Wednesday, October 20, 2010




As a youngster, I loved Halloween--not for candy, but for costumes. Briefly in my little world, I could walk around as someone else--like a child playing dress-up with bits and pieces from an attic trunk.

The search through bureaus, trunks and closets was a joyful part of it. Sometimes the outcomes were surprising.

The first costume I remember was a grown-up's cast-off gown. My mother nipped and tucked, and slashed the hem to suit my height (or lack of it), and wrapped a brilliant scarf around my waist. She draped me with a fur-piece from her single life, and presto! I was transformed into a 1930s movie star!

Beneath the neighbors' porch lights, I got a better look and saw the vintage fur was made of little foxes, with eyes and little teeth and paws, each pelt clinging to the next. I was terrified!

My mother stood protectively behind us in the shadows. I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so I feigned illness. I couldn't wait to get back home and peel off those scary little animals. I soon became more independent in my costume choices.

When I was eight or so, I loved the smiling Aunt Jemima on the pancake mix and syrup. For Halloween that year, I decided she was who I'd be. I meant no harm; Aunt Jemima was to me a warm and friendly presence.

I tied a big red handkerchief around my head and donned a dress and my mother's apron, and then I sneaked down to the big coal furnace and smeared my face and neck with coal soot--an addition apparently unnoticed by my busy mother as I went out the door with my crowd of siblings. Mom wasn't happy with me when I returned that night from trick-or-treating. She refused to help me clean my face and ears and hairline, though for a week it seemed impossible to remove the soot from underneath my fingernails. "That's your punishment for disrespect," my mother told me. Even at my tender age, it was clear to me she felt I was disrespecting an entire race of people different from ourselves.

One year, Buster Keaton comedies from the silent movie days were a costume inspiration for me; no one recalled those silent movies I had read about, and I was mistaken for a bum!

Another year I dressed as Moonbeam McSwine, bad girl from Li'l Abner comics. That costume was a flop, because my mother saw the scanty outfit and promptly censored it into something else entirely.

In Halloweens of my teens and slightly beyond, I trick-or-treated or went to costume parties as a flower child, an Appalachian apple seller, a garbage man, a mail man, a housewife, a mechanic, a "Babushka Woman", a schoolmarm, a beatnik, a pioneer... With painted stripes on white pajamas, I was even once a jailbird!

My props included mops, sun bonnets, baseball caps, berets, pails, curlers, pillows, grease, wrenches, bubble-gum, blacked-out teeth, tambourines, bongo drums ...

Sometimes I wasn't really sure myself who I was meant to be; improvisation was the point and half the fun. As a teen, I showed up at a costume party as MYSELF, and won the prize for most original; the meaning of that wasn't really clear to me.

Similar to that was the Halloween that fell on the eve of my eldest child's birth, when I still felt well enough to escort young nieces and a nephew trick-or-treating. One homeowner spotted me behind the kids and urged, "Come forward, little pregnant mommy; what a costume!"

In modem Halloweens, trick-or-treat has rapidly faded, and grown-up costume parties have all but disappeared. Ten years ago, however, a relative-by-marriage delightfully revived the costume party for a lucky few of us, with a costume gathering in her family's cozy barn. Eureka!

That year I didn't think about my costume until an hour before party-time, when I dug into my closet, threw on a Russian shawl I'd never found excuse to wear, stuck colorful large hoops into my earlobes, grabbed a decorative straw chapeau from the hall tree, and went as "Gypsy Rose." I was escorted by my husband who appeared before me as an aging tie-dyed hippie whose crew-cut silver hair didn't look like any 60s hippie anyone of us had ever seen.

A Hunter's Moon was brilliant in that Indian Summer night. There was a campfire in the neighborhood, and some of us pretended we were smelling burning leaves, an aroma that has been against the law for many years.

For a little while that evening, we all were laughing kids again; and none the worse for it!

(Rose About Town can be reached these days at Though Rose may be up in the air on a broom this Halloween, feel free to leave a comment at that gmail address).