired out from crowds of ghosts and cartoon heroes, dumped their leftovers into the pillow case Arnie had brought, and called it a night. I came home with almost as much as I originally had.
Each year, I’d spread out my bounty on the worn navy-blue living room rug, stingily giving my brother Arnie his favorite Tootsie Rolls and whatever else I didn’t care for: Mary Janes, Good and Plentys, Charleston Chews.
Then as I got older, one teenaged Halloween afternoon, my friend Rita and I decided to come up with costumes for a party we’d been invited to that evening. She dressed as a little girl in pigtails and baby doll pajamas, holding a teddy bear. I was her “bubbe” with a stuffed bosom as large as a garbage barge, pillow-bloated belly and butt, powdered hair and a shmatta – one of my mother’s old scarves – on my head. Talk about typecasting: Rita’s exaggerated feminine helplessness and me acting as protective overseer as I did when guys who wanted her approached us as we snuck underage into bars. On our walk over to our friend’s party, a half-naked guy dressed as baby New Year in a blonde wig and diaper ran after me, yelling “I love you!!! I love you!!!” He was really cute but let’s say I was not feeling particularly attractive. I was shocked that he didn’t even seem to notice Rita and I bet she was too. At the party, I was particularly impressed by a petite woman dressed in a perfect homemade elf’s costume.
In later teen years there were the Frank Zappa Halloween shows at the Felt Forum. I still remember a guy outside Madison Square Garden – next to The Forum – walking an invisible dog on a bobbing leash.
Another time, a guy dressed up as a banana, which became my dream costume for years after, a dream, alas, never realized.
Then there was the show itself, with costumed band members: the drummer, Terry Bozio, outfitted as Satan singing, “I am the Devil, do you understand?” The year after Gregg Allman had, to the astonishment and chagrin of Allman Brothers’ fans, married a pop icon, Frank Zappa came out, wearing a log black wig, his skinny bare chest exposed in a glittery evening gown, introduced the band and said, “And me, on lead guitar, Cher Allman.”
Some years had a few dirty tricks (like the stolen candy bag and the time my friend and I encountered an actual flasher) but most were delightful treats and I wanted my daughter to love Halloween as much as I did. But as a toddler, she was scared and baffled by the holiday. I dressed as an angel when she was three, to try to get her into the spirit of things as I prepared her to go trick or treating for the first time. She helped “make” her own costume – a Russian doll, which she constructed with layers of colorful clothes. Nobody knew what she was but she was so cute, it didn’t matter. She didn’t want to ring the doorbells so Rick and I rang for her. She was too shy to greet anyone, so we called out, “Trick or Treat!” for her. When our neighbors came to their doors to give her candy, she opened her little change purse and solemnly offered them pennies in exchange. She didn’t understand why they would give her candy for free. She refused to proceed any further in this strange enterprise so the neighbors just gave her more: she got eight pieces of candy from two houses.
One Halloween afternoon, when she was around seven, I took my daughter in search of fun. There was none to be had: it was too early. We drove back home, discouraged. And there was Rick on the lawn in a witch’s hat raking leaves. We all joyfully jumped into the leaf piles – I still cherish those pictures.
As my daughter got older, she grew into the holiday. She hardly had a choice – I served her Cream of Wheat dyed orange for Halloween breakfast. Her lunch had fake spiders or flies in it. There were more than the usual cobwebs around the house. And I watched the only Martha Stewart show I ever have – the one on Halloween. True, the kids looked terrified – of her, I think. (Note: I like Martha, I’m just lazy.) But I learned how to make “piña ghouladas” complete with glasses rimmed with blood made from Caro syrup and red food dye, and graveyard cupcakes – half a Milano cookie makes a good tombstone. I froze radishes I had peeled to look like eyeballs with olives as irises. And into her college years, I made her “finger cookies,” sugar cookies shaped like fingers scored like knuckles. The fingernails were almonds, painted red with dyed Caro syrup.
When I was class mom and brought the finger cookies in a black plastic cauldron with ground up Oreos as dirt, none of the kids would try any after a child asked Rick if the cookies were actually real fingers and he replied, “Only one.”
My daughter is living with her roommates in an apartment in a big city and they have made their own traditions, which includes a surfeit of fairy lights and old cardboard decorations from my family, including Mr. Bones, a jointed skeleton missing part of one arm. I no longer have to dress as an old woman – I am one. But I still thrill to the sight of a good spooky lawn scene and if the only thing that goes bump in the night is me banging into my dresser on my way to the bathroom, it’s all good.