A Halloween Madeleine

porchI am a person who remembers absolutely everything. I remember being sick when I was two years old and believed (one, hopes, due to fever and not psychopathology) that tiny men were marching out of my laundry hamper. I remember the first day of kindergarten, the exact words in the note from Eric saying he didn’t like me that way in fifth grade, the way the flap of skin looked after I jumped on a clam shell in Maine when I was ten, and the phone numbers of all my friends from high school.  I remember the way the air smelled in Boston on a day when it carried the ocean into the City, and the diesel smell of the streets in Europe. I remember slights and offenses and try hard to forget them. I remember generosities and kindnesses, and try to cherish them.  I remember to do the things I say I’m going to do, unless I’m under enormous stress. (That’s a whole different issue).

So remembering things about Halloweens past should be easy, right?  All of the pumpkins, and costumes, and cobweb-covered porches should transport me back, like Proust in Rememberance of Things Past:

And suddenly the memory revealed itself: The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.

No dice. I love Halloween; in general I prefer the autumn holidays because they don’t happen in summer (which I dislike) and I don’t have to buy gifts, decorate the house or forget to send cards again.

I remember all of my son Sam's Halloweens, from his first one-house trick-or-treat venture in a little dalmatian suit to the toddler year when he fought me the entire time I was applying his clown makeup, so that he went out looking like a tiny Phyllis Diller with a rainbow afro. In 2008 I dressed him as Sarah Palin (complete with a skirt suit and a rifle), and the year before, I made him an iPod costume (one of my greatest creative accomplishments ever).  I am a veritable encyclopedia on The Halloweens of Sam;  It’s my own Halloween history I can’t remember.

I am sitting here looking out the window at fallen leaves. A pumpkin scented candle is burning, and I am reaching back as if a $250.00 fee for an hour of Freudian analysis depended on my success. If I really strain, I can remember precisely two costumes. When I was in kindergarten, my best friend Leslie’s mother made us pink satin tutus with real tulle skirts. I loved  Leslie’s house because she was the only child of well-to-do, older parents, who were able to provide Leslie (and often, me) with all of the good things in life. Leslie had a bedroom with carpet, a pink canopy bed, and her mother did not work, but stayed home to make us crustless fluffernutters for lunch.  Tragically, my own mother worked, had a one-year-old baby, didn’t sew, and refused both to buy “Fluff” and to cut the crusts off of sandwiches. Leslie’s family moved to New Orleans after that year and I never saw her again, but my tutu lived long enough for me to make my brother wear it when he was four or five. I put a washcloth on his head as a stand-in for longer hair, and called him “Mary.” (His session is right after mine).

classiccostumeThe only other costume I can dredge up was related to “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a television show which, like “The Prisoner,” I watched with my parents with not so much as a moment of comprehension. Our highly flammable, non-reflective costumes from that era (maybe 1970?) came in boxes, and included a plastic mask with an elastic string around the back to hold the thing on your head. The eye slits were never where one’s actual eyes were, and even if you used your free hand (the one that was not holding the plastic bucket shaped like a pumpkin) to push it into place, it would return, immediately to its previous, vision-blocking location.

The one-piece costumes were very thin, and I remember the war about whether I would have to wear a coat OVER MY COSTUME, or just wear lots of layers beneath, so that I looked even rounder than I actually was. I remember trick or treating with my father, glad to have his hand to hold because I was virtually blind, with sweat running down my face behind the plastic mask while the rest of me began the conversion from flesh to ice because I had “won” the argument about wearing warm clothes.

I don’t remember any other costumes, but I remember two other things, both of which concern candy. I remember that my trick-or-treating years coincided with the first (apocryphal) episodes of razor blades and poison in candy, and that every piece of our hauls had to be inspected by a parent, with all homemade, loosely wrapped, or otherwise suspicious treats thrown away along with those that had a visible razor entry line or reeked of bitter almond. My parents were generally very low on the overprotection scale, but it would not have looked good in the press had one of us consumed strychnine in a Mars Bar and they had issued a statement that they were, of course, saddened, but that they generally tried to “let us try to make our own decisions.”

Thwcandy 11he other candy-related issue was the Great Sorting of the Haul. This process didn’t start until my brother was old enough a) to trick or treat without being carried and b) to escape the parental mantle of attention that protects younger siblings from being swindled by their older brothers and sisters.  We had very strict rules developed independent of parental involvement: the candy was dumped in front of its owner (post HazMat removal), and after we each had a chance to examine what we had, the trading began. No one cared about Mary Janes, Bit ‘O Honeys, or those peanut butter things with squirrels on the wrapper.

This was about the chocolate (which is complicated, because while I dislike all things chocolate flavored, from cake to ice cream, there are certain types of actual chocolate that I enjoy). Also, it is patently clear to the most clueless of children that there is a Natural Hierarchy of Halloween Candy, and that while Dum Dum suckers may be at the bottom, chocolate is at the top).

When my brother was really little, I could persuade him that he should give me a Snickers bar for a plain Hershey bar, or even (until I was busted and monitored) give me chocolate in exchange for a worthless but deceptively impressive pile of junk like suckers and root beer barrels. The older and shrewder he got, the more complicated became the trades. I coveted rolls of Spree candy, bags of Sweet Tarts (which may explain why my teeth are now very fragile and prone to breakage), Snickers bars, PayDay bars, Baby Ruth bars, and regular Hershey bars with almonds.

halloweencandy2010I hated Butterfingers (that crunchy stuff gets stuck in my molars, both Three Musketeers and Milky Way bars (cloyingly sweet), anything with dark chocolate, 10,000 Dollar Bars, or most anything with caramel in it, with individually wrapped Kraft “Milk Maid” carmels at the nadir of my list. Well, along with black licorice. The value of a Tootsie roll was also related to size (never let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter); the tiny rolls that came in appalling flavors like vanilla and lime were worthless, but the large version that required the support of a cardboard sheath, and could be broken into pieces along scored lines was a prize. As long as I provided no “tell” to my brother that would alert him to the fact that I was offering him something for which I had no desire, I could, over the course of the process, redistribute the wealth in a way favorable to me, if not to my teeth.

That’s all I remember. I just spoke to my mother, who reminded me about witch costumes, a clown costume, and my brief belief in The Great Pumpkin, but those are her memories, not mine. I did ask her whether there had been some Halloween-related assault on my psyche that might have made me repress memories, and she told me that as far as she remembered, I had always loved Halloween. The good news is that despite my unusual amnesia in this area, I am able to look forward, with great anticipation, to the Jack O’Lanterns, costumes and wild October nights of begging that will take place this year, and for many more to come. It may be hard to get Sam to go trick or treating when he’s 27, but I’ve got stuff on that kid that will keep him under my thumb for the rest of my life……


Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Forest Street Kitchen blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.