Ghosts, skeletons and Dolley Madison

This is a bit of a  Halloween tale from the archives of my childhood.  Growing up in New York City in an apartment building with fifty-two  apartments and hence fifty-two potential sources of  candy, made Halloween quite the holiday from my vantage point.  Occasionally, we were allowed to buy costumes at the local Woolworth store (remember that?).  However, I really liked the chance to see if I could come up with something unique.  Yes, I was a strange child with a vivid imagination, who didn’t necessarily follow convention when it came to all things Halloween.

The apartment building was filled with all sorts of characters, the kind you might see in a Neil Simon play.  Some were glamorous, or at least I thought they looked that way.  It was still the time when people would dress up to go out for the evening and looked elegant and coiffed.  My sister and I had built in friends who lived in an apartment one floor below and one apartment to the left.  There were three sisters who became  part of our little gang of five.  I was the oldest and then between the four younger ones were two more, my sister and then the youngest among us.  Often, other tenants were unsure who belonged to which family, despite the  obvious differences in appearance.  As the two oldest, we formed an alliance and we worked as a team to create good costumes.  We were relegated to taking the younger ones with us as we went from door to door with Halloween inspired paper shopping bags to collect our treats.  In addition we all had small cardboard boxes to collect coins for UNICEF.  So there was a moral lesson with the pursuit of candy, lest we forget there are children who don’t have candy or much else.

Once we collected the loot (which somehow I am remembering being something my mother called it) we would go to our respective apartments, dump the bag and separate the really good stuff (big candy Baby Ruths, Mounds and Hershey Bars) and the other stuff which included smarties, Good and Plenty in those little boxes  and popcorn balls which I thought were just disgusting as they were colored in non food colors.  Then our mother would review the candy, for  a surcharge of at least one Baby Ruth and we were allowed to pick a few things, and the rest would be sequestered somewhere.  Having a surfeit of candy  always made me feel wonderful.

When I think back to my best costumes, I remember two  of which I am particularly proud.  The first one was a ghost, but not just a ghost, it was also a skeleton.  Let me explain…. my father’s best friend was a paint chemist who for some reason, when I asked for phosphorescent paint (in a greenish yellow),  he was able to find some.  I think now it was not something children should  not have had access to, because of some chemical issue, but at the time it was the essence of the costume.  My idea was that we would get white sheets (also something that everyone had as colored sheets were not yet in vogue).  I would draw the outline of a skeleton on the sheet, paint it with the phosphorescent paint, and expose it to light and voila! We would go to people’s apartments and since we knew most everyone, they would invite us in for a minute and we would tell them to turn off the lights and we went from ghosts to skeletons. It was so badass!  Not bad for a 12 year old.  That was an especially good Halloween.

To preface my second best costume, I need to tell you of my strong interest in biographies of women in history.  I fell in love with the stories of Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Amelia Earhart and Dolley Madison.  One year, I was invited to a Halloween party of my girl scout troop.  Somehow, I was able to find one of my mother’s old dresses that I thought embodied Dolley Madison.  I even wore a white cap to make myself look authentic.  When I arrived at the party, the room was dark and we entered to the sounds of spooky music and screeching.  It was a little scary but appealed to my sense of curiosity as we put our hands in a bowl of grapes which we were told were eyeballs and another bowl was filled with cold spaghetti, which we were convinced were brains.  At some point in the evening the lights went on and we all got to see one another’s costumes.  There were witches and cats and movie stars.  We were getting ready to vote on best costume and then the group looked at me and said ” Who are you supposed to be?”.  I said “I am Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth president of the United States!”.  There was a lot of blinking and a bit of smirking and eyerolling.  It was a moment I haven’t forgotten.  Part  of the girl scout pledge is the following:

” I promise to serve God and my country, To help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout Law. Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”

The mother of the girl who hosted the party  and who was also one of our leaders, looked around at our group.  She was a very kind woman, as I remember, and she asked the group to write their choice for best costume and put the paper in a plastic pumpkin.  She then tabulated the votes.  The cat won.  Dolley Madison came in second.  Not sure if the voting was rigged.  Dolley and I (as one) left with our white capped head held high.  Small victory and quite the treat.

Happy Weekend! Happy Halloween!  Pick good candy, just in case there are leftovers.



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