Halloween is my favoritest non-religious holiday (my favorite religious holiday is Yom Kippur), and I was hoping for a Halloween wedding. Unfortunately, someone wasn’t on the same urgent timetable I am about making things official and actually planning a wedding far enough in advance. Anyway, I freaking love Halloween, all the spooky decorations, the ghost stories, the candy, the haunted houses, the classic horror movies (back when movies were still intelligently-written instead of full of unnecessary sex, violence, and curse words that serve no purpose to the plot or characters’ development), the traditional Irish customs of Samhain, the costumes, the everything.
I’ve written Halloween scenes/chapters in quite a few of my books, but the one I’m sharing here is Chapter 3 of Adicia’s story, “Halloween 1959.” This was written when I was still reconstructing what I could from memory, and I knew I’d had a Halloween section in the then-lost first draft. The 10 chapters of Part I were deliberately written as short (Chapter 10, “The Sacrifice of Gemma,” is by far the longest, at 30 double-spaced pages; all the rest are about 10-15 pages), simplistic, centered around a holiday or period in the calendar year, like Easter, Xmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year, etc.
I was going for the style a lot of the classic young people’s series I loved growing up did—the writing style starts out rather simplistic since the characters are so young, and as they get older and more mature, the writing style and the storylines gradually get more complex, mature, deep. In Part I, Adicia is just a little girl, five years old until the closing section of Chapter 10, when she’s six and serving as the flower girl at Gemma’s forced wedding. I tried as best I could to write most of it through the eyes of a five-year-old girl with a big imagination in spite of her uncertainty about getting away from her poor class origins. She knows the world isn’t all puppies and flowers because of where she’s from, but at heart, she’s still only a little girl. I know now it’s not so popular to write an adult or mature teen book whose protagonist is a child for about half of the book, but I’m sure it’s not the first time such a book has been done.
“Look what I’ve got for you, Tommy!” Mrs. Troy dangles a sack in front of her pet child. “My friend and co-worker Mrs. Rossi on the third floor let me come over to use her sewing machine so I could make you this darling little Halloween costume!”
“Did you make the rest of us Halloween costumes too?” Adicia asks eagerly, wondering if perhaps her mother is growing a heart.
“Of course not. I can’t waste my hard-earned money on fabric and thread to make costumes for eight other children. And I’m not one of those television mothers, June Cleaver or Donna Reed. You know very well I hate homemaking and don’t coddle children besides Tommy.”
Adicia’s heart sinks. Her mother is still as self-centered and mean as she’s always been.
“You watch television, Mother?” Ernestine asks. “Do you watch it when you’re at work?”
“Some of the people I’ve worked with and for discuss the programs they like to watch. I know as much about the popular shows as I would if I actually watched them every week. Anyone who wants to can pitch in to get me and your father a television set for Christmas so we don’t have to learn about them from the weekly updates at work.”
“A television set must cost a fortune!” Emeline says. “The prices I see on them when we go to Macy’s and the other stores are more than a few weekly paychecks for both of you!”
Tommy rips open the sack. “I love you, Mommy! I’m going to be a red crayon and collect lots of candy!”
“Can we go trick-or-treating too if we get our own costumes?” Adicia begs.
“You mistakes can do whatever you want, but I’d just make you turn over all your candy to Tommy. You don’t deserve candy and chocolate.”
“What if Tommy gets so many cavities all his teeth fall out?” Emeline asks. “Can you afford the dental bills?”
“You think I really care if all his teeth fall out? My golden boy prince has earned the right to eat a million pieces of candy in a row if he so wants. Most people get a lot of false teeth and fillings through their lives. Only uppity rich folk think they need to waste money on a foolish luxury like going to a dentist every year. Ain’t it enough you all have toothbrushes?”
“And if my teeth fall out from eating lots of yummy candy, the Tooth Fairy will visit me and put money under my pillow!” Tommy crows.
“The Tooth Fairy never visited me any of the times I lost my teeth,” Adicia complains. “She’s never visited Ernestine or Emeline either.”
