When I walked into class at Mount Holyoke College the other day, the conversation among students was what you’d expect a few days before Halloween.
They were talking candy.
Marcella said her favorite was Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds. For Leslie, it was Charleston Chews—all three flavors. Lauren admitted she liked Mary Janes, and those taffy balls wrapped in orange and black waxed paper, oh, and Milk Duds. Madeline was torn. “There are so many,” she said, and then opted for Reese’s. Later she confessed to eating seven boxes of Nerds while preparing for her Italian mid-term. “The mini ones,” she declared. “And it was Dante!”
As a kid, I loved Halloween candy. Snickers were my favorites and my dad taught me they’re best popped in the freezer for a couple of hours before eating.
But when it came to the whole Halloween experience, my attitude was mixed. I never liked dressing in costume. That terrorizing scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” hit close to home. I disliked wearing a sweaty plastic mask cock-eyed on my head and worried that someone’s big brother would swoop from behind and scare the daylights out of me.
Come to think of it, the only time I ever enjoyed dressing in costume was for Miss America pageant parties I used to attend back in grad school. Everybody came decked out as their home state and we laughed at the show’s ridiculousness. One year when Missouri, my home state, experienced epic flooding, I came dressed as “Becky Thatcher at 30 feet above Flood Stage.” (Think bonnet and hip waders.) Another year, a friend took home the top costume prize for her simple yet impeccable salute to Connecticut. She was “Road Construction. Expect Delays.”
Growing up in Florissant, my neighborhood was a baby boomer’s Halloween paradise. Streets upon streets of new homes and World War II vets who were more grateful than we ever would know to spend their evening passing out M & Ms. In those days, there were so many kids moving in that you only had to go half-a-block to find someone in your class or scout troop. David Campbell, Sue Brown, the Clohessy twins, the Frey kids, Pat Gregory, Patty Lawrence, Gail Swick. They all were just a quick bike ride away.
On Halloween, there was one friend’s house we always visited.
Randy Russell lived eight houses away and we rode together on the same school bus. You get to know someone pretty well riding a school bus for twelve years. Randy was a wonderful kid—fun to be with and kind—and a friendship with Randy came with a bonus. He had great parents. On Halloween, Joe and Lucille Russell dazzled the neighborhood.
The Russell family’s Haunted House was well known up and down all the nearby “Saint Streets”: St. Catherine, St. Nicholas, St. Cornelius. If you were a kid and knew, for example, that the best local ice cream could be found at Bergen’s Dairy, you certainly knew that the Russells were THE stop on Halloween.
Randy’s parents loved kids. And maybe because they had only one child, they were especially open to entertaining the neighborhood. About two weeks before Halloween, word would leak out at school that the Russells were going ALL OUT this year. Rumors began to fly about wild costumes and boiling caldrons and a secret transformation going on that would take their one-car garage and turn it into the NIGHTMARE ON ST. ANTHONY STREET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Actually the Russells’ Halloween extravaganza was less about terror and more about imagination. I think they worked for weeks turning electric fans, flower pots and red silk scarves into kettles of monstrous flames. And then there were the creations of chicken wire and paper mache. Nothing was bought; every decoration was hand-made. And dry ice. The Russells always had dry ice.
Every year, we saved the Russells for our last Halloween stop and we left their house smiling and satisfied. Smug even. “The Russells are terrific!” Gail and I would say, as if their ingenuity were our own. It made us proud that Randy’s house had crowds of people lined up, waiting to get it. His parents’ creativity made our neighborhood feel special and we walked home puffed up and eager to gather at the bus stop the next day and relive the fun.
Maybe that’s what I cherish most about those Halloween memories: the sense of a shared experience. All of us knew the Lawrences gave out big candy bars. We all waited for Mrs. Swick to say something smart alecky about our costumes because she was the funniest mom. And the Russells, well, the Russells were simply the best.
Thinking about those Halloween nights long ago, I can see us—a pack of laughing kids racing up to doorbells, knocking each others’ masks off, comparing loot and swapping candy bars.
Halloween brought out in the tribe in us. We were a neighborhood, October kinsmen—reconstituted in the dark like plasma.