“The Ghost of Halloween Past”

A Memoir by Jill Evans

When I was a kid on Long Island in the ’60s no one ever wondered what characters their parents were going to be for Halloween. Unlike Memorial Day, when families went to the beach together, or July Fourth, when all the neighborhood adults had barbecues, set off fireworks, and got drunk on Schaefer beer, Halloween was reserved for the 13-and-under crowd.

Costumes, too, were a kids-only affair. The ritual of dragging my parents down to the local discount store every October to peruse the messy costume section required a strong stomach. 

By the time we got there, most of the good costumes were gone. This was due in no small part to my father’s insistence that we wait for the crowds to disperse. Fifteen minutes before closing there my sisters and I would be looking over the boxes of ripped tutus and oversized Lily Munster dresses, each containing a plastic mask that would get stuck to our faces and make it hard to breathe. 

For me, the trip was always mixed with a feeling of embarrassment and annoyance. Embarrassment at possibly not being able to find my size and annoyance that the flimsiness of even the most expensive costumes guaranteed that it would be in shreds by Halloween night’s end.

When the shelves were completely bare, I improvised: A white sheet made me a ghost; a black evening dress transformed me into a witch; an old Eisenhower jacket and voila! I was a World War II staff sergeant. 

When I was 12 I decided to be a pirate and assembled a hodgepodge of homemade items, then modeled the costume for my mother.

“You look more like Paul Revere than you do a pirate,” she said.

“That’s because this tricorn hat doesn’t fit right. Won’t you please let me paint a skull and crossbones on the front?”

My mother’s lips pursed. “Absolutely not,” she said. “We bought that hat in Boston, and it cost a lot of money. Why don’t you just pretend you’re a Founding Father?”

“Because my vest is red and my white blouse has a raised dot pattern on it. If I was going to be Paul Revere I would have to replace my plastic sword with the pewter mug in the china cabinet.”

“No way,” Mom said, but then offered a solution. “It’s cold outside. Just wear your jacket over everything and bring the sword and hat. No one will ever know the difference.” She was right because for that year, no one ever questioned what character I was trying to be.

Wearing a costume on Halloween was an opportunity for the kids in the neighborhood to admire or laugh at our friends. No matter the year, my friend Pam was considered the most popular. She had the classic American girl look for the ’60s: straight blond hair, blue eyes, porcelain skin, and legs that went on forever. Pam looked good in anything, even if she called herself a potato while wrapped in a chocolate-colored burlap sack.

The vote for the worst costume always went to Gary, who wore the same washing machine box wrapped in aluminum foil with three holes cut for his arms and head. I’ll never understand how the box was able to fit him even as he grew from 6 to 9 to 12, but he’d wear it nonetheless. He called himself Robbie the Robot from “Lost in Space” even though my friends and I knew Robbie the Robot appeared in “Forbidden Planet.” Gary knew it too, but this didn’t stop him from repeating the sentence “Danger Will Robinson” each time a door opened to give us treats.

And what treats they were! Unlike today where the stores are filled with bags of candy for Halloween in August, back in the ’60s you took your chances. Too early in October and the shelves would be bare; too close to Halloween and the shelves would be bare, with no restocking possible.

Candy was expensive by today’s standards and made with real sugar. We could purchase everyday penny candy like shoestrings and Atomic Fireballs at the corner soda shop, but the expensive treats could only be found in bulk on Halloween. Each knock on a neighborhood door would bring the possibility of a Chunky bar or a box of Good and Plenty or if you were really lucky, the pièce de résistance of all candies — a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. More often than not, though, I could expect at least a quarter of my pillowcase to be filled with Jolly Ranchers and Bazooka gum with a smattering of candy corn and Mary Janes thrown in.

We didn’t always like the candy we got and took to negotiating. This brought deliberations that could have easily been mistaken for U.S.-Soviet arms talks. “I’ll swap you four Jolly Ranchers for four Bazookas,” Gina would say.

“But I hate Jolly Ranchers,” I’d counter. “They stick to my teeth.”

“Okay, well I have a package of Teaberry gum I don’t like. Will that do?”

Vinnie would jump in. “Hey, wait a minute. I like Teaberry gum. I’ll give you five Bazookas instead of four.”

“How about this,” I’d say to Vinnie. “I’ll give you four Jolly Ranchers for the one Bazooka and give Gina five Bazookas for the Teaberry?” 