“The Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist,” Emeline says. “It’s a feel-good myth parents tell their children, like Santa or the Easter Bunny, so they won’t think their parents are the ones leaving money or presents. If any of those figures really existed, they would’ve visited all of us equally, not just Prince Tommy.”
“Tommy, we’re going to carve a spooky jack-o-lantern together,” Mrs. Troy goes on, tuning out her daughters. “And you’re going to get a cute little plastic jack-o-lantern of your own to collect your candy in. We’ll trick-or-treat at all the houses and apartments on the Lower East Side and try to get to at least one other neighboring area before the night is over. I’ll be carrying a big pillowcase so you can dump your candy into it when your pumpkin overflows. How could anyone not want to give such a sweet little angel an extra share of candy?”
“I’ll know if any of you dumb girls steals my candy!” Tommy warns his sisters.
Everyone in Adicia’s school except a few odd people from extremely religious families celebrates Halloween, and even most of the people in their otherwise downtrodden neighborhood decorate for Halloween and celebrate too. The kids in the high school Gemma, Carlos, and Allen go to are having a Halloween dance and party, and even Lucine’s junior high school is having a Halloween dance and party festivities. The elementary school Emeline, Ernestine, and Adicia go to has announced costume contests in each classroom, along with class parties and a big Halloween parade all around the school. Adicia and her sisters will look and feel like outcasts when they show up to school on Friday, the day before Halloween, wearing their usual ragged hand-me-down clothes instead of Halloween costumes. Sarah would probably make them costumes if they asked, but there isn’t enough money to get the fabric and thread, nor enough time to sew them by hand. The Troys don’t own a sewing machine, so Mrs. Troy uses their neighbors’ machines on the odd occasion she wants to work on a larger sewing project like Tommy’s Halloween costume or a baby animal-themed quilt Tommy received for a third birthday present.
Most of the other kids in their classes will also be bringing in food for the parties, food made by their loving, attentive mothers. A lot of the food will be Halloween-themed, like cupcakes with little ghosts outlined on top, cakes with bats and spiders frosted on them, and hollowed-out pumpkins filled with soup made with autumnal vegetables. Those mothers take pride in their cooking and homemaking. Mrs. Troy can’t understand the idea of asking children to bring in food from home for parties, and says it’s just a way for mothers to compete with one another in who makes the best baked goods. She wouldn’t even know what to do with a box of pre-made cake or brownie batter if it dropped into her lap along with the mixing bowl, baking pan, whisk, and wooden spoon.
“Do you think we’ll get punished by our teachers when we show up tomorrow without costumes?” Adicia asks Ernestine on Thursday after dinner, when they’re in their tiny bedroom.
“We live in a historically poor neighborhood,” Emeline speaks up. “Our teachers will be idiots if they send us to the principal’s office because we didn’t wear costumes. My teacher never said it was a required assignment like doing your math homework or bringing something for show and tell.”
“Maybe we can take some of Gemma’s makeup and use that as part of a costume,” Ernestine suggests. “And you know she sometimes leaves her handbag lying around. We could take a little money from it and go out to buy something.”
“Gemma would notice we stole her makeup and her money,” Emeline points out. “I saw her costume hanging in her wardrobe. She’s going as a ballerina to her Halloween party on Saturday night.”
“How can our mother call herself a real mother?” Adicia protests. “Real mothers love all their kids and do nice things for them. Our mother only loves Tommy and maybe Gemma. I don’t even think she loves Carlos and Allen. She just likes them ‘cause they’re boys and they help with money.”
“Like Sarah says, giving birth to a child doesn’t always make you a mother,” Emeline says. “And there are more ways to be a mother than having biological children. Some teachers and nuns have more kids than a lot of people who just happened to reproduce.”
Out in the living room, Gemma is spinning around in her ballerina costume and whining about how it doesn’t fit as well as it did when she bought it. Sarah has been pressed into commission letting out the waistline.
“I think someone had a few too many cream puffs on her last date,” Carlos sneers. “Or you’re just overeating on your lunch break at your big fancy job.”
Gemma steps back into her room quickly to take it off and put her normal clothes back on. When she comes out, she dumps the costume in Sarah’s lap.
