Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ghosts, Grief, and Halloween: Remembering Childhood and My Sister

Me, age one
I woke up this Halloween morning excited for my son to put on his Halloween costume. He's Willy Wonka this year, and the past three days I've spent crouched over purple velvet and the sewing machine. He woke up with the same excitement and quickly ate his cereal so he could turn into the candy man. But I've been followed all morning with a deep, bittersweet feeling.

At first, I thought it was because of the disjunction between his experience and my own. Of working so hard on the costume, and then to watch him walk into preschool to the bubbly buzz of his friends asking who he was, and his proud reply. I waved goodbye and drove back into the non-costumed world. But, I think it's maybe only a little of that I was feeling. Mostly, I'm missing my sister.

When mourning is spoken of, it's the holidays, the anniversaries, the birthdays, that are agreed to be the hardest of the other 364 hard days. And Halloween is the holiday I miss my sister most on. Or think of her most on. Or, it's the same. Thinking and missing. One leading to the other.

My sister and me, then my sister a year earlier
On Friday, I learned last-minute about a Halloween carnival my son would enjoy attending, but because I wasn't done with his official Halloween costume, he and I bicycled to the store to put together a ghost costume. I knew how to put it together because of the ghost costume my sister created for my first trick-or-treat.

Halloween, Autumn--the whole month of October--are inextricably tied to my childhood and my sister, who was sixteen years older than me. Our father enjoyed Halloween, too, and had a special delight of the grotesque and the surprise of fear. I remember wandering up an aisle in a sort of warehouse store in our town, and seeing him up ahead, and then he turned, wearing a gorilla-looking mask. I was terrified. He was full of laughter. The result was the tragedy of a child not ready for that kind of fright--a kind of unintentional hazing into the season of masks and transformation.

Ghost me, first Trick-or-Treat
One of my brothers, too, gets a kick out of Halloween, the comic-grossness of it. A rubber severed hand, a plastic rat with red eyes, a candy bowl with an automated scream or hand. Give him the quirky strange, a bowl of candy eyeballs, and he's happier than happy. What was his best childhood Halloween? In Houston, they'd take garbage bags and fill them up with treats. What was the worst? The year my family decided to eat his candy without telling him (I was not born yet). When the party store opened in the city, he took me and we wandered the aisles, ogling the masks lining the wall, more expensive and bloody and realistic than we'd ever seen.

But my sister knew how to mix fear and comfort--how to delight in the season and share that in a way that did not terrify but that allowed enjoyment of the terrifying. I guess it's the Spirit of Halloween she had.

She would come over on Halloween, late afternoon, every year, as reliable as love and sunset. I would sit on the dining room chair, and on the table she would spread out the face paint, perfectly oval and in its wonderful plastic and cardboard packaging. Eye shadow. The little sponge applicators. Brushes. Her tools laid out, she would crouch in front of me. An unwanted dishtowel would be pushed inside the collar of my shirt.

And I would be told to hold still. Hold still. The feeling of the cold cream of the paint against my warm skin. My sister's careful expression. The heel of her hand against my jaw as she drew me into her imagination of who I would be that night.

When she was done, there would be the mirror reveal. This part I do not remember in the same way, though I know I was pleased, always.

Witch me (green face, red socks!)
I remember when I was a witch and she sprayed my hair orange, and I had to lean forward in the car the whole night so that I wouldn't get the orange on the upholstery.

I remember her taking me to her parents-in-law's house. The warmth of the furnace. I was a ghost. Everyone was delighted. I remember the spiderweb stockings. How lovely they were.

I remember the dark nights, the road and just her headlights as she drove us miles into the country so we could trick-or-treat her grandmother-in-law.

And then collecting the candy and hurrying back to her little car, which was always small, always unreliable, always one of my favorite places to be, and then she'd drive us to our next house. My elementary-school music teacher's cabin, which was at the end of a winding gravel lane, the headlights of my sister's car pressing against the tall, cold trees, and the effigy of Tom Dooley that my teacher would hang from one of the trees because she taught us the song every year.

With Yoda
Then, after, or before, I can't remember the order of our geography, we would drive into town and she would park, and we would walk to the few houses in a row that had their porch-lights on. The spookiest houses, with cobwebs and false men sitting on their porch swing and scary howling music, I would attempt to visit but I mostly remember avoiding them.

I can't remember whether she dressed up, too.

She also took my friends. One Halloween, my friend Amy who was a punk rocker with a star drawn around one eye. Another year, my best friend Ashley who was a devil in red felt. I became the same devil another year. Or maybe that's what I remember, visiting Ashley's house but in that costume.

Our mother enjoyed Halloween, too, and did sew several of my costumes as I would hover around the sewing machine, watching or trying on a pinned sleeve or standing on a chair as she moved around me, pinning the hem high enough so I wouldn't trip. I was Sleeping Beauty two years in a row. A French Maid another year with a wonderfully ruffly skirt and starched cap. But before this, I was horrified to be a witch who wore sweatpants due to the reality of cold, Midwestern Halloweens.
My son as a ghost

At the end of the evening, my sister and I returned home, sometimes to the last of the trick-or-treaters running across the yard, having collected goods from our mother and a bit of fright from our father who lurked in a mask or set up the wooden robot at the bottom of the stairs, lighted eyes on. The screaming doormat would be turned off, the candy counted on the living room carpet, and my sister would say goodbye before driving the dark road to her own home.

Then I was nine, and she had become a mother, and from that point on, my memories fade of our Halloweens. Seems like we all went to the pumpkin patch one year, and maybe she had both children by then. A wagon was involved, but it was my niece, or nephew, or both who sat in it. I continued to trick-or-treat, long past the age cut-off, to the point that Ashley and I were driving in my own small, unreliable car.

Once my sister had her own children, her spirit of Halloween didn't change, but her own little family moved to a different town, and her Halloweens came to me second-hand. She threw Halloween parties in the back yard. Her children became cowboys, vampires, and  more, but I have no memories for this.

Last Friday evening, my son climbed into his chair by the kitchen table, and I carefully drew circles of white paint on his soft cheeks, his forehead, down the smooth cliffs of his nose. He was delighted to see the ghost in the mirror and concerned that ghosts didn't wear tennis shoes. He held his hands under the tulle veil and ran, all in white.

I am surprised how much of my life is experiencing my past from my present. What did my sister think of when she crouched in front of me all those years?

Love, I think.


Happy Halloween, dear sister.

And to you, and you, and you.