Archive for the ‘Halloween’ Category

I always think of autumn as three different stages of a season. September is summer grafted to fall, with traces of summer amid the harvest and trees taking on a yellow tinge.

October is the “party and confetti” part of autumn, bright and brilliant, colors raining down around us, an air of celebration in the air.

That part of autumn is gone. The lingering goblins on porch posts annoy rather than frighten, the improvised ghosts just limp, tattered, graying sheets strung on bare limbs. Garbage cans on the curb are topped with jack-o-lanterns whose faces have withered into quizzical stares, mouths puckered inward like old men who can’t find their dentures.

We’re in the final stage of autumn, the cozy stage of beef stew and knitted socks (even though it’s been balmy recently). This is the crunchy time of dead leaves and dried husks, softly lit by beeswax candles and fire glow, meditative as we approach Thanksgiving, before a new celebration ignites and a different festival begins. I used to hate November upon a time, but in middle age I’ve grown to appreciate it very much.


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Syd Halloween

S. Hooligan chose her own Halloween costume this year – and she couldn’t have picked anything more appropriate. I used to see the angel side of her a lot more than I do now. It’s pretty much All Devil, All the Time. She’s more than a little scary, especially when she gets riled up. Naturally, when Diamondqueen went to the parent-teacher conference at S.Hooligan’s kindergarten, the teacher was all praise for the sweet little girl.

“She said she wished she had a whole class of S.Hooligans!” Diamondqueen told us.

Mom replied, “If only she knew!”

Of course, Mom had had her own scary experience with the devil part of S. that very morning. S. was supposed to go to her grandma’s house while Diamondqueen went to the parent-teacher conference. Only S. didn’t want to leave the house. Diamondqueen had to carry her out to Mom’s car, but S. kept unlocking the back door and barreling out again. Finally Diamondqueen flipped the little child switch that basically made S. a captive in the back seat. Mom said that all the way to her house, S. kept wailing, “Turn back! Turn back! I don’t want to go to your house.”

As for other devilment, we won’t even get into her prank of offering her mother a gift – and then farting when her mother reaches out her hand. And S. making herself a pair of falsies out of paper this past weekend is a whole other story.

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When my brother in St. Louis e-mailed my mother over the weekend, he said he wished he’d been able to locate some blank sugar skulls so he could write my father’s name on one for Day of the Dead. I searched around on the Internet and found that we could have ordered some, or even gotten molds and made our own.

I also found a crochet pattern for a skull, and considered making one, then embroidering Dad’s name, along with the other decorative flourishes. But I realized I suffer from some kind of cultural disconnect from the whole Day of the Dead ritual.

For one thing, I just can’t write loved ones’ names on skulls. I guess Mexican culture is healthier because they robustly face the reality of mortality, bones and all. I’m not sure I could write even pets’ names on skulls. It’s not a ritual I’m accustomed to; and because of that, I guess, it makes me uncomfortable. I like the decorated skulls as motifs, and I’ve even toyed with the idea of getting some of the little Day of the Dead figurines; but I could never assign specific personas of deceased loved ones to the figures.

I think another problem specifically related to my father is that the whole idea of a candy skull with a dead relative’s name written on it would have been abhorrent to him – especially his name. And he definitely wouldn’t have been into the decorative style of the embellished skulls, all the bright colors and flowers and curlicues. (Of course, it kind of amuses me to imagine his face if he saw one of these skull tributes to him. I doubt he would have known what to make of it.)

I also thought about the ofrenda. Besides the basic things, like flowers and water and a razor, I don’t know what I’d put on the altar. He was a recovering alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver, so any kind of booze doesn’t seem right. He gave up smoking years ago, but the heavy smoking he did for over half his life probably contributed to the stroke that killed him. Not to mention many of his favorite foods, from Big Boys to barbecue ribs to the six or seven eggs he claimed to have eaten for many a breakfast.