“I had a sundae on my last date with Johnny Jefferson, and he was nice enough to let me eat most of his too. We also had steak for dinner and then went out again for apple pie before he walked me home.”
“Men don’t like a woman who overeats,” Mrs. Troy proclaims as she lights a cigarette. “Nobody loves a fat girl.”
“It’s called a healthy appetite, Mother, and why shouldn’t I eat my fill when I have the chance? You’d prefer I keep to our pathetic roadkill and spoilt turnips diet even when I’m at work, on dates, and out with friends?”
“She’s getting above her raising,” Carlos says derisively. “Next thing you’ll know, she’ll be moving into a swank mansion on Long Island with a millionaire husband and putting her three kids in private schools.”
“I actually would like to move to Long Island or one of the nicer neighborhoods uptown, and I do intend to only have a few kids as opposed to a huge pile of brats. I bet your stupid self will be in jail or a sanitarium when I’m a proper society woman with a respectable husband. How many times have you gotten high or drunk already this week, Carlos? I admit I smoke sometimes on dates or with friends, but smoking cigarettes isn’t bad for your health or something only degenerates and delinquents do.”
“We’ll find you a husband we approve of by the time you’re twenty, Gemma,” Mrs. Troy promises. “He won’t be as bad-off as we are, but he won’t be a rich man either. I hope you get all this teenage foolishness out of your system by the time you need to settle down and be a full-time wife and mother.”
Gemma dismissively waves her hand at her mother. “I am going to graduate high school as the Class of 1960, a woman of a new decade. Your worldview will be a relic before you know it. I’m going to have fun, not saddle myself down to a guy you want me to marry when I’m not even old enough to vote yet.”
“Do you think you expanded your waist for another reason besides overeating recently?” Allen asks.
Gemma turns bright red. “What kind of immoral, loose woman do you take me for? Maybe you and Carlos do those things with girls, but I value my reputation. God, I’d kill myself if I got in trouble like that.”
“Sometimes I want to kill myself just for living in this tenement,” Allen says. “But unlike you, other people depend on me to help take care of them.”
Carlos wanders over to the kitchen, where he, Allen, and their parents have a drug lab of sorts. He wishes his sisters would all shut up about how the money they’ve poured into drugs, drug paraphernalia, and the home lab over the years could’ve been used to buy better food and clothes, or to upgrade their living quarters somewhat. Carlos expects all of his younger sisters to take up drugs and alcohol themselves when they get a bit older, and for the same reasons he, Allen, and their parents did. They weren’t motivated by a love of breaking the law and putting potentially dangerous chemical mixes into their bodies so much as they wanted an easy, reliable escape from the hard life they were born into. It remains a surprise to him that Gemma has never touched drugs, and that Lucine hasn’t expressed any interest in them either, despite being about the age he and Allen were when they started dabbling.
In the morning, Adicia, Emeline, and Ernestine head out to their elementary school, wearing their usual hand-me-down rags. Ernestine tried to go to school in her pajamas and pass that off as a costume, but Mrs. Troy wouldn’t let her leave the house like that. Emeline thought of going dressed like a boy, in pants and an old shirt belonging to her older brothers, but couldn’t find a hat to tuck her hair up under. At least Lucine is in eighth grade now and isn’t expected to wear a costume to school, in spite of the class parties.
“What a surprise, the dirty Troy girls couldn’t afford costumes,” one of the Debbies in Emeline’s class taunts when they get to the schoolyard.
“I think they did dress up. As their ragged selves, in costumes they didn’t need to make specially for today,” one of the Barbaras in Ernestine’s class says.
“How often does your mother brush or comb your hair?” Theresa Mladsky comes over to them and starts walking around them. “All three of you have hair full of rats’ nests.”
“We do get our hair brushed by our nanny,” Ernestine says. “It’s harder to untangle when you’re not able to get it brushed every day.”
Adicia looks around with a mixture of jealousy and wonder. All the other boys and girls on the schoolyard are dressed in Halloween costumes—witches, wizards, cowboys, cowgirls, Indians, monsters, princesses, kings, queens, princes, ballerinas, Chinese girls, outlaws, circus animals, cereal boxes, scarecrows, Vampyres, and Frankenstein’s monster. Their mothers probably spent a lot of time sewing their costumes, and making the special Halloween-themed baked goods they’ll be eating at their class parties.
