Growing up in Queens, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. Heck, it’s every kids’ favorite holiday. The mountains of candy. All the planning that goes into choosing and creating a “spooktacular” costume. The hayrides and visits to the pumpkin patch, in search of the biggest, orangiest, most perfect pumpkin, then taking it home to carve. Gathering around the fireplace to listen while your father reads aloud Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and fills your head with ghost stories, guaranteed to scare the bejezus out of you.
Wait. Almost forgot. My family didn’t do any of this stuff.
Don’t forget, my Latino parents were new to this country and didn’t have much. Which is why there were eight of us living in a tiny brownstone in Queens. Besides, they’d never heard of Halloween before.
So, in my house, we were lucky we got to do Halloween at all. And, it was done on a shoestring. There were no Halloween decorations, no carving Jack O’Lanterns, no spending weeks and weeks making an elaborate costume.
We didn’t buy any candy except for that which we were giving away. It would sit in a grocery bag by the door waiting for the trick-or-treaters, and God help the kid in my house who’d try to snitch a piece before the festivities began.
And, the only pumpkins in our house were the cheap, plastic kind that you could buy at the Five and Dime store. They were supposed to be used to collect your treats in, but if you ask me, the black handle was so thin and flimsy, it would often break off before the night was out.
On Halloween day, my teacher would give each of us little boxes, reminding us of the importance to collect pennies for UNICEF. “Trick or Treat for UNICEF,” was what we were supposed to say, though, half the time, I forgot to do so.
I had the cheesiest costume. Back then, costumes came in boxes that had cellophane covered lids, so you could see the mask. There was always a mask, made of hard plastic with a thin piece of string around the back to help you hold the mask in place. Wearing the mask made it hard to breathe or see. Plus, that string could snap, and fall off, causing severe pain in the process. My mask broke the first time I ever tried it on. Ouch!
Not being able to afford the cost of a costume, my mother bought one for me when I was five, in a size way too large, so that I could wear it year after year, all the way through fifth grade. Of course, what I picked to wear at age five, a Cinderella costume, was embarrassing to wear by age 10, and, no matter how I wore it, there was no mistaking it: I looked like a dork.
But, that didn’t matter, because Halloween night in New York was generally very cold, and my mother would make me wear wool pants under my costume dress. At first, I wore my coat under my dress, but when that was no longer possible, I had to wear it over the costume, making said costume no longer visible. Which, made me look just like any other dumb kid freezing to death.
In sixth grade, when I finally had the chance to be something else for Halloween, I decided to be a French painter. Why French? I don’t know. I wore a beret, a red and white striped smock, and carried an artist’ pallet and brush. But, my accent was all Queens, which is why no one could figure out that I was supposed to be French.
At the end of the night, my brothers and I would dump our candy stash on the floor and separate the wheat from the chaff. In other words, the good candy from the stinky.
The Good: Almond Joy, Snickers, Mr. Goodbar and just about anything else chocolate. Sugar Babies and lollipops were keepers, too.
Stinkers: Mary Jane’s, Tootsie Rolls, Good and Plenty, waxed lips, and black and orange taffy.
In junior high, Karen, a classmate, invited the whole class to a Halloween party. It was my first such party, replete with bobbing for apples, spooky music, and pumpkin carving. The only thing missing was a hayride, but we lived in the suburbs, for crying out loud, not on a farm.
A friend and I were 14 years old the last time we went trick or treating. All it took was for one adult to answer the door, size us up, roll his eyes, and say, “Aren’t you kids, too old to be trick or treating?” That was the year I hung up my beret for good.
Flash forward many years: My son was three the first time I took him trick or treating. It was wonderful to see the excitement in his eyes, and the joy from getting more candy than he could ever possibly eat. At the end of the evening, as we were walking back home, I said to him, next year we’ll start out earlier.
Which made him stop in his tracks, turn toward me with utter shock his eyes, and exclaim with utter euphoria,
“You mean this is going to happen again??”
So, tell me. What are your childhood memories of Halloween?