I think my altar will have to be mental this year. Instead of setting out ofrenda and decorating sugar skulls, I’m cross-stitching the tombstones on a Sleepy Hollow sampler I’ve been working on all autumn. As I embroider the headstones in various shades of gray, I think of Dad, and his sister Margaret, and of Auda, a family friend who passed away during October. Funny, I think I could create special tombstones for them out of  something like fondant, do a really first-rate job and not feel a bit uncomfortable. Again, I guess it all comes down to culture.

Next year I’ll think ahead about making and decorating candy skulls. But not ths year. Not yet.


What is my own cultural experience with All Soul’s Day? When it fell on a school day when I was a kid, we sometimes participated in a special Mass, very somber, with a cart set in the middle of the center aisle of St. Cecilia’s and covered with a purple and black cloth with a cross on it. This was to represent a coffin. It was all very funeral-like and somber. There was nothing of a celebration about it.

I think there was something about indulgences and getting souls out of purgatory as well. I remember one year going in and out of the church during lunch period with other girls in my class. We’d been told that every time someone went to church and said a certain prayer on All Soul’s Day, it freed a soul from purgatory, so we did our darndest to send as many spirits as possible to Heaven. That was more uplifting than the leaden mourning of everyone who had ever died. And maybe, just maybe, we honored some poor dead soul in a very meaningful way.

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The nice thing about having a nephew 07-halloween-small-web-view.jpgand niece eight and four years old is that I still have someone to trail around house-to-house on Halloween. I went trick-or-treating last night with the Hooligan children; their mother, Diamondqueen; and their father, TPM (short for That Poor Man).

We drove over to their Grandma’s neighborhood, just a couple of miles away, so the kids could show her their official “look” for Halloween night and get treats from her. Grandpa Mad Monk, Grandma’s ex, always volunteers to stay at the Hooligan house and hand out their treats for them. The neighbors are starting to get to know him. (“Mad Monk” was my father’s nickname where he worked; it has nothing to do with Halloween.)

I want to say right now that the expanded Daylight Savings Time really challenged the Halloween spookiness. Usually DST ends the last weekend in October; this year, we “fall back” on the first weekend of November. That meant, given the clear, bright weather we had, it wasn’t dark at all for about the first hour of tricks-or-treats. It was as bad as when they made us have trick-or-treat on Sunday afternoon when I was a kid (in 1966, because of the Cincinnati Strangler; but about the time he was caught was when nasty people started putting razor blades in apples and pins in candy bars, and somehow trick-or-treat became permanently scheduled on the Sunday afternoon closest to Halloween). It’s hard to see ghosts around every corner in broad daylight; the light in the jack-o-lanterns doesn’t even show up. They finally reinstated nighttime hours for Halloween in Cincinnati in the early 70s, but it was too late for me.

Anyhow, something has to change with this Daylight Savings thing. Write your congressperson.

Both of the Hooligan children were wired and ready to go before six o’clock arrived. J.Hooligan has been allowing me to do his Mummy make-up all season. Even though I’ve never gotten it quite right, he’s been quite agreeable about it. Last night he told me, “It’s not what I was hoping for, but I’m okay with it.” (Which is a triumph compared to when he was having his own production of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol a couple of years ago. He assigned me the job of make-up artist, but he hated my trial take on Jacob Marley. J.Hooligan went into the bathroom to wash off the damage; and when he came out, he told me flatly, “You’re fired.”)

S. Hooligan was dressed as Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, only she wouldn’t wear her hat, so everyone thought she was a princess. She allowed me to put a little pink on her syd-halloween-small-web-view.jpgcheeks and touches of red on her lips. Soon she was complaining that the make-up “hurt.” I wiped off some of the pink and red, and she seemed to be okay. About an hour into the 90-minute trick-or-treat schedule, though, she suddenly started crying that her lips hurt. Apparently they were chapped; she chose to blame the “lipstick” (and by association, me) for her sore lips. She was bone-tired by then and might have melted down over just about anything; because of this particular trial she spent the better part of one street wailing, whining, snorting steam, and frothing at the mouth (which didn’t help her chapped lips). I very kindly offered to walk her back to Grandma’s house just minutes away. S.Hooligan flew into a rage, shrieked at me, and starting beating me with her treat bag — a padded fabric basket shaped like a cat’s head, which helped soften the impact of three pounds of Tootsie Rolls, Laffy Taffy, and mini boxes of Nerds.