“I don’t think girls who came to school without costumes should get any candy or food at our parties,” Jody Krause says.
“And I don’t think people who are so rude and mean to the faces of people who never did anything bad to them deserve to go through life with so many nice things,” Emeline says. “Why are any of yous so mean to us? Are yous just offended we’re different from you, and that difference makes yous uncomfortable? I was reading the English translation of a book our German nanny recommended, and it says when you hate someone, you hate something in that person that’s part of yourself, since what isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”
“Stupid bookworm,” Jeanie Mraz says as she walks into the building.
“I bet you need glasses before we graduate sixth grade,” one of the Lindas in Emeline’s class says. “I’m shocked you don’t need them yet from all that squinting at books you do. And no boy wants to date a girl with glasses or who knows more than he does.”
“Can I read that book after you’re done with it?” Ernestine asks.
Emeline smiles down at her. “I don’t know if it’s at your reading level. It’s a book from the adult section of the library. Sarah says the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.”
“I wish I read well enough to read grownup books.”
“You can borrow some of my other books I have out from the library. I’m working my way through the Five Little Peppers series and am only on the second book right now. They’re really old books, but they are children’s books. The author had a number of limitations as a writer, and it’s really obvious it was written in the Victorian era, but they’re nice classic children’s books at heart.”
The children start filtering into the school when the principal appears on the steps. The Troy girls join hands and slowly walk over to the steps leading up to the entrance for girls. Emeline grumbles under her breath about how stupid it is that schools still have different doors for boys and girls when it’s practically 1960.
“We’ll meet back out on the playground for lunch,” Emeline tells them. “And I’m sure we’ll have a nice Halloween celebration of some type with Sarah, Justine, and Lucine tomorrow, when we’ll have the apartment to ourselves.”
Adicia sits through the day miserably, watching the other little girls and boys in kindergarten walking about in their wonderful costumes and helping themselves to the cupcakes, cookies, cakes, tortes, pies, and other wonders whipped up by mothers who actually enjoy being mothers and treating their children in a special way. She and her sisters are in a very small group that has to stand off to the side when the costumed students put on their big parade around the entire school. At least the teachers didn’t have to make them feel even more shunned and just had students with the best costumes go on the parade. Adicia can hardly stand the thought of sweet little Justine, almost eight months old, having to go through this same ordeal when her time comes to start school.
Saturday is Halloween. The apartment is indeed emptied out for Adicia and her sisters, as Gemma is at her party, Carlos and Allen are out with some girls, Mrs. Troy is taking Tommy trick-or-treating, and Mr. Troy is picking up a few extra shifts at the factory. As depressing as their surroundings are, it’s still nice to have a little privacy for awhile.
“I’m going to make lovely Halloween costumes for my kids when I’m a mother,” Ernestine declares as they gather under the table, the lights dimmed, to tell spooky stories. “I’ll have a nice modern sewing machine instead of that ancient black thing our mother uses when she makes stuff for Tommy.”
“I would’ve loved to be something historical,” Emeline says. “A Pilgrim, a Colonial girl, a pioneer, a Medieval princess, something that lets me express my love of history.”
“Did you celebrate Halloween in Germany, Sarah?” Adicia asks.
“Halloveen is an American holiday. I never saw anybody celebrate it. All I know about it, I learnt since I came to dis country.”
“Halloween started in Ireland thousands of years ago,” Emeline says. “It’s only relatively recently gotten more and more popular in the West, mostly America and Canada. It’s still celebrated in a more traditional fashion in Spanish-speaking countries. If the high school taught Spanish, I’d be looking forward to learning about how it’s celebrated in the various parts of Latin America when I start high school in three years.”
“In any other family, you vould’ve been enrolled in a special school for gifted yout or at least skipped a grade or two,” Sarah says.
