In my Midwest childhood, Halloween was essentially a theological problem.
When a church-going, Christianity-saturated populace confronts a historically pagan holiday and a systematic indulgence of sugar, more than a few pious heads wonder which way to turn.
These days, because it’s so commercial and sterile, Halloween is fine—as long as you can celebrate Disney and Hershey’s in good conscience.
Back then it was different.
I was born in Michigan in the late ’70s, raised by values rooted in the Christian tradition and generations of agricultural. Values like thrift, hard work, charity, modesty. These values were enforced throughout the year but something about Halloween amplified them.
Christianity might have taken a break, but Midwest values were out in full force.
All our costumes were homemade and thrifty. Clothes we owned were done up for the night in question and then transformed back into their previous lives the following day. All by my industrious mother.
And we didn’t just use our own clothes. Dad’s closet was a trove of possibilities, including “old man,” “hobo,” “preppy man,” and, of course, “man.” He also had a football referee outfit, which one of us invariably wore.
There were lots of boxes, which could be “robot,” “spacesuit,” or “television.”
There were the dress-up clothes we’d gotten from a church rummage sale. With these, we could be “old woman,” “female hobo,” “lady going to a party,” or, of course, just “woman.”
My mom set the standard in Midwest work ethics. She worked carefully on every costume, and she usually managed without spending more than a dollar. Anything she added was invariably made of felt. Mom had an endless supply of felt squares in all colors and could do anything with them.
One year, I handed her my yellow sweat suit and an ’80s gold-tinsel wig (refashioned the following year in a punk-rocker costume), and I gave her the look—and possibly a wail—like I was stuck in a tar pit and needed a hoist.
“Hang on, I’ve got some gold felt.” A few minutes later, she had sewn ears and a tail. I was a lion. For my brother, she manipulated a box, gray paint, milk tops, and, indubitably, felt squares into a robot costume. My sister was the referee.
We were ready. We set out, a dystopian reinvention of The Wizard of Oz.
Safe in the hands of our family’s operations expert, my dad. A quick side-note about dad. While my mother pays homage to all Midwest values at once, my dad concentrates his efforts on deeply fulfilling one of them. Whichever value makes him want to spend all his free time reading. Superior intelligence? Is that one of them?
For his birthday last year I typed his hand-written list of books he’s read since 1983. There were more than a few finished on Halloween and birthdays and even a few on New Years. Good thing it started in 1983, or I might have tried to figure out which book he finished the night I was conceived. Nothing gets between my dad and books.
We set out, dad with book, us with plastic bags ruffled on the sides because our cats chewed on them. We lived in the suburbs, houses well-spaced with tidy sidewalks and driveways. Dad walked the sidewalk, we ran up and down paths.
After two hours dad had polished off the better half of a WWII book (can people stop writing WWII books please? I want my dad back), and we had avoided houses distributing the trifecta of crap: raisins, black licorice, and anything homemade.
It was a good Halloween, our bags were heavy.
We had a bit of a wrong turn at a house that gave out apples. Never mind the fact that they were apples: our elementary school just had a visit from a neighborhood police officer who warned us people put pins in apples. When the proprietor of the house held out the offending fruit, my sister let the lady know her apples might have pins. Like you tell someone their front light is out or they have food on their shirt.
The lady looked as if she might scold us, something that often seemed to happen with adults in our town, so we ran. We kept the apples, though, we don’t waste things in our family.
One of the last houses was on the corner of our street. We usually didn’t go this way because the lawns were large. But dad had a few more pages, and I could picture myself, in March, sitting with an empty plastic cat-bitten bag thinking, “If only I had one more candy bar. . .” On we trudged.
A man opened the door. A short, bald man. Strange. Usually it wasn’t a man at the door, usually the man is out with kids. He must not have kids. But we knew he had kids because his daughter was in my brother’s class, and she had the same name as our cat.
You remember those individuals who are fortunate enough to have the same name as your pets.
Even stranger was how unhappy he looked. Scowling like we’d bothered him. But his light was on, universal “Halloween happens in this house” sign. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a red envelope with printed block writing. Like something you’d get at a fair, granting its bearer to a “free hayride.”