Diamondqueen was able to smear some Blistex on the child’s lips between rants, and suddenly S. was reasonably agreeable again, although still dead on her feet. J.Hooligan had very sweetly been asking people for extra treats for his sister, a la Lucy in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. At one point J. said, “I know why she’s crying. (A) She’s really, really tired. And (B) she’s touched that I asked people for candy for her.”

J.Hooligan had a pretty good night overall, although he admitted late in the game, “It wouldn’t be so bad if my legs were perkier and I had something to drink.” He didn’t want to stop, though. He got a lot of terrific responses to his costume, which Diamonqueen made by sewing stained strips of old sheets to white sweat pants and shirt. “They marvelled at my costume,” J. said proudly several times. This was much better than last year, when he spent a lot of time muttering because everyone kept saying what a wonderful pirate costume he had. “What’s wrong with these people?” J. fumed under his tri-cornered hat. “Can’t they see I’m a continental soldier?” (Yes, J.Hooligan really does talk like that. He’s been talking like that from the time he could first shape words.)

At last it was 7:30, and we all limped down Grandma’s street, got in the van, and drove back to the Hooligan house. (Grandma followed a little later, after she’d packed away her lawn chair and her jack-o-lantern.) The kids did their Big Dump treats-small-web-view.jpgon the dining room table, immediately diving into the individual piles of loot and rolling on their backs like happy puppies. The adults looked everything over, openly stole whatever they knew the kids didn’t like, and palmed a few sweets for themselves whether the kids liked them or not.

It was just your normal, average Halloween — the kind we wait for all year long, and this one didn’t let us down. Except for that Daylight Savings Time problem, although it did get dark enough finally that J.Hooligan tripped and fell flat, spilling the contents of his treat bag. So the evening was complete.

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See the cute little boy in the Mickey Mouse costume in this post?

Here’s how he dressed for Halloween this year. (Yes, thank goodness, it IS a costume!)


Looking good, Biker Bro!


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In honor of Halloween, I posted a poem called “A Horror Story” here, where I explain the circumstances that inspired the piece.

On this blog I thought I’d post a couple more Halloween poems. Happy haunting, everyone!

A warped pumpkin face leered
from the ring-marred bar top.
We peered through eye holes
at an electric beer sign where
the Cincinnati skyline brightened
with noon-time radiance.
From the jukebox a banshee yowled
her hair-prickling lament.
Hunchbacks lined the bar,
breathing smoke, red ash
singeing their knuckles.
They watched us without moving,
eye sockets shadowed,
foreheads purple and green with neon.
The bartender had the eyebrows
of a madman; he was
not to be trusted, shiny-cheeked
and glib. From a cauldron
of wrapped sourballs he clawed
a crackling fistful. Our paper sacks
rattled, we backed away. One
of the zombie hunchbacks shifted.
C’mere, youngsters. The dull nickels
he fished from his pockets
were doled with yellowed fingers.
Gloom deepened as the beer sign city
plunged into midnight. The moaning singer
gave up the ghost, a heart-stopping silence.
We shoved each other out the door
as the madman cackled at our backs,
mixing and pouring his poisons.
(from Best of Ohio 2004, © Nancy Breen)
He showed up for open mic night,
poems inked on the stiff bandages
across his crusted palms.
It took him half the evening
to work up his nerve, took half
that long again to totter
between the folding chairs
to the front of the room.
The crowd murmured,
grew excited. This promised everything
they’d heard poetry was about–
death, a voice echoing
from the grave, deterioration
and its impact on the poet’s art.
He opened his mouth to recite.
Stale breath blew dirt
and dried moths. He started
with an imagist poem
about the Nile at sunset,
another about shadowy camels
in sandstorms, ended with a brief verse
about how everything depends
on a little green scarab
glazed with dust in the burial pit.
The audience grew restless.
Where was the decay? Where was the madness?
He knew he’d lost them.
Their indifferent applause mocked him
as he humped into the night.
He became a recluse after that,
dressed all in white gauze,
wrote batches of poems
he tossed into a sarcophagus.
Future generations would discover his work,
declare him the genius he knew he was.
And after all, he
was the living dead.
He’d last long enough to see it happen.
(from How Time Got Away, © 2005, Pudding House Publications)

