Ghosts of Halloween Past
By Connie Phlipot
Prompts: Halloween memories and a fond memory of a departed member of the family.
Classic goblins, witches and princesses — costumes patterned after fantasy movie heroes were not yet in vogue — trooped up our front stoop. The tiniest beggers were first, barely mouthing “tik or teet,” their parents behind them holding themselves back from fixing an errant ribbon or cape sliding off a shoulder. Reminded by their parents to be gracious, the toddlers mumbled “tank you” as they turned down the stone steps. The bulk of visitors were grade schoolers — usually polite, sometime greedy, looking expectantly at what kind of treats were being given out. The older kids came as the witching hour drew to an end — teenagers dressed up with only a scrub of paint on their face and a bandana in lieu of a costume.
Our dog dashed under the coffee table, quivering, each time the doorbell rang and the mass of noisy characters appeared in the doorway. As 8:00 p.m. neared, the stream of visitors dwindled, the intervals between each one stretched to ten, then fifteen minutes. The dog fell asleep.
“Should we turn off the light?” Mom asked, then the doorbell rang again. One more lanky teenager with a huge shopping bag; he hadn’t even bother to cover up the TOPS logo on its side. My mother sighed and placed the smallest candy she could find in his enormous bag and he snorted thank you.
As she reached for the light switch, we saw one more trick-or-treater coming up the driveway. A short rotund figure in an undefinable white garment like a jumpsuit. He/She didn’t seem to be a teenager — the gait was not quite confident enough. Not a child. Too big and no parent would allow even a middle-schooler out at this time in a street without sidewalk or streetlights.
The person walked up the steps. I recognized the jumpsuit as an old pair of long-johns, men’s one-piece long underwear, a long-sleeved, long panted garment buttoned from the neck down to the crouch. He/she wore a bandana like the teenagers, but this one was bright red and tied around the back of her head, like a pirate’s, almost, but not quite, concealing a woman’s greying curls. She — now that was clear — uttered “trick or treat” in a muffled, deepened voice, but the result was not a successful imitation of a man’s voice. More like that of a child reading a story outloud, pretending to be an adult.
The pieces were fitting together. I knew of only one person who might still have a pair of those longjohns. And the paunch under the undershirt was clearly a big feather pillow.
My mother realized the identity of the trick-or-treater about the same time as I did. She tried to play along and tease the caller about being too late, but she started to laugh. The dog ran circles around the living room and jumped on the no-longer-strange creature to beg for doggie treats. We laughed so heartedly that the “trick-or-treater” had to run inside to our bathroom, unbuttoning my grandfather’s long johns and shedding the pillow-stomach on her way.
Fifty some years later and I am years older than my grandmother was at the time of her prank. She had been a young grandmother, having given birth to my mother while still in her teens. Yet she was unmistakenly a grandmother and dressed like a grandmother did in the 1960s in printed housedresses, sturdy shoes and a permanent wave in her hair. Going trick or treating was not something her peers would think of doing. And in general she did not act out of character for a woman her age in those years. Her hobbies were knitting and crocheting, reading cookbooks and romance novels and shopping.
But yet, dressing up, pretending to be someone else, or live in a different world had a lot of appeal for this woman whose early marriage had deprived her of the transition years between childhood and make-believe and serious adulthood. For the most part, she had adjusted well — she raised two children through the Great Depression, worked in a slaughterhouse when my grandfather was laid off and took care of her own mother in her last years. But she always looked longingly at pretty, blonde blue-eyed dolls and her prized possessions were tiny bisque statues of reclining babies.
She was happiest when my mother took her and me shopping. We would try on every conceivable type of perfume. Reeking of sweet scents, we giggled in the back of the car with the windows open where my mother had banished both of us.
I came across a photo recently of the two of us taken in an automatic photo booth in the shopping center circa 1965. The selfies of the mid-20th century. We smiled at the camera — she trying to hide her one very crooked tooth — me looking intensely at the camera with slightly cocked eyebrows and faint smile. Just two girls learning to grow up.
About Connie Phlipot
Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus. She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe.