In sixth grade at Rutherfordton Elementary, Halloween day began with a classroom read-aloud of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Harmless enough; we all knew about the Headless Horseman
In sixth grade at Rutherfordton Elementary, Halloween day began with a classroom read-aloud of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Harmless enough; we all knew about the Headless Horseman from a Disney cartoon. Just before the bell rang at 3:15, though, my teacher, Mrs. Williams — who, with her gray hair severely parted and pulled into a bun, already looked like a witch — sent us home with her frightening, whispered rendition of James Whitcomb Riley’s 1883 poem “Little Orphant Annie” echoing in our ears:
Onc’t they was a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers, —
So when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wasn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found was thist his pants an’ roundabout —
An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you
• • •
This kept me shivering until a few hours later, when I’d return to school for the Halloween Carnival and head straight for the Haunted House, where the greasy noodle “brains” weren’t nearly as terrifying as the fear that one of the wily eighth graders leading blindfolded victims like me would plunge my hand into the bowl of peeled-grape “eyeballs.”
The carnival was magical, though; we’d left school in the brightness of afternoon and returned to the novelty of a building transformed by darkness, with desks stacked against the walls. This classroom for apple-bobbing; that one for fortune telling. One year, selected as the fourth-grade oracle, I dressed up in a long, flowy skirt, yards of beads, and layered headbands for a turban, and told fabricated fortunes.
One wondrous year, the black-clad, hag-masked grade mother overseeing the Witch’s Brew Room brought dry ice for the “bubbling” cast-iron pot filled with rubber snakes. We begged for chunks to take home for “science experiments,” which consisted of seeing how long we could hold the dry ice before burning our fingers, then pitching it into the toilet to watch the billowing clouds of steam.
Candy represents the then, now, and forever fruit of Halloween.
At the carnival’s costume parade, where every grade got their moment in the spotlight on the auditorium stage, homemade costumes always triumphed, like the hoboes with charcoaled cheeks and broomstick-and-bandanna pouches slung over their shoulders. In fourth grade, I finally got my first store-bought mask, a plastic JFK face with slits so small I could barely see or breathe. Despite the floppy Sunday school suit I borrowed from a classmate, and with my best friend decked out as Jackie by my side, we lost — to a pirate.
So when my children were growing up, I insisted on homemade, do-it-yourself costumes, too. The boys always wanted to be ghouls of some sort, meaning that I once wound my 8-year-old in white crepe paper as a mummy, a best-laid plan foiled when he had to go to the bathroom. And oh, the innumerable bedsheets sacrificed to staggering, ketchup-bloodied zombies and the Boo! brigade. Things got simpler with my daughter: A dance class tutu and a dime-store tiara made her a convincing princess.
• • •
I’m left convinced that Halloween belongs to the industriously clever. Industrious at costumes, clever at decorations. I’m in awe of those folks who stretch “cobwebs” all over their windows and shrubs, with gigantic tarantulas crawling up the stoop. During an October walk, a front yard “graveyard” — with skeleton arms waving from random clumps of grass — always stops me, well, dead.
Pumpkins are pumpkins are pumpkins, though; stacked on front steps, they’re the purest symbol of Halloween. Growing up, we’d drive to a farm halfway to Lake Lure for ours. Clear to the horizon, pumpkins lay scattered like orange jelly beans in fields, or clustered within the humped roots of the trees beside the farmhouse’s sagging porch. At carving time, my father clawed out the stringy pulp. Carefully, cautiously, he artfully maneuvered the carving knife around crooked teeth and googly eyes. Now, I’m the one surreptitiously separating the seeds to salt and roast on the sly for a crunchy treat more delicious than Snickers.
Except that … if pumpkins are the symbols, and costumes are the handcrafted creations, candy represents the then, now, and forever fruit of Halloween. Next to their discovery of Santa’s gifts, nothing was quite as much fun to watch as my children dramatically dumping out the contents of their orange buckets all over the floor. The amount of it! The variety of it! Silver Kisses, red Twizzlers, orange Reese’s, yellow Sugar Babies, multicolored M&Ms, neon Laffy Taffys and Starbursts. Careful sorting ensued: chocolate here, suckers here, chewies here, rejects there. Hoarding and hiding are so necessary for playground trading, sibling bribery, and, uh, keeping Mom out of your “good stuff” stash. These days, it’s hard to find my personal childhood favorite: oversize red wax lips with a little shelf in the back to clench your chompers on. The slightly sugary coating meant that eventually you’d give in to chewing, and the wax would turn into, well, wax, grainy and tasteless.
It’s all a far cry from the day-before-Halloween afternoons when I helped my mother put together a dozen carefully bagged and tied treats: homemade caramel apples and popcorn balls served on a tray for the count-on-two-hands neighbor children from through the woods who trick-or-treated by car, not on foot. There’s no such thing as door-to-door when you live in the country with a half-mile driveway.
Never mind. The grandchild can hide away his Milky Ways and Paydays. I’ll gladly take the sad, scorned candy corn. It just gets better with age.