“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us! —- Scottish saying
There were snow flurries in Chicago this morning. Winds at 25 miles per hour, gusting higher, will be howling all day. It’s Halloween, and Halloweeny weather arrived right on cue.
Did the sun ever shine on Halloween when I was a kid? Surely it must have, but I only recall dreary drizzle and cold blustery winds. Even so, Halloween was second only to Christmas for kid fun and hoopla. We scrounged up our costumes from a box of old clothes in the basement. Those pathetic ensembles sold at Kresge’s? No one over the age of four would stoop to wearing one of those. Really, would Frankenstein really have his name and face on his own shirt? It seemed that every family on our block owned one reasonably presentable costume. One year, my mother made a scarecrow costume for my dad to wear to an adult block party. Every year afterwards, one of us Dineens was a scarecrow. The Tyrrells had a Chinese coolie costume— maybe not so politically correct. Every year, another Tyrrell, another Chinese coolie.
We trick-or-treated for hours, carrying our loot in old pillowcases, and avoiding houses that gave out popcorn balls or — ugh! — apples. When word spread that some old lady was giving out full-sized Hershey Bars, we stampeded. In a neighborhood where our family of seven was on the average side, my mother kept busy at our door. She insisted that we stop in at home midway through our plundering and dump out our rejects to fortify her dwindling supply. Those peanut butter chew things wrapped in black or orange waxy paper? They were recycled into our handout bowl.
First, we each hoarded our own collection of goodies. When it came to Hershey Bars or Three Musketeers, no one was sharing. Once our stash dwindled down, though, it all went into a communal bowl and through November, the selection shrunk. Snickers, Milky Ways, Mounds, Baby Ruths, Almond Joys disappeared. Then, we nibbled our way through the Turkish Taffy, Tootsie Rolls, Bazooka Bubble Gum, Pixy Stix, and Safety Pops. Finally, the rejects– wintergreen discs or root beer barrels– would linger at the bottom of the bowl until my mother tossed them in the trash and reclaimed her Pyrex for Thanksgiving Day mashed potatoes.
My nostalgia for Halloween ended when my kids were of trick-or-treat age. My self-imposed Mom report card looked pretty good in most categories, but as a creator of Halloween costumes, I barely earned a D+.
Sure, one year I made adorable matching mouse costumes for my kids. With a neighbor’s help, an easy pattern, and some pink and blue flannel, I managed to transform my little ones into cunning cuties and even had some usable pajamas after the big day. But in the process, I drove my neighbor, a true seamstress, nuts. She was all about even hems, edged inseams, and ironing. I was all about shoving fabric willy-nilly through the sewing machine and being done.
“Here, Ellen,” Margie instructed, “after you stitch the seams, open them up, press them flat with a warm iron, and then we’ll do a running stitch along their edges. Then it’ll look nice and finished.”
I rolled my eyes. “But it’s on the inside. Who cares how the insides look?”
“Well, I do. And you don’t want them to fall apart, do you?”
“Margie, I don’t care if they fall apart. These costumes only have to last around the block on Halloween. Let’s get this over with.”
Margie sighed, unwilling to lower herself to my standards of stitchery. “I can’t work like this,” she said. We tug-of-warred over the little pieces of fabric, but ultimately I won – sloppy seams, crooked hems, and all. Our friendship survived, but she never let me near her tricked-out Singer again.
So, I was left to my own devices. Our photo albums are mysteriously devoid of cute Halloween pictures. With a limited budget, and an even-more-limited imagination, I preferred not to chronicle my failures for posterity. We did the usual gypsy, cowboy, and witch, dragging items out of a bag of family cast-offs at the eleventh hour. As a teacher, I was chronically up to my eyeballs in grading and report cards with Halloween’s arrival coinciding with the end of a school quarter. Sitting up until the wee hours crafting a costume was not going to happen, not until I got all the worksheets graded.
But to my credit, I, Incompetent Mother, never lowered myself to purchase those sad little pieces of nasty, non-flame-retardant polyester. The Halloween stores that now spring up in every strip mall didn’t exist, and store-bought costumes in the eighties were just as tawdry as those Caspers and Tinkerbelles of my childhood. Once, I succumbed to an easy way out and bought a mask for my son. His voice muffled behind the fake face, he wailed, “Mom, I can’t see a thing!” and promptly walked into a mailbox post. After trick-or-treating, he threw up, sick from breathing the petrochemical fumes oozing from the plastic strapped to his little face. No, I vowed while mopping up vomit, my kids were never again going to wear store-bought disguises, and become walking advertising for my Halloween deficiencies.
So, each October, stomach in knots, I stewed over the impending holiday, while those Competent Mothers were buzzing happily along at their sewing machines, turning yards of tulle into Swan Lake-worthy tutus, stuffing batting into the arms of glossy robots like those straight out of Universal Studios backlots. Their Big Birds were laden with meticulously placed feathers, their Raggedy Anns adorably authentic.
“Matthew’s dragon costume is coming along so well!” I’d hear from another mom sitting next to me at a soccer game. “I was up all night sewing on the scales by hand, but he is so happy, and I’m having so much fun!”
“Really! It sounds adorable!” I’d squeal, suppressing the urge to choke her. This woman actually likes Halloween, I marveled. Well, I can’t help it if I don’t sew, I consoled myself. For me, a few scraggly knee patches stitched onto jeans meant scarecrow.
Then some non-sewing Competent Mom would gush, “I’m so excited about the school bus I’m making for Jacob to wear,” and I’d clasp my hands together so I wouldn’t slap her. A school bus? She’s making her kid into a school bus? Inside, I wept in despair.
Apparently, even Competent Moms who weren’t handy with a needle and thread didn’t let that stop them. Imagination is all it takes, they insisted. An old cardboard box, a glue gun, and some spray-paint, and they transformed their kids into walking, talking refrigerators, TV sets, rocket ships. Why didn’t I think of that? I dunno, but I sure didn’t. Like Cinderella’s fairy godmother, Competent Moms waved a magic wand, turning grocery bags into teddy bears or palm trees. And they actually enjoyed it. Where was my magic wand? If I fashioned something out of an old sheet, it looked like an old sheet, usually covered in bedroomy, flowery prints, not the all-purpose white.
Year after year, I muddled through, until my kids were too old for the annual ritual. But I still shudder when I contemplate the damage I may have done to their self-esteem. Sure, they seem to be well-adjusted adults, but did Halloween conjure up childhood horrors? I can’t bring myself to ask them.
A couple years ago, I overheard the new generation of mothers, including my daughter, expressing angst over putting their offspring into acceptable Halloween garb. What they are complaining about, I wondered. With a swipe of a credit card or a click of a mouse, they can get respectable-looking Halloween regalia. Plus, Pinterest — where was that when I needed it?
These moms have their won challenges.
“My five-year-old wants to dress like an ax murderer, and carry a bloody ax.”
“And Lily wants to be a rock star… but everything they sell looks like hooker clothes.”
“Audrey wants a costume that cost ninety dollars.”
“Well, here’s what I do,” said one mom. “I tell them that everything must center on a plastic garbage bag; they can choose a white one or a black one. ‘Let your imagination run wild,’ I tell them.” The other moms gaped.
A garbage bag? What could that be, I wondered. A hockey puck? A black-eyed pea? A hard-boiled egg? A snowball?
Well, even I never scarred my kids for life by dressing them in a Hefty.
But, Honey, you’re my kind of mom!