So, today is Halloween. My first introduction to it was through Disney comics. It seemed like a great deal of fun, what with pumpkin carving and all that.
And we’ve tried to make Halloween fun for the kids. I think mostly we made it sideways and backwards from normal.
Look, the only two years the kids had purchased costumes was when Dan had the traveling job and I was breaking into writing, 99/2000. Because there just wasn’t time and – briefly – we had money to order costumes.
Other than that, normally, I had long discussions with them about what they wanted to be, then assembled materials. On Halloween, as soon as they left for school, I sat down and made costumes for them.
The most memorable one required SOME purchased parts (I think from big lots, although it might have been the Oriental trading catalogue.) The kids wanted to be dragon and knight, so I bought a plastic breast plate, and helmet and sword.
Then I set about making a dragon costume with fabric purchased at the thrift store (miles and miles of ugly polyester for I think $5.) I used a sweat suit that fit Robert to cut the pants and “shirt from, made the head like an extended hood – he looked through the mouth – add in some spikes from metallic golden fabric, and bob is your uncle.
This is when we lived in Manitou Springs and the path for the kids was about three miles, up and down hills. (Manitou is a mountain village.)
Our friend Charles and our cat Pixel walked the boys because I had to stay home to hand out candy and Dan was working late, which was normal in those days.
Charles says the sword quickly became the “righteous sword for smacking brother.” Marshall was two or three? Anyway, when they stopped at a house, Robert would make dragon sounds. Marshall took this as a great offense and would whack him with the sword on top of the head. Then Robert would squawk and flap his wings in protest.
They enacted this for me when they got back, and it was very funny. They got enough candy to choke an elephant. Although to this day Charles maintains that the MOST impressive thing wasn’t the dragon and knight act, but the fact that Pixel escorted them to the door and politely waited for them, before walking with them to the next. Charles said people kept asking “How did you train your cat.” This made him feel he was in a parallel universe because… who trains cats?
Other than that, though I still have some costumes in the basement (Found the crusader one the other day… With the bunny of death attached) the one I remember vividly is the first one, when Robert was two and a half, and our friends invited us to trick or treat in their neighborhood. I had no costume, so I dressed Robert as a prince and even sewed a sword (hey, he was two and a half.)
I’ll forever have this memory of him “getting it”. Go to the first house, get candy, go to second get candy. Eyes light up, and he gallops ahead of the group to the next house, and the next. I still feel guilty over not teaching him to say “Thank you” more clearly that year, because he would yell “Fank you” as he ran away. I still worry those people thought it was something else.
Of course, in Portugal, Halloween is serious business. Oh, not day of the Muertos type of thing, though you can see where that came from (and I know that mostly through Bradbury stories.)
No, it’s if anything closer to the festival of the Hungry ghosts in Asian religions.
Halloween is the day you visit the cemetery and get acquainted with lost relatives. You don’t talk to them (I hope, that would be REALLY creepy) but you talk about them, show their graves to the kids, tell them who they were.
You go early and wash the graves (the graves are almost all covered by marble slabs. Pauper graves and children’s graves aren’t, but those you weed.) Then as night falls you light candles. EVERYONE is there – or at least in my day and in the village, everyone was. And because the cemetery was shared between five or six villages, you usually ended up having a sort of visiting day with relatives who lived further off/friends you hadn’t seen in years.
All of it though was pervaded with this melancholy feel, because you talked of the people who’d gone before you.
I often say that my dad – 83 – now has a tendency to treat going to the cemetery as “old school week” and goes there all too often, and takes me through it, and talks about each person he knew (and some my generation) who is now there, and remembers them fondly. This is perhaps logical when most of your generation is beneath the turf.
But Halloween, everyone treats the cemetery that way.
It is both disturbing and somewhat creepy, but also, in that type of place, with that type of continuity… I don’t know how to put this… comforting?
You know someday you’ll be gone to join the silent majority, but you know you won’t be forgotten for generations, and that your relatives will tell stories of you in November, as winter draws near.
Usually you adjourn home for roast chestnuts (you put chestnuts under a pile of pine needles. When the pine needles burn off, the chestnuts are perfectly done.) and red wine, and more talk of the old days.
I remember a feeling that the dead weren’t so much gone, that day, as a continuum with the living.
The highlight for me was visiting the grave of my cousin Dulce. I remember that. I don’t remember Dulce. I guess I did, back then, because we were the same age, and according to the relatives still alive, we used to play together. She died at three in what was either an unusually virulent form of chicken pox or the last small pox epidemic to sweep Europe (It escaped from a lab in Germany. Okay. No. It was carried out by accident. I’m now seeing it in daring do, breaking out of the lab.) I don’t know which because in Portuguese they fall under a continuum of words and could mean either. I don’t think anyone knew which, either. But it killed about a third of the kids too young to be in school/vaccinated.
Funny thing, my cousin was the strong one of the two of us – I was born premature and my health now is perhaps a little better than it was then. I always wonder if I hadn’t spent so much of my young years sick in bed, would I be a writer now? My nature is more active and less introspective than it was molded to by those years of solitude and enforced inactivity – and she was the one who died. I pulled through by the skin of my teeth.
But I remember wanting to see her grave, and being fascinated by all the little graves in the children’s cemetery. I remember wondering if they came out, after we left, and played among the graves. The funny thing is that this didn’t seem creepy at all, more like eternal recess.
On that, until a few years ago I was convinced I’d killed Dulce. I don’t think anyone told me so, but it went something like this: we were having tea and she finished her bread and butter and wanted mine. I refused to share. She cried. The adults told me I was mean or something like that. Then we both got sick. (One of us probably gave it to the other at that play session.) When I recovered, they told me she had died. (They also burned all my toys/books that couldn’t be washed. It was that virulent.)
Unexamined at the back of my head, until my mom mentioned that Dulce had died in that illness wave, was the certainty she had died because I wouldn’t give her my bread.
Now this doesn’t stand up rationally, of course, but it was never thought of or examined. I knew it so firmly as a kid that finding out otherwise was a shock as an adult. I realized that for most of my life I’d been carrying the guilt of “killing” my cousin. Weird, uh?
Anyway, as I get older I draw comfort from those memories of childhood where life and death were a continuum and there was never any idea that the dead just vanished. No, they were still there, and you could go to their graves, which were sort of receptors for communicating to them and assure them that you were thinking of them and would be along by the by.
It’s very hard to fear death or even to view death as anything much in those circumstances.
Halloween to me back then was also the beginning of an enchanted season. Within weeks, lights would go up downtown Porto, and my dad would take me downtown to see them put up. This was around the time of my birthday too. And chestnuts would be sold on the streets (I love roast chestnuts. Still.) And my grandfather would light up the Franklin stove in their kitchen, and I could have “potatoes with a punch” – these were little potatoes, the ones ignored by the harvest but gleaned afterwards with a rake – and you’d put them in the ash pan of the stove, so the hot ash fell on them. When they crumbled with a punch they were done. They were eaten as a snack, and I loved them. (Yes, we were weird. Deal.)
So Halloween, even if slightly spooky and sort of mystical, was the beginning of winter fun. It retains some of that aura, even now.
Now excuse me, I’m going to see if I can talk one of the young men into wearing a dragon costume. For old time’s sake.