Halloween in the Spooky Old Woods

As I walk Annie down Birch Street on Halloween, I try to picture kids in costume running from house to house with their bags, the air echoing with “Trick or Treat!”

It’s not gonna happen. I avoid walking through the long dark stretches of forest between houses. What parent is going to let their kids do it? There are bears out there. Besides, the occupants of four out of the five houses on my street qualify for Medicare. No kids. I suspect the kids that do live in the neighborhood go elsewhere to Trick or Treat. They may have already gone to one of the many public events that happened over the last few days. Merchants on the Bayfront are planning to hand out candy this evening. I suppose if I had children, I’d go there.

Halloween here and now is very different from Halloweens back in the 1950s and early ‘60s when I was a kid. We only wore our costumes for one day—Halloween. We wore them to school, then fidgeted around for a few hours until Mom and Dad were ready to take us out Trick or Treating. Our costumes were sometimes homemade—I went once as a sleepwalker in my pajamas, another time as a gypsy in a long skirt with big earrings. Sometimes they were cheesy store-bought costumes of some highly flammable material that itched and offered no warmth. But in San Jose, we didn’t need it. It was warm enough. I remember those masks we used to wear, hooked around our heads with a glorified rubber band. They were scratchy on our cheeks and smelled like whatever we ate. They blocked half our vision, but we didn’t care.

We walked house to house on Fenley Avenue and Ardis, the street behind us, which offered us more than enough houses. Everyone was giving out candy. The adults at the door would peer at us and say, “Is that Susie and Mikie?” and we’re scream “Trick or Treat!” We’d watch the candy dropping into our bags and holler “Thank you!” as we’d been taught. Our friends were doing the same thing, their parents, like ours, waiting on the sidewalk to escort us to the next place.

In those days when we baby boomers were children, nobody worried about crime, razor blades or needles stuck in apples, or any other dangers. We were as safe out there as in our own bedrooms. And oh, the loot. Tootsie rolls, suckers, Life Savers, little Hershey Bars, candy corn, homemade cookies and popcorn balls. Nobody had to check our bags for danger or take out things that weren’t considered healthy. It was all good and it was all ours.

The tradition continued as long as we lived in San Jose, although by the time we were the adults handing out candy, you had to offer factory-wrapped goodies from the store. Anything homemade would be thrown away as unsafe. Parents worried about sugar. Some people gave out toothbrushes or granola bars. What fun is that? Homeowners worried about vandalism. The numbers of kids dwindled as their parents took them to safer events hosted by schools and churches.

Here in Lincoln County, Oregon, kids still go out, but not everywhere. My in-laws used to live in the neighborhood behind the Fred Meyer store off NE 20th Street. Police blocked off those streets and kids came by the hundreds. I can remember years standing outside in cold, wet, windy weather handing out candy. The stream of Trick or Treaters didn’t let up for hours. Fred’s frugal mom offered mini Tootsie Rolls, and we were in trouble if we gave anybody more than one. Of course we did it anyway. The last year she was there, we ran out of candy and turned off the lights. A little later, we found that our car had been “egged.” Our windows were open, and the whites and yolk ran all over the blue velour upholstery. The dog did a pretty good cleanup job, but it soured the evening.

In town today, I didn’t see as many people in costume as I expected. At lunch at Georgie’s, the hostess, one waitress, and one busboy dressed up, but the rest were in their usual black garb. At the J.C. Market, one cashier had multi-colored hair and another appeared to be a witch. Two customers roamed the aisles as some type of zombies. One of them waved at me—I had no idea who she was. Otherwise it was business as usual. I didn’t see any kids at all, unless you count the dozens of kids in costume on Facebook. Here they’d have to a wear jackets over their costumes anyway; it’s expected to get down in the 30s tonight.

These days, out here in the woods with Annie, I don’t expect to see any Trick or Treaters. On our walk, Annie and I saw the neighbors’ chickens, a squirrel, a Pomeranian, and a tuxedo cat, but nobody in costume. I have a string of orange lights up, but no pumpkins, ghosts or other decorations. The kids will be elsewhere, and we old folks at the end of the road will eat the candy we bought just in case. We always make sure it’s the kind we like. I’ve got Tootsie rolls. The big ones. I’m thinking they’d go well with Kahlua.

How was your Halloween? How is it different from when you were a kid?


