Sunday, November 1, 2009

Haunting the House

Back in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Halloween is the biggest possible community holiday: Karnival for Kiddies and their far-more-immature parents.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are more serious, celebrated with big meals indoors.  And too many people leave town for Fourth of July. The spring religious holidays have no civic component whatsoever, taking place largely in houses of worship, or with one's visiting relatives.

But Halloween back home is all outdoors, utterly secular, totally weird, and 100% awesome. The Lower East Side may be rightfully proud of its edgy grown-up parade, but for full-family excitement, there is nothing like seeing tens of thousands of people march down 7th Avenue in cutely clever costumes that could only be dreamed up and designed by people who attended cutely clever small liberal arts colleges. Whole families dress in themes, sometimes riding on small vehicles of their own design. Little children are wide-eyed and overtired, dressed as ladybugs or ballerinas or glitter-haired blue superheroes. Parents have surprisingly little difficulty shedding their corporate (or non-profit) professional identities to dress as Glenda the Good Witch or an Oreo or a Professional wrestler.

Every year, my dear and dedicated sister, Auntie Gaela, makes costumes for all four of us. Our first year in the neighborhood, the kids were Cleopatra and an animal of some sort, while we were rock stars. Bill dressed as Joey Ramone in a leather jacket and long black wig, but everyone kept mistaking him for Howard Stern. One year we were Peter Pan, Wendy, Tinkerbelle, and Captain Hook. As Hook, Bill wore a long red velvet coat and a long black wig, and looked like a cross between a pimp and Howard Stern. Another year we were Witches and Wizards. Bill wore a long white robe and a long black wig, and looked like a cross between Jesus and Howard Stern.

One year we were all vampires, perhaps our best costumes ever. The piece de resistance of that set of costumes was that Bill covered cranberry juice boxes in white tape, drew little red crosses on them, and wrote the word "Blood" on each one.  The kids sucked on them all night, and let little rivulets of fake cranberry blood run dripping down the sides of their mouths. Last year Auntie Gaela and Uncle Jim came down to trick-or-treat with us, wearing Upstate Redneck costumes with Mullet Wigs ("business in the front, party in the back, baby.")  We were a red devil (Abigail), Dr. Evil (Grace), Sarah Palin (guess who, sporting a suit, a flag pin, and high-heeled boots) and Santa Claus. It was the first year that nobody mistook Bill for Howard Stern, but the little kids couldn’t take their eyes off him. Soon lots of self-righteous Park Slope moms were seriously pissed at him; one mother even hissed, "that costume should be illegal!" Apparently he made everyone's kids ask a few too many pointed questions about why Santa Claus was marching in the Slope's Halloween Parade.

It's pretty much our family's favorite holiday. Our friends Toni and Bud have a huge blowout family party every year, with beer and pizza for the grownups, and candy and pizza for the kids, who dress in costume and run wild all over the place. In Park Slope, there are very few religious conservatives (at least few who are willing to admit it) so pretty much everyone celebrates Halloween. Since it's not a holiday for which you get time off from work, everybody is in town. And since everybody is outside in families, and the streets are blocked off for the parade, it's safe and friendly warm chaos. With candy.

So it might not be hard to understand why we all might have been just the tiniest bit sad to be spending Halloween here in Aups, where Halloween hasn't really yet caught on. I mean, don't cry for us, Argentina -- we still spent the day driving through charmed hillsides and eating smoked turkey, Girolle mushrooms, Epoisse cheese and drinking incredible wine for lunch and dinner. We still had our magical house and acres of time to spend all together. Here, we don't just spend a few hours together on Halloween -- it's 24/7 family togetherness. Nona and Pops were our extra-special visitors, and the weather was balmy and beautiful.

But in terms of Halloween extravaganzas, we were going to have to make from scratch whatever fun we would have. And for somebody who has spent the first ten years of her kids' childhood working full time and being a good-enough mother, it was not an easy transformation to figure out suddenly how to make Halloween happen in a foreign land.

