The Lost Youth of Halloween
By Robert Waldvogel
The question, posed by the presenter of “The Lively History of Halloween in America” lecture held at the Bethpage Public Library on October 30 of, “What are your Halloween memories,” prompted me to journey in time to those I consider mine.
My first, at an age that was under seven, occurred in the living room of our Brooklyn apartment. Inexplicably inspired by the atmosphere and perhaps intrinsically aware of its spooky purpose, I sat on the floor in front of the round coffee table crowned by a bowl of candy and said to my mother, wishing to enhance the room’s eeriness, “Let’s turn the lights off.”
She did. Absorbing the feeling herself, she returned from the kitchen with a dishtowel on her head, emitting a ghostly note. Not expecting either sight or sound, I found my feelings traveling to the border of fear, but, instantly realizing that my mother was behind them, I witnessed their melt into loving acceptance.
Our shared experience, despite the confines of the room, were boundless and made Halloween real.
Annual school trips to pumpkin patches were learning experiences, but the lessons were about myself, which I then failed to grasp. Futilely searching for the perfectly shaped gourd, I followed the plow lines across the field, unable to locate one as I wrestled with that perfectionist part of me which produced the dissatisfaction when I failed to achieve it. Rejecting pumpkin after pumpkin, I realized that the idealized image of them in my mind did not necessarily match that in reality.
The smaller the size, I ultimately concluded, the rounder they appeared.
A call to return to the bus left me in a fever pitch, as I snatched the last minuscule one in resignation, utterly unhappy.
Why the other students, who carried larger and more grotesquely shaped ones, seemed so satisfied only added to my perplexity. Perhaps their satisfaction was more akin to oblivious.
Older and now on Long Island, I considered Halloween to be synonymous with escape-from myself, hidden behind and assuming the identity of the costume I wore-and imagination, as the atmosphere was charged with fright and laced with surreal spooks. With the crunch of the leaf-blanketed sidewalks, I passed the witch, vampire, black cat, skeleton, ghoul, and lit jack-o-lantern faces, slipping into the cold, dark dimension of October 31 only a child'[s mind could conjure.
Devoid of restriction, approach of the houses was permitted, welcomed, and enticed, as the magic “trick-or-treat,’ repeated with such regularity and velocity, merged into an indistinguishable sound with every doorbell ring. But the grown-ups knew what it meant and confirmed it by the sound of the candy corn, lollypops, chocolates, and occasional apples (it spoiled the whole purpose of the event), thudding into my plastic, pumpkin or haunted house-decorated bag.
The streets were alive with costume-clad kids, as if it were the holiday’s rush hour at dusk, sometimes requiring the wait on the sidewalk until a Frankenstein family cleared the front door, giving the next cluster of witches and Cinderellas the green light to proceed. Candy, like gold, awaited, and the walk could not be justified unless the prospector exhausted every vein.
(I will not mention the early years when geographical trick-or-treating restrictions were imposed on me and I circumvented them with at least a second circuit to the same houses after a quick costume change.)
“Back so soon?” my mother would ask.
“No,” I responded, “just passing through.”
The night before also afforded me another kindred-spirit experience with my mother, as we prepared the treasure. Dining room table turned production line sported the stack of full moon imprinted bags and into each went the products-the peanut chews, the Milky Ways, the Baby Ruths, the Hershey and Nestle chocolate competitors, and the obligatory Indian corn. It varied by year.
“I used to love to make the bags,” my mother would later relate. So did I-because we did it together.
Demand exceeding supply one year forced my “emergency solution”-a reach into the cabinet to fill the bags with whatever I could find.
Although I do not recall what the non-candy item was, it swelled the bag, prompting the next princess-adorned recipient at my door to exclaim, “Oh, goodies!”
Ashamed, I had convinced her that size mattered more than content, but was relieved that I would not have to field her disappointment when she later opened it. I would not have wanted to have received it either.
I loved inspecting the costumes, which magically hid many of the faces I knew as well as mine, but not in the case of poor Loretta, who lived around the block. You could hear her asthma hiss as she approached the door. I sometimes felt sorry for her, as she tried to ignore her affliction, seeking fun and fitting in with the others as best as she could.
Age, at least for me, apparently had little to do with my wane for the frightening occasion, as long as it only existed in my mind. Riding the school bus home from Junior High School one Halloween, one of my co-students pointed out the window, exclaiming, “Look at those jerky little kids, still trick-or-treating!”
Gulping my embarrassment, I sublimated it into excitement, eagerly looking forward to changing into my costume when I got home to join them. When you reached a certain again, you were supposed to have transcended this meaningless activity that no longer served you, I guess. But I also guessed that I was one of “those jerky little kids” and, because of the joy I experienced, I was proud of it-in my own world, where Halloween existed for me. Just don’t tell them-whoever they were, anyway.
Still older, I was inspired by the occasion’s imagery, which, to a degree, always began with the calendar’s turn into September and the first day of school. The days grew shorter. The temperatures dipped lower. The trees wore autumn frocks of burnt orange, flaming red, cornhusk yellow, and bark brown. The houses were adorned with their witches, ghosts, black cats, and pumpkins. And I slipped into the dimension and out of myself every October 31 like clockwork.
Inspired by it all, I penned three Halloween-themed short stories and several poems.
Now too old for traditional trick-or-treating ( guess I finally relented), I began the yearly tradition of visiting the Otto the Ghost display at Hicks Nursery in Westbury, buying the prerequisite pumpkins and gourds for decoration, and pairing the event with dinner at a unique restaurant. And I always capped the evening with another viewing of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” I lost count of how many times I have seen it as the years flashed by, but it just could not be Halloween without it.
It was so indicative of the holiday and what I felt. But that may be because there was always-well, maybe even a lot-of Charlie Brown in me. I wonder if there is not a little in all of us. Unlike those who rode the school bus with me so long ago, however, I am not afraid to admit it.
During the dusk of my life, I look out the window, watching the costume-clad trick-or-treaters file down the sidewalk and lament, “Ah, what a Halloween this is!” The sadness is not so much about the events and celebrations I no longer partake of, but about the youth I lost after I no longer could.
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