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My mother and I were talking over the weekend about what was my first Halloween costume.  She said she thought it was the tiger suit she made for me (see photo above, circa 1958). I said I wondered if it was the Mickey Mouse costume my brother’s wearing in this same photo. I don’t remember actually dressing up as Mickey Mouse, but I swear we have a photo somewhere of me wearing the costume (we never got around to digging out the photo to confirm this).

Another reason I believe I wore the Mickey Mouse costume first is because I doubt The Mouse was something my brother would have wanted to be; hence, the costume probably got passed down to him. (I’m four in the photo, so he’s two years old; later, the tiger costume was handed down to him as well.)

I can’t recall why on earth I wanted to be a tiger, but I do remember many details of Mom making that costume: studying the satiny orange fabric, watching her draw on the “stripes” with a marker (they don’t show up in the photo), and trying on the finished product. I also remember her wanting to paint a nose and whiskers on my face, but I wouldn’t let her. That tiger suit was shiny and soft, possibly the most comfortable Halloween costume I ever had.

We were also debating about what I was wearing the first time I went trick-or-treating. Mom thought it was the tiger costume, and maybe I did visit relatives while wearing it. But the ensemble I’m sure I was wearing for my first real beggar’s night was the princess gown Mom sewed, topped by a crown Mom fashioned out of her own bridal veil headpiece. I remember pearls and sequins and netting on the headpiece, but maybe that’s just me embroidering the recollection (no pun in tended).

Mom used to keep journal notes on family events, and here’s something I remember from that first beggar’s night:

She took me, my brother Frankie,  and my cousin Donnie (they were the same age, two years younger than me) to a few trusted homes in our East End neighborhood. There were lots of stairs to the various houses built on slopes under the railroad tracks — maybe elevated because too often the Ohio River reached Eastern Avenue in the old days — and that might be why our trick-or-treat visits were limited. Mom said the script was the same at every door:

Donnie: “Twick-or-Tweat, Twick-or-Tweat!”

Frankie: “Dick-or-Deet, Dick-or-Deet!”

Me: “I don’t think anybody’s home.”

There are home movies of Frankie and me visiting Grandma Mary and Aunt Clara as well as my cousin Charlie, who lived in the same multi-family house. Later she filmed us in Grandma Martha’s dining room at home, eating apples from our treat bags and getting up to waltz for the camera as Grandpa and my father sit sternly in the background, trying to watch some Western on television.

That same home movie also shows two beggars who came to Grandma’s door for treats. Both were African American, dressed in everyday pants and jackets, wearing only masks as costume pieces. One is sporting a mask of Jimmy Dodd from the Mickey Mouse Club; the other simply wears two eye masks — one over his eyes, one over his mouth (both different colors). Costuming was much more casual then, especially in the East End.

Note: The photo above was originally black-and-white; I tinted it digitally for a craft project. I used the photo for this rattle h-party-stick-small-web-view.jpg(although I didn’t put anything in it to make noise; you could also call it a wand or party stick, I guess). I simply painted a paper mache craft box black and glued scrapbook paper to the lid (gluing the lid on the box first), then attached the photo to the lid. I made an accordion fold of checkered paper and tied it in the middle, with one side longer than the other; then fanned the accordion out, glued the end pieces together, and affixed the “ruffle” to the bottom of the box. Next I punched a hole in the side of the box below the photo and inserted a painted dowel, which I glued (stuff something in the hole around the dowel and apply a good dab of hot glue if the dowel wants to pop out). A few ribbons tied to the dowel, and my wand was finished.

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