The making started with costumes. Grace got it into her head that she wanted to sew her own this year, despite Gaela's obvious skill and remarkable willingness to help out her domesticity-challenged older sister. So Gaela packed up a care package with a Simplicity pattern, lots of fabric and needles and elastic and even scissors so that we could dabble in seamstressery. Realizing that the pattern would require far more long seams than I was willing to sew by hand, I even went to Magasin D'Appareils Minces (the Store of Cheaply-Made Applicances) and bought us a little plastic sewing machine. It was on the bottom row, under the bad hairdryers and juicers, the box dusty as though it had been there for years. But it came pre-threaded (thank God) and seemed to work pretty much like the ones I knew back in 4-H as a kid.

Sewing is a little like riding a bike, in that if you've done it enough times, you can probably do it badly again thirty years later. As was true with riding a bike, sewing took me forever to learn, and I still pretty much hate it. Don't tell my 4-H Club leader; I can't help but think she'd be woefully disappointed in me. But perhaps she succeeded on one level, as apparently I have a deep muscle memory for how to thread a needle and pick up the thread on a bobbin, and lift the presser foot up and put it back down to put two layers of fabric together and connect them with a wobbly running stitch.

Grace did a champion job of pressing the fabric, cutting out the pattern, pinning it together, and making the machine go both forwards and back. Neither of us yelled all that much during the process. While she and I managed to stitch a fair number of the seams the wrong way out, all of the sleeves opened where they should, and the elastic went through the neck just fine. As it turned out, the cheap sewing machine's tension was all wrong, and eventually it simply ceased to cooperate with our amateurish efforts. I assumed that there was a trick to getting the bobbin to work, but when even Nona couldn't fix it, we gave up on Abigail's witch's costume, and Nona finished up the two side seams by hand. The costumes were a true group effort, and came out looking just-bedraggled enough to be thematically appropriate.

Abigail's witch costume was happily conventional and easy to plan for. Grace's vision was -- as usual -- somewhat more conceptual: "Corpse Bride." Happily, the Magasin du Cheapness sells a few dozen Halloween costumes and decorations as well as poorly made sewing machines and groceries, so we threw some stretch cobwebs, a pointy black hat for Abigail and a long purple wig into the cart along with our jars of pesto, sweet carrots with the tops still on them, and a pound or two of delicious butter.

Later, Grace spattered her long white costume with red nail polish (inside out, but that's no matter, given how many seams we got wrong anyway.) Then she wore it hiking on the hillside where archaeologists once found hundreds of burial mounds for 2,000 B.C. bodies. After this careful destruction, the costume was covered in plenty of orange dirt and bloody red streaks. Topped off with the purple wig and some stretchy cobwebs, it was quite convincing; if I were a gentleman corpse myself, I couldn't imagine a more compelling vision of undead married bliss.

It took us a few days to really get our Halloween groove on. It is still Vacances des Toussaint, so we had time on our hands to dream up funny ways to pretend to scare ourselves. On the trip up the spooky graves hillside, our visiting Park Slope friend Buck pretended to be the victim of ritual slaughter and laid down to fake-die in one of the tombs. We visited the creepy caves -- home of cavemen, bats, and local kids from town driving up there to get high -- and did our best to scare ourselves with creepy stories and little dares to see who could go inside each cave the deepest (It was always Buck. Nobody we know responds to a dare quite like Buck does.)

We even visited some of the creepier places in Aups on a walk into town, including the nondescript corner where either some Hugenots slaughtered about twenty young people during a religious war of some kind, or where the angry villagers took revenge on the Hugenots. We played a little Aups-themed game I invented, "Who Killed the Dukes of Blacas?" that required the kids (and Buck) to walk around the house to find hiding parents and grandparents to determine, through yes-and-no queries, the answers to goofy imaginary questions.

We handed out candy as they came by, but you'd have to be some sort of deaf dumb and blind kid to think that our lame grown-up attempts to make Halloween fun were anything close to the drama of a Toni and Bud party followed by a long tramp through the darkened streets of Park Slope with tens of thousands of crazily-costumed other children. Aside from Buck, the grownups hadn't really put heart-and-soul into the celebrations, and so it all felt just the tiniest bit lame.

