Halloween has been my favorite holiday for just about as long as I can remember. I was around 7 years old when the real power of the day struck me: we were out shopping for Halloween costumes, and I clearly remember thinking that I could be anyone or anything I wanted. That was just so cool! So empowering! Well, I promptly chose to be Cinderella, if I recall correctly, so maybe not so much with the baby feminism just then. But a mere few years later, I went out dressed as Zorro, so I wasn’t overly constrained by gender roles. (Thank you, Feminist Mommy!)
We had some great Halloween parties in those early years–we lived on rural properties with lots of space for dancing around bonfires and bobbing for apples, with creepy old barns that made great haunted houses, and I had a much-older brother who was really good at creeping up out of ditches and scaring the living bejeesus out of everyone. Ah, good times! And of course, I have very fond memories of going into town to trick-or-treat with friends, and the fun of divvying up the loot once we all got back to the house.
My favorite happy-spooky Halloween memory happened one year when it was just me and my little brother going around trick-or-treating together. I was probably ten years old, my brother, eight. At the time, we lived in a tiny farming community in southwest Iowa, the type of small town where even today you can turn your kids loose on the streets without too much worry. P and I were working our way up a street in town, having a really good night of it, when we came to a big old brick house–a mansion, it seemed to me. The porch light was on (the universal sign for “come take candy from us!”) so we rang the bell. After a moment, an elderly woman, dressed in a long, black dress, with her gray hair pulled up in bun, answered the door. She held the door wide and gestured for us to step into the candle-lit foyer, where another older lady, also in an elegant, old-fashioned gown, stood by a punchbowl on a table. “Cider?” she offered. They were very kindly, and seemed really excited to have little children in the house, so of course, my danger sense went off like a klaxon. With the decorations, the house itself, and ladies’ dresses, the whole thing felt like when we crossed the threshold, we had stepped back in time, and I figured that if we drank the punch, we’d probably be trapped back there with them. And yet, how to politely refuse these sweet old women without letting on that I thought they were child-eating witches? (I wasn’t raised on the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales for nothing! I knew what I was up against!) All I could think about was the fact that we would disappear into time, never to be seen again, and it would be all my fault. I was the elder child! I was responsible for my little brother! I had to get us out of there!
“Um…no, thanks. I don’t like cider,” I said, expecting to hear the front door slam shut, trapping us. Instead, the lady put down the ladle, perhaps a bit disappointed, and picked up a candy dish. “Well, be sure you get candy then, dear,” she said, and put a handful into each of our bags. “Thank you!” we chorused politely. The other lady, still at the door–the door that had never shut behind us–smiled as we left and wished us a happy Halloween. Once back outside, I looked around for signs of the time–were we now, or were we then? There were cars parked on the street! We were okay, it was still now! I was shaking from the adrenaline rush and then the relief of escape. I didn’t feel safe until we were several houses down the street, having perfectly normal jokes-for-candy exchanges again.
I clutched that memory closely for years. I don’t remember when I told my Mom about it, but when I did, she claimed to have no idea who those old ladies could have been–she knew what house I was talking about, but had no memory of two old women who lived there. (Of course, it would be just like Ramona to add to the ambience of a classic Halloween scare by implying that it really had been a ghostly encounter.) And I was never sure just how spooky the ladies were trying to be. Maybe they just chose costumes that fit with the period of the house, and put out treats straight from their own happy Halloween memories. But I remember them as almost tittering with amusement, a definite glint in their eyes, so I’ve always chosen to believe they deliberately gave me the greatest Halloween fright of my life, the dear old things.
The experience has been polished by decades of memory, until now it shines out, the jeweled spider in the center of my web of Halloween memories. It has influenced my approach to the day–I strongly prefer a sense of elegant decay, rather than outright gore, in costumes and decorations. It’s been 25 years or more, so for certain, the ladies themselves are long gone–assuming they were living women at the time, of course–and yet, they live on in my mind, giggling together delightedly over a bowl of spiced cider, waiting for the next children to gently terrorize. And you can bet, one of the threads I’m following through my life is waiting until the day when I’m a gray-haired old lady, waiting in an elegant and creepy room, to offer small children a drink of something mysterious. If the children catch a twinkle in my eye, it will be those two dear ladies, having a peek through my eyes, and I hope like anything to see my own frightened, ten-year-old self peering back from at least one imaginative little girl.