On Halloween, adults act like kids. Kids dress up like grown-ups.
It’s a day when girls and boys can wear makeup. And fangs. A chance to dress in clothes they’d never wear on an ordinary day — an alter ego peeking out. At our Halloween parade, we gather together at the Center firehouse, holding orange and black balloons and then march through town, our imaginary selves trailing behind.
When I was a kid, my family’s costumes didn’t come from a store. We had a huge cedar chest in our attic, a treasure trove. Anything we couldn’t find, my sisters would make.
Early in October, we’d head up to the attic, prop open the heavy lid of the chest and breathe in the scent of cedar, dust and magic.
What possibilities that old chest held! Scarves, lacy nightgowns, vintage hats and high heels. The faded pink satin-trimmed netting of a ballerina tutu, a fuschia-colored princess gown, a Pilgrim girl dress and hat, a fringed and beaded hippie vest, a Big Bird suit, not quite so fluffy and canary-colored anymore.
My baby sister’s Dalmatian costume, its spotted fur matted with age and something that looked vaguely like spit-up. The shoes, coat and hat my older brother wore year after year when he dressed as a hobo, eager for free candy he’d collect in a pillowcase. My mother’s pillbox hat, its netting torn from when my sister dressed as Jackie Kennedy.
When I grew up and had my own son, he had a chest too, filled with make-believe: a pirate hat and bandanna, pith helmet, crown, cloak, a magician’s top hat with rabbit. Every day he’d dress up in whatever caught his fancy.
No wonder Halloween is still his favorite holiday.
Every year, he decided what he wanted to be and he’d call my sister, a talented and patient seamstress.
She would go to work. A week or two later, a package arrived in our mailbox with his name on it. Inside was a handmade version of exactly what he’d asked for.
In second grade he was a jester, in the traditional colors of yellow, green and purple. The felt hat with long tails even had bells on the tips.
He was a striped tiger one year, the next year, the Phantom of the Opera, with a red-satin-lined black cape, half his face covered in white.
His first Halloween on the Island, he was a mime, wearing a black bolero jacket, matching pants and a red-striped shirt. My sister even knit him a wooly black beret that I still wear in the winter.
His cleverest but least understood costume was an Eskimo, with soft brown fleece pants and jacket, faux fur around the hood. Though he wasn’t named after Bob Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” he loved the song. To his great disappointment, there wasn’t a person who guessed who he was supposed to be.
In high school, he channeled rock stars: Johnny Cash, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and most colorfully, David Bowie, in his Ziggy Stardust days, his makeup copied from the old album cover. That costume involved the efforts of two other sisters: my Seattle sister found the rainbow-colored silk scarf at Goodwill, while my Cleveland sister nabbed the gold mesh pants.
His costumes were not for the faint-of-heart.
He didn’t get his love of dress-up from me. My idea of a Halloween costume is a black skeleton T-shirt I bought at the Gap so long ago, it’s faded to dark grey, and a pair of glittery orange socks with bats flying on them.
I had only two memorable costumes.
When I was 17, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was all the rage. Saturday nights, my friends and I would go to the crowded theater, armed with rolls of toilet paper and spray bottles, props for audience participation.
The supermarket I worked at encouraged us to dress up that year. I was the hunchback, Riff Raff, one of the least attractive, most disturbing characters in a movie where everyone out-grosses each other. I greased up my long hair with Dippity Do that took me days to wash out, painted red under my eyes to make them look bloodshot and dressed in my brother’s black suit jacket. I think I drew the line at creating a hunchback — it was a family-run grocery store after all. Those poor elderly ladies who came through my checkout line that day probably left the store trembling, never to walk into that market again.
Then there was Elvira, Queen of Darkness. I was 25 and had recently been “set free” by a boyfriend. We were invited to the same Halloween party so I decided to pull out all the stops. Dressed head to toe in tight, slinky black, my waist-length blonde hair freed from its French braid, I wore eyeliner and red lipstick — makeup I’d never worn before and black stilettos I haven’t worn since. And a “can’t touch me” attitude. The look on his face almost made up for the months of heartache that followed.
My alter ego? Maybe. That’s what I find so intriguing when I look around at the participants in our Halloween parade. There are the costumes that are popular each year: a Skylander, Wolverine, a witch or Disney princess. The moms and dads who match their kids’ costumes: little witch/big witch, cowgirl, cowboy and cowlady, the entire cast of the Wizard of Oz. Then there’s the family costumes that reflect something special to them: the deck of cards, the bee family, the KISS rockers.
If you look close, at the adults especially, you notice the wistful ballerina, the jaded rock icon, the fading hip hop star. It’s a game: Who would you be if you could be anyone? Creativity gets unleashed. The good costumes look as if someone opened up that big giant cedar chest and here’s what emerged. A fantasy, a chance to leave their everyday life behind.
To be someone else, just for a night.