On Thursday night, after the hike and the caves and the stupid Blacas Game, the rest of the adults went off for a super-fancy dinner at Les Chenes Verts (if you want to know what they enjoyed, may I suggest that you re-read It's the Food, Stupid and insert a little Autumnal potato-and-quail egg concoction where the zucchini flower beignets used to be.) My plan was to stay at home with the kids and wind down from the overwhelming excitement of a Halloween non-party. But as soon as Mom, Dad, Bill and Buck walked out the door, Grace burst into instant hot tears.

"What happened to the face paints?" She demanded. "And the bobbing for apples? And the spiderweb decorations, and the cupcakes?" We had done our half-hearted little grownup act, but the Queen of the corpses was not to be so easily placated. Every little Halloween dream must become an actual living nightmare. Or else.

At first I was the tiniest bit irritated and impatient with her, wanting her to be pleased with the (lame) efforts we had made, and to let the other harder bits go. But quickly I realized that her disappointment was not only real, but potentially quite warranted. We hadn't all put on costumes. Only a few of her ideas had been implemented, and we had really just been pretending that our sightseeing and hiking had a Halloween theme.

Buck was the best at this, I must add, and spared no verisimilitude in his fake fear. But the rest of us hadn't done anything messy or complicated or particularly exciting to kids. Once again we were expecting our own adult pleasures in the glories of France (long meals at the table; time and the ability to sleep soundly, long walks, stinky cheese and great wine) to transfer to our poor stranded American children. In this case, that wasn't quite going to fly.

So we tried again, this time with a lot more enthusiasm. On Friday we made some cupcakes, from scratch, and covered them with frosting and little spiders made out of licorice whips. We filled a big tub with water and floated apples for bobbing. Pops carved out a (real) jack-o-lantern, which not only glowed with a candle, but also swarmed with tons of creepy black fruit flies. We painted their little faces: Grace with a black-mouthed pout and dark circles under her eyes, and Abigail with green skin and a big black wart.

And then we got dressed up, too. Without the black wig to transform Bill into a radio personality, he and I fell back on the old standby of dressing up as one another, and Mom and Dad did the same. Bill stuffed one of my bras with paper, painted outside of the lines of his lips with lipstick, and put on a wrap dress and a scarf with my standard-issue flip flops. Nona tied one of her scarves around Dad's head like a turban, and she and I wore assorted husbandly menswear and ugly man-hats. The kids went trick-or-treating here in the big house, room-to-room, and we filled their little bags with Twix bars and Skittles and some French brand of candies they have learned to love.

We got laughing awfully hard as Bill, Grace and Dad dunked their faces right to the bottom of the big ceramic bowl to get at the apples. Abigail, Nona and I were a little more prim, trying to grab fruit by the stem to stay dry. But the best part of the night was when we gathered around the table, hung with pumpkin decorations and long strands of white cobweb. We lit a candle and took turns telling an invented version of The Laughing Man, Bill's best scary story. In this version, Dad and then Mom turned out to be champion storytellers (who knew?) adding in grim twists and even a highly theatrical and terrifying high-pitched laugh.

I have always loved my mother's easy, musical laugh; everyone does. But this time it emerged from her as a witch's cackle, hysterically-pitched and rising up and up as she turned the drama up to high. We had put in a good solid Halloween effort by now, but really it was that laugh that turned the tide. Throwing aside our grown-up inhibitions to dress up and play and camp it up and really laugh finally convinced the girls: we might have missed the parade and Toni's party and all of their friends back home. But finally, with one full-hearted evil-scary laugh, we were all a little scared and a whole lot amused. Halloween had happened.

This year, the girls have lost the last vestige of belief in Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, and now they would also miss out on the old pleasures of Halloween. But instead of believing in phantoms and fairies, the girls now knew they could rely only on their good old Mom and Dad, on their grandparents to laugh and play with them, and on their aunt to send the necessary supplies. In place of the Slope Halloween, they had longed for, they had their family to love them and to cobble together something both familiar and new.

There's no good takeout pizza here, the traditional Halloween party supper. So I made some from a supermarket crust and some vegetables from the market. The kids watched Little Shop of Horrors and took to dancing and singing in the living room while we went back to the business of long meals and grownup talk. The night turned darker and we pulled shutters closed against the night, the nearly-full moon, keeping all of our haunting here indoors. Inside we were warm and together, the kids adequately scared and delighted with our attempts to recreate and improvise American fun here in a strange and unhaunted land.

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