Monday, October 31, 2011

Mother Knows Best

Many imagine the 1950s as a safe decade, an era when kids could ride their bicycles far from home as long as they returned by sundown for supper. My mother was not so trusting, especially on Halloween.

We never traveled alone for Trick and Treat, and we never strayed beyond the block on which we lived and the block our house faced. Dad followed closely behind, usually waiting on the sidewalk near the street. For a few houses that looked just like any other to us, Dad joined us on the front porch. At these, a man answered our knuckles upon his door, and he didn’t smile when we chimed Trick or Treat. He was often sullen and the house behind him very dim, even dark. Somehow Dad always knew this would happen, and he was within reach every time.

I can’t remember any other kids who had to empty their bags of candy for inspection. Anything homemade and handmade went immediately into the trash.

“Why?” we cried. Mother said things about hygiene, kitchen cleanliness, and recipe tampering—none of which made much sense to us. Mother also seemed to know from which kitchen the treats had come. She could hold a plastic-wrapped popcorn ball in her hand, and it would give up a name like a Magic 8 ball.

“Mrs. H?” she’d ask, and Dad would confirm.

Any piece of candy that appeared to have been unwrapped and rewrapped went into the trash. Candy inside any wrapper torn or loose went into the trash. We complained, of course, but we had no effect whatsoever upon Mom’s standards. We stood for inspection, watching our haul diminish.

We couldn’t even enjoy fresh fruit. Apples were the mainstay on Halloween, perhaps because many are autumn fruits, perhaps because of the old Halloween party-game, Bobbing for Apples, or perhaps because of old Eve’s sin. Whatever the reason, several homeowners served up a nice red apple for Halloween. Mother washed them, then peeled and sliced them very thin. Only then were we allowed to taste one. This peculiarity she never explained. Only later did I learn that wicked people might slide a thin, sharp blade into the heart of the apple to maim or kill small children. The newsman told me so, and I gasped, wondering how Mother knew about evil.

Our costumes were homemade. I was often a gypsy because it only required a scarf with fringe tied around my head and another over a long skirt. I carried a tamborine to complete the illusion, or so Mother said. I doubted her assurance since so many people asked me what I was supposed to be. When I outgrew the long skirt, my younger sister became the gypsy, and I was allowed to wear something Mother threw together from picking through the cedar chest. An old letter sweater transformed me into a cheerleader, she said, but no one else seemed to see the transformation.

Still our costumes were designed to minimize any danger to us. The fabrics were not highly flammable, the masks were all done with make-up so our vision was never compromised, and our feet were shod with ordinary shoes so we did not trip or fall any more than usual. Mother thought of everything, even the time of day. We set out at dusk, before full dark, and we were home ahead of the big kids, two words said with dread on or around Halloween.

When I hear broadcasters and advisors issue cautions about treats, costumes, timing, and adult chaperones, I think, “Well, duh. Mother taught me those, and Mother knew best.”