Friday, October 26, 2012

Of Witches and Puppies

Growing up in poor, farming families, my parents saw animals as a necessity to farm life, but not a “have to” of the suburban life they designed for their own progeny. To them, having a pet was just another responsibility.

We owned one dog,  Susie, a white and black mix, who eventually graced us with a litter of puppies. My dad, after she weaned her brood, loaded Susie in our Oldsmobile and drove her to the Atlanta pound.  In the back seat of the car, I wept inconsolably and clung to Susie and thought my parents unreasonable and un-feeling. “Dogs,” my dad rationalized, “cost a lot of money that we don’t have, and she’ll just continue to have puppies that we can’t afford to feed.”

Susie was the one and only dog we had.

We did have a succession of cats, who were “less trouble and less expensive,” and we adopted them full grown from the pound.  The first one, named Sybil, had fluffy, white fur and a chronic eye infection that oozed this thick, gunky fluid. Ugh.  After Sybil [I don‘t remember what happened to her], we owned two other cats: Wilbur and Pete.  Both had singular personalities and meows, and both seem infintely lazy. Pete climbed in between the screen and the door, where he propped his paws on the mullions in the glass, and caterwaul to be let in.  Daddy had a soft spot for cats as he let them sleep in his lap, unlike my mother who, well, only tolerated them.

We never owned litter boxes; my mother said “uh, no,” so the cats were “outside cats,” and when we owned them, one of the last nightly events was to make sure that “the cat” was “out.”

We never kept any of them around for long. They either disappeared or chose to move on to a place of canned food, litter boxes, and “inside rights.”

When I was a teenager, I begged my parents for a kitten --- the first one I named Toke, and he climbed the roof, stared us down, and then meowed as if he couldn’t figure out how to descend. The second one I named JaJoe, and as a red cat, his loving personality won my daddy’s heart. Neither of them lived with us into cat-hood -- Toke disappeared, and JaJoe, found by my father at the top of our street where he had been hit  by a car, closed the door on our owning any more. My daddy and I both cried over the loss of that cat.

Thinking of our pets and our one dog Susie led me to think about the Halloweens of my youth, and a story about her puppies and my Daddy I will relate eventually.

In my earliest Halloween memories, the first surrounds the selection of a costume. In the attic of our home, a place only accessible by ladder and hoisting oneself through a square opening in the ceiling of our pantry, lay a black trunk, smelling of sweat and old -- maybe just old sweat. In that trunk my mother folded and packed away a small selection of home made costumes.

I‘m not sure why the delving into the trunk and the selection seemed so monumental since, well, the options never changed. The outfit that I wore most years was a black cotton, long sleeved draped dress with a jagged hem and a conical black hat. Yep. Witch.  As predictable as the Halloween weather, which was either really hot or really cold, I dressed as a witch and ventured out, paper bag in hand, with a dozen or so neighborhood friends and trick or treated.

Hunter in the clown costume, October 1954.
Hunter and Margaret in tiny hats, October 1954

My sister remembers another choice as being a clown costume, but I don’t remember wearing it. My brother, on the other hand, recalls that most years he was a bum because he “could put together the costume from his own dresser drawers.”  After Kennedy was elected in 1960 and before he was assassinated in 1963 [so one of those years], my brothers dressed for Halloween as indigents. My mother completed their look by attaching a sign to their backs that read “I collect cigarette butts for Kennedy.” 

It must have been some private joke my mother enjoyed since, in retrospect, we don’t remember why she found it so humorous; however, we know that she embraced with gusto the festivities of Halloween. My mother had what we called a “flair for the dramatic,” and Halloween was one of the holidays where she demonstrated that side of her. [I think I have already blogged about our Christmas performances.]

One year, she donned the witch costume, and resplendent in black drape and conical hat, pulled a cast iron black pot into the porch [similar to a cauldron - yes, really-- saved from her parent’s farm], filled it with dry ice, and stood on our front porch, in a type of frieze, and stirred the pot as she waited for the trick or treaters. 