“My teachers always knew I’m advanced for my age and that I’ve read my way through almost all the books in all my classrooms’ libraries and the main school library. It’ll probably be awhile before I get through every book that interests me at the Tompkins Square Library. I go to the Hamilton Fish Park Library sometimes too. That’ll have to do for now.”
“It’s colder than usual in here,” Adicia says. “Can someone put the stove on?”
The lights go out as Sarah is getting up and going over to the stove. Lucine picks up the flashlight and starts looking through the apartment for matches and candles. The fuse box is located in the basement and is only supposed to be accessed by the landlord, who usually only has anything to do with his tenants when he’s evicting them, demanding back rent, or shutting off various utilities for failure to pay those bills.
“Do you think our cheapskate parents didn’t pay again, or is it just a blackout?” Lucine asks. “Usually they don’t shut off utilities at the end of the month. It’s usually a week or two after the first of the month.”
“It’s probably just a blackout,” Emeline says. “We can live without electricity for a little while. How do you think people functioned in the days before gas and electricity gave us light and heat?”
Ernestine goes over to the door by the fire escape and looks outside. “The people in the building across the street from us don’t have any lights on either. It must just be a local thing.”
“Can you tell us a scary story, Sarah?” Adicia asks. “But don’t make it too scary.”
“Oh, you can’t scare us that easily,” Ernestine boasts. “We are not babies, and we live with scarier stuff than some ghosts and witches that don’t even exist.”
Justine begins fussing on Sarah’s lap. Lucine shines around the flashlight to locate the diaper bag where Sarah keeps diapers, diaper pins, bottles, Enfamil, and other baby supplies for Justine. Since Justine was born in March, her own mother has never even changed one diaper or administered one feeding. Since having her first four children before Sarah came along, she has only been actively involved in mothering with Tommy. Adicia was only nineteen months old when Tommy was born, but Ernestine was two months shy of four, and remembers Mrs. Troy holding Tommy nice and close while she fed him a bottle of Similac she heated up, then lovingly burping him, bathing him, rocking him, changing him. All because he turned out to be a boy.
“I’ll tell you a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Sarah says as she sits back under the table and guides the bottle into Justine’s mouth. “Emeline is very familiar vit dese stories, but I don’t know if she’s read all of dem.”
“It was the first book I ever read,” Emeline nods. “Our parents caught me reading it when I was three years old, and I got scared and pretended I was just looking at the pictures. I didn’t get caught knowing how to read till I was four, but Sarah knew most of that time I could read.”
“I wish I could’ve learnt to read all by myself that young,” Lucine says. “I still think you’re some kind of savant for just waking up one day and starting to read from an adults’ book, no previous reading lessons or anything.”
“Let me tell you de story of de boy who vent to learn vat fear vas. Once upon a time, a vater had two sons. De younger son vas asked by his vater vat he’d like to learn to make a living, and said he vanted to learn how to shudder. A man at church said he could teach de boy. After he learnt how to ring de church bell, he vas sent at midnight to ring de bell and de church man appeared dressed as a ghost. De boy vanted to know vat vas going on, and ven he didn’t get an answer, he pushed de man down de stairs. His vater vas very upset, and made him leave to learn how to shudder. All de time de boy complained dat he didn’t how to shudder. Den he vas advised to spend a night under de gallows, vere seven men vere hanging….”
Adicia and Ernestine sit wide-eyed as Sarah tells the story of the little boy who was so arrogantly fearless he wasn’t even scared by things that would scare the pants off any other child, like seeing a ghost, spending three nights in a haunted castle, sleeping under a gallows with seven dead bodies dangling from nooses, being attacked by dogs and cats in the darkened castle, seeing half a man falling down a chimney, witnessing a game of bowling played with skulls and severed legs, and being attacked by a man who comes back to life in a coffin. They think the story is pretty scary, but can’t help but wondering if they would react in a similar apathetic and annoyed fashion if they were dealt with some of these terrifying things. Sarah went through a lot of things they think are pretty scary and horrible too, and she’s said she became numb to it all after awhile. It seems only fitting to the two of them that the first book Emeline ever read contained this and other grim and disturbing stories. They all know better than to believe life is like a Disney fairy tale. Where they’re from, life is more like a Grimm’s fairy tale.