Despite Death, Halloween Goes On

Today in honor of Halloween, I’m sharing an excerpt from my book Shoes Full of Sand. Only five days before the holiday, my father-in-law, Al, had died suddenly of a stroke. But my mother-in-law, Helen insisted we carry on with Halloween as usual. Almost two decades later, Helen and my husband Fred are gone, but the memory remains. Here’s how it went:

Helen and Al Lick

Halloween found us at Helen’s front door, watching as my sister-in-law Harriet handed out candy, making a fuss over each child and each costume. She crouched down, creating a physical barrier so our dog Sadie couldn’t get out. Fred stood watching from between the stuffed monkeys his mother had placed in the window. His brother Condé sat in a chair in the corner, brooding and drinking. I moved between the door and the kitchen, where I was cooking chicken for dinner. Helen sat in the back room, watching “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” on TV. During the commercials, she came out, squeaking with laryngitis, laughing at the kids.

Every year, the police blocked off the neighborhood east of the Fred Meyer store for Halloween. Hundreds of children came through. Although her husband had just died, Helen didn’t want her house to be dark on Halloween. So we carved pumpkins, helped decorate the house and gathered in the living room to hand out candy.

About 7 o’clock, Janet from my church showed up at the door with her daughter Heather.

“Janet!” I called over Harriet’s head.

She looked confused. She had heard that my father-in-law had died, but we lived on the other end of town. She had no idea that my mother-in-law lived on Crestview or that we would be celebrating Halloween. Now she didn’t know what to say. “Um, Shirley told me what happened,” she said.

“I know. Hi, Heather.” The shy three-year-old clung to her mother’s pants. Just the Sunday before, we had had lunch together after church with Shirley and Georgia, all complaining about our aging parents. At the time, my in-laws needed a little help, but they were in comparatively good shape. Now the cloud of death hung over the house in spite of the Halloween decorations.

More kids were coming up the driveway, so Janet went on down the street. I felt guilty. Guilty for making her think of death in the midst of trick-or-treating, guilty for not mourning quietly instead of celebrating Halloween.

A teenage girl came to the door when Helen was nearby. “Didn’t you and your husband just move in?” she asked.

Helen nodded but didn’t elaborate. They had only lived there for two months.

Sometimes I missed the old-fashioned mourning customs. I didn’t know what was appropriate. Should I dress normally in my usual reds and pinks or wear dark colors to church? Should I play the piano or be silent? Dared I laugh? I longed for the comforts of everyday life, but was I dishonoring my dead father-in-law if I watched my favorite TV show and enjoyed it? If I went out to lunch with my friends as usual? If I talked about what happened and didn’t cry?

The stages of grief are muddled. On that first day, we wept and then we went numb. I felt neither hunger nor the need to use the restroom. I know only that when a masseuse came through the hospital cafeteria offering massages, I kept thinking, no, I don’t want anyone to touch me. A human touch might have broken through the wall I had built around my feelings.

Helen accepted a massage. “Ah, that feels so good,” she said as the woman kneaded her neck and shoulders. With her husband dying upstairs, was this wrong? Would saying no to the massage have changed that sad fact?

We held no funeral or memorial service for Al. His body was cremated, the ashes destined to be placed at the Newport cemetery. Instead of a service, Helen held an open house, but only a handful of people came. My in-laws hadn’t lived in Newport long enough to meet anyone except their landlord, Al’s doctor and a few of my church friends.

But on Halloween, hundreds of children came to the door, with no idea that there was anything different at this house where grownups stood in the doorway passing out candy than at any other house on the block.

Somebody egged our car outside the folks’ house that night, probably the teens that Helen had turned away at the door after she ran out of candy. We had left the car window open, and egg was dripping down the back of the seat. Sadie jumped in and licked it up. Dogs and teens figured it was just an ordinary night.

For the rest of the world, it was.

Al would have gotten a kick out of the little kids in their costumes. He might even have chuckled at the teenagers and their eggs, remembering his own youthful adventures. He loved life and wanted more of it. Our best tribute would be to enjoy our own lives, every single day of them.

I hope Janet understood that we weren’t being crass on Halloween. We who are still alive have to take the comforts that life gives. Sometimes those comforts include a cherry Tootsie Pop and a six-year-old girl in an angel dress yelling “Trick or Treat!” at the front door.

Copyright 2011 Sue Fagalde Lick