Last year, some friends and I had fun swapping childhood Halloween stories. I thought it’d be fun to republish the one I shared last year. It about one of those “character building” moments. And this year, I have a follow up story for you.
There are times when we are compelled to dig deep into our memories and sift through experiences in an attempt to create a whole picture of ourselves. This excavation can lead to a moment of clarity so great and so deep that we find ourselves shouting, THAT’S why I’m the way I am?!
This is one of those moments.
See that picture up there? I’m the one middle, standing alone, with my arms tightly crossed.
The year was 1983. And within the span of three months the following things happened: My family moved to a new town, I started at a new school, and my mom had another baby (upping the kid total to three). And right before this picture was taken, my mom’s appendix ruptured and it landed her in the hospital. So, you know, it was a lot all at once.
Now my mom’s laid up in the hospital, which, puts my father in charge of Halloween. This was an unusual assignment for him.
At the age of seven, I realized that my parents had two very different skill sets. Dad was the engineer. If I wanted a model rocket built or a telescope set up in the direction of Venus, I’d call my him. Mom was the homemaker. If I wanted to know how to make glue out of flour and water or turn a paper bag into a puppet, or if I needed a costume for Halloween, I’d call her. Perhaps it’s sexist, but at age seven, these were just facts.
Now, here’s how I imagine the transition of roles transpired that fateful October…
Mother laying in hospital bed: Jim, Jim darling, you must take care of the costumes for Halloween. Jenny wants to be a beautiful princess and Stephen wants to be a spooky ghost. Damn it Jim, you’re going to need to be creative. Think of the children. The chillllllllldren!*
Father: Becky, I got this covered. Don’t you worry.
*Note: my dad watched Star Trek and my mom soap operas, so that may possibly color the way in which I imagine this conversation went down.
Now let me say, my dad can make stuff. In 1980, he made us a home computer. Then he gave me a book of Basic Programming for Kids.
10 INPUT “What is your name: “, U$
20 PRINT “Hello “; U$
30 INPUT “How many stars do you want: “, N
40 S$ = “”
50 FOR I = 1 TO N
60 S$ = S$ + “*”
70 NEXT I
80 PRINT S$
90 INPUT “Do you want more stars? “, A$
100 IF LEN(A$) = 0 THEN GOTO 90
110 A$ = LEFT$(A$, 1)
120 IF A$ = “Y” OR A$ = “y” THEN GOTO 30
130 PRINT “Goodbye “; U$
I would make it to around line 60 and give up.
Once my dad took me to father/daughter day at work and he showed me the revolutionary technology he was working on: touch screens. I had no idea why anyone would want to touch a screen. Shows you what I know.
After the touchscreen, he took me down to this large warehouse type room filled with big, hulking boxes of metal that were being built and shipped to other countries. He pushed what seemed like a random order of buttons on these metal boxes and his name flashed across the screen. His name was all over the world. But only if you pushed the right buttons.
All of this is to say, the man could make things. Practical things. But here’s where I think things went wrong—I’m not sure Halloween costumes are all that…practical.
Case in point: how did my father interpret a beautiful princess and a spooky ghost? Well, you may want to look away, for what I’m about to show you has the potential to haunt your dreams forever, as it has mine…
Yegads. The amount of CFCs that must have been emitted in the production of those things. Seriously.
How did we arrived at this plastic monstrosity, you ask? Well, Dad took my brother and me to the local drug store. He walked us to the back of the store where the costumes were, pointed to the bottom shelf and said, “Pick one.” I balked. Didn’t he realize costumes weren’t supposed to come from the drugstore, let alone in a cellophane box?
“But Dad, there’s no princess.”
“What? Sure there is. It’s right there.”
“It’s not a princess. I don’t know what this is?”
“It’s a princess. There’s a crown. And some hearts. Just, look, take the box.”
I picked up the box and issued a sigh so great, it could be heard three states away.
After we purchased our costumes, we marched in the town Halloween parade. I could not have felt more out of place in my plastic mask and plastic… what would you call that? A tarp? A sheet?
The parade wound its way up main street to the municipal parking lot. There, the children were instructed to form a circle for the costume contest.
As I stood to be judged surrounded by homemade costumes that obviously took more than a walk into the store to make, I felt a wave of humiliation wash over me. I wasn’t thinking about my mother, who was laying in a hospital bed. I wasn’t thinking of my dad who was managing the best way he could with three kids and a sick wife. All I was thinking was: Dear God, if you can hear me, can you please make this thing be over now?
What can I say? I was a kid and clearly, the center of my own universe.
Last year, I found myself sharing my tale of Halloween horror with a friend. And do you know what she said? “Well that explains so much about you.”
I thought: It does? Oh my God, it does!
Halloween is another in the list of childhood experiences that can shape us in ways we might not initially expect. I might have hated that Halloween. Now I look back on that plastic tarp-covered day in 1983 with great affection. Who knew you could find character in a cellophane box?
Here’s a follow up story to this one. Last year, Dave and I took the kids back to this very same event, in the very same town, in the very same parking lot. But this outcome this time was very different—my daughter won the costume contest.
In the moment after they called my daughter’s name, a curious thing happened. A figure dressed in a poorly designed plastic tarp appeared across the blacktop. Some may say it was a mirage, others a hallucination. But me? I knew what who it was, if only by not being able to tell exactly what she was dressed as.
The 7 year old, completely non eco-friendly version of me (so much plastic!), unfolded her arms, looked me square in the eye and gave me a thumbs up. Then she disappeared to go whatever ghosts of the past go when you help them move on.
Goodbye little Jenny, goodbye.