And on and on it would go. The good thing was that there was never any lack of product, just quality.

The several blocks around my house were inhabited by young couples with kids, and someone was always home on Halloween. When I was younger, parents would take turns parading groups of kids from one side of the street to the other. But after age 6, we were allowed to go by ourselves, as long as we were in a group. Looking back, I took for granted the feeling of independence I had, not realizing just how special those times were — when at 8 I could ride my bike for blocks and at 10 visit friends who lived 12 streets away without my parents driving me.

On Halloween my friends and I concentrated on a six-block area, which gave us enough time to visit the two apartment complexes at the end of the street. We’d often go there first and walk away with full sacks of candy, which we’d have to drop off at our respective houses before going any farther. Since we all lived within 10 houses of each other, little time was wasted in getting everyone back together, even on school days. The break also left time to grab a quick handful of candy confident in the knowledge that there was more out there for the taking because we competed with no one. We were the neighborhood kids — all 20 of us, in our skeleton and hobo costumes and disguises only a kid could make sense of.

But after a while, everyone grew older and costumes were replaced by Halloween dances at the high school and trips to the movies to see “The Wizard of Gore.” 

Sometimes, I chose to stay home with my parents and watch “Bonanza” episodes or “Laugh-In.” Back then I got to an age where it was better to spend time with my folks rather than make a fool of myself by dressing up and asking for handouts.

Years went by and I rediscovered the holiday through my four children. We’d mirror the same rituals I had gone through: looking for gems in the closets, stumbling across used props like shields and cowboy hats, getting our hands dirty on last year’s makeup kits. And like Halloweens from childhood, there was always the ritual of going to the store to see what costumes they had in stock. Though K-Mart had better materials and props than what I remembered, I found I still needed a strong stomach. Some things never change.

My children too discovered the joy of making their own costumes. I recall the day my 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, decided to be an elf. She used all of her creative energy to assemble something that would both wow and excite her fifth-grade class. She began by considering how she could use a pillowcase that had been dyed green for a spring celebration. It didn’t matter that the pillowcase fit like an oversized sack. Sarah decided she wasn’t going to let imperfection slow her down even as I pleaded with her. 

“Please,” I said, “Let’s just go see what the store has to offer.” She shook her head. Her stubbornness took hold, and I had to remind myself that her favorite saying was always, “I will do it.”

Along with the green pillowcase, she slipped on a pair of brown vinyl pants that had been part of a superhero costume the year before, and wrapped a silver disco-belt I had hidden in my closet around her tiny waist. She asked me what I thought. 

“The outfit looks great,” I lied. “But it’s way too big for you.” This was meant to dissuade her but my argument fell on deaf ears.

She left the room and a few moments later reappeared with a plastic bow tie clipped to the top of the pillowcase where her head poked through.

I was dumbfounded; it didn’t resemble any Halloween creature I’d ever seen. I fully expected her to reach for some leftover wrapping paper and duct tape to add to the outfit, but she declared she was done. 

“What are you?” I asked. She spun around and looked me in the eyes with the kind of determined stare children reserve for their mothers and said, “I’m a wood elf.”

I eyed her up and down. “Well, you’re definitely wood,” I surmised. “But what’s with the bow tie?”

“It’s part of the outfit,” she said unapologetically. I sighed. Pee-wee Herman was getting to be way too much of an influence.

Proud at her accomplishment, Sarah went to school that day in her improvised costume and took part in the annual Halloween parade. I didn’t know if her peers would talk among themselves about who had the best and least favorite costumes like my friends and I used to do, but she fit in just the same.

Parents gathered to watch the parade and some of them wore costumes too. I put my head against the wire fence separating the children from the adults and looked at the earth under our feet knowing that in that moment something filled with childish wonder was slipping away.

My thoughts were confirmed when I took Sarah trick- or-treating. Very few people were home and some, though home, didn’t answer their doors. Sarah only got a few handfuls of candy that day. To compensate, I decided to go to the local market for some treats for her and my other children. All of the shelves were fully stocked and when we went to pay the man behind the counter was dressed in a New York Yankees costume.

As we drove home, I noticed the streets were empty, with only a few children out trick-or-treating. I glanced in my rearview mirror and caught Sarah looking down at her hands. My brave wood elf, I thought. She had not changed, but something intrinsic had changed around her. She didn’t know it yet, but I did. I did.

 


Jill Evans teaches creative writing at Suffolk Community College.