Her little Halloween drama simulation and outfit deterred a few of the younger set from our door, but my mother’s presentation ended up being kind of legendary, or at least that night. By word of mouth, her effective performance brought, from literally miles around, trick or treaters and adults alike who gazed and gaped at our house, our front porch, and my mother in all her eerie grandeur.  A crowd gathered not only in front of our house but at the top of our street.  Very surprised I was, as I tricked and treated, to hear others in the masked masses whisper and tell of what was to be “seen on Oana Street.” For my young ears, and what I thought of as a fragile reputation, my mother’s spectacle offered me a mixed of awkwardness, embarrassment, and pride.

A lot of the costumes in my day were homemade -- but a few lucky friends of mine bought ready made costumes at Woolworth’s. Those costumes glittered in their completeness-- from tiaras, wands, and pink tulle and net dresses for princesses to a rubbery mask, horns, pitchfork, and red, shiny, slippery shirt and pants for anyone wishing to dress as a devil. I coveted those ready mades as they lay folded on shelves or hung on racks on the seasonal aisle of that five and dime store.

These aren't Halloween costumes, but they should be. I was, mercifully, absent from this photo.

Carrying our grocery, two handled, paper bag with crudely decorated drawings of Jack-o-Lanterns, we giggled and screamed as we ran from house to house. We rarely used the sidewalks and driveways but instead dashed across yards, down banks and hills, crossed back yards, and opened gates as we skipped and staggered, with our weighty bags, from house to house. Knocking at the houses with porch lights on [ a signal that “treats” would be given out], we shouted “trick or treat,” and the givers dropped unknown goodies into our bag. In a frenzy, we took off to the next one -- trying to get in as many houses as we could before our scheduled curfew: “dark-thirty.”

We encountered hundreds of masked marauders, classmates, neighbors, and older kids we knew; we jumped out from behind bushes to scare each other, squealed when a realistic costume or mask scared us, and shouted and greeted each other in an excitement unmatched by any other time -- such freedom to run rampant and un-chaperoned at night seemed surreal;  all rules about school nights pushed aside for this one crazy, and really unexplained, traditional holiday.

The treats distributed by the occupants of the houses varied, but we knew the houses who had the best ones and made sure we got by there before the night was over.  We accepted and thanked whatever was doled out: homemade goodies wrapped in wax paper or cellophane, Rice Krispy treats, candied apples, popcorn balls, or cookies, and a the few who gave “store bought,” lollipops, Sweet Tarts, Tootsie rolls, or candy corn: my personal favorite -- candy cigarettes, four to a pack. Marcie, my BFF at the time, and I savored those “cigarettes.” We placed one in our mouths at a jaunty angle and imagined ourselves as one of the wild bunch.  Imagine giving children "pretend" cigarettes. LOL

At some point as we advanced into the ripe old age of seventh grade, we gave up the annual event as “kid’s stuff"and became the giver of the treats at the door to a new generation of Supermans, Snow Whites, and Richard Nixons.

One of my favorite memories of Halloween has to do with our dog Susie. About six weeks before Halloween, Susie had given birth to six puppies, and we hoped to find homes for them. My father, in a moment of brilliance or extreme humor, met the various trick or treaters at the door and tried to place a puppy in their opened bag. He convinced at least four of the many costumed to take the puppies. Only two of the puppies were returned.

One of Susie's puppies
My siblings and I still laugh about that Halloween and my daddy’s derring-do, and we know that one of those puppies grew into a big dog on a neighboring street. Each time we walked by that house and saw that dog behind the fence, we got a huge chuckle.

BTW: I don’t know how many parents came to our door that night with a Halloween puppy to return or whether or not they were as amused as my daddy or angry about his “trick,” but it’s one of those memories from childhood that I love to tell as it is just as characteristic of my daddy as the Halloween production is of my mother.

Happy Halloween!

1 comment:

  1. Harriet, your folks were a kick! I too have great memories of Halloween, when we didn't have to worry about straying too far from the neighborhood. I still remember sweating in my Casper mask running from house to house. We got so much candy loot! We always knew the one who gave out full size bars too....sigh, those were the days!