“Are you children from this street?” he asked, holding the envelope like a dog treat.
“Yes, we are from the Cape Cod-style.” My sister, spokesperson, said. “Cape-Cod style” is something our parents said. We had no idea it meant a house style indigenous to coastal Massachusetts, characterized by dormer windows.
It just felt like adult-talk.
“This is for you.” The man handed her an envelope with solemnity.
Two issues sailed into my mental threshold: 1) It’s an envelope, not candy; 2) There is only one of them. My brother realized the same and shifted uncomfortably.
My sister seemed concerned that the envelope—whatever it was—would fall into the wrong hands, i.e. mine. She stuck out her bag with equal solemnity.
The man wasn’t quite done. “This is for Younaseff.”
We looked at him. What was this, a negotiation?
“Can you all say YOUNASEFF?”
My sister repeated “YOUNASEFF.” I was too scared. Who was this man playing fast and loose with the Halloween Contract? And who was Younaseff? Why can’t this man give it to him directly? We aren’t mailmen, did he think we were mailmen? I’m a lion. I have a felt tail.
“There is a dollar in here. This is for children. You have to give this to children.” First Younaseff, now children? We are children, can’t we have it? Wait, did he say money? The holy grail of trick-or-treating? A house gave out dimes one year—that was legendary. And here was a dollar?! Does Younaseff really need this dollar? Is he expecting it?
The man read my thoughts; this happened a lot with adults. “You cannot keep it. It’s not yours.” My sister looked at me, aligning herself with the adult in the scenario; this happened a lot with my sister.
Satisfied by this verbal treaty and the impressive maturity of at least one of us, he dropped the envelope in her bag, stepped inside, and shut the door. I asked my sister who Younaseff was, but she ignored me. I figured he must be related to Jesus, the other mysterious person in my life.
My brother asked to see the envelope, but the referee stood firm. “No.”
Fine, whatever. We had candy. We told dad we were going to run home. And he needed to carry my brother’s box. We took off. Dad got home half an hour later. My mom asked him why he’d taken so long he said he’d been finishing his book in the driveway.
Younaseff was momentarily forgotten.
We dumped our candy and sorted it like Monopoly money. Hoarding like young capitalists. King-sized anything was the best, no-name brands were handed to my dad to distract him from eating the good stuff. My sister had more than we did because, unlike us, she had abstained from eating it all night. The same frugal principle that made her candy last through August.
I revisited Younaseff as we were getting ready for bed. “Mom, who is Younaseff?” My brother looked up—he would have asked, but I doubt he remembered the word.”
“It’s U-N-I-C-E-F.” My sister explained. She handing my mom the red envelope with block lettering.
“The man said we should give the money to Younaseff. He said we couldn’t take it.”
“We’ll give it to them. Don’t worry.”
So I didn’t. My parents would take care of Younaseff. Like parents do. I didn’t think about it again, although I did check my sister’s hiding place to see if she had a rogue dollar. No luck. But she did have a few dimes. I helped myself.
To this day, I cannot pass that corner house without thinking YOUNASEFF. I mentioned it to my brother a year ago. ‘You know that house, the one on the corner . . .”
“The UNICEF house?” he interrupted.
“Yeah. Do you think Mom and Dad actually gave that money to UNICEF?”
“I don’t know. It was what, five dollars?”
“A dollar. Probably, you know they did. They probably added a few more dollars too.”
“That guy was scary. His daughter was in my class. Her name was—”
“Maggie, yeah. Like our cat. You were a robot that year.”
“No, a soldier. I was a robot the next year.” He was right. He is always right about these things.
Funny what you remember about childhood.
It’s a blur pierced by bright moments so clear you think they must belong to someone else. Halloween costumes, your parents’ quirks, which house gave out king-sized Snickers and which gave out raisins.
And it’s funny what you forget, like most of the time in between. Do we hold on to the innocence, to save ourselves?
And funny how 30 years later, you remember and care what happened to a dollar you got from a scary dad, whose daughter had the same name as our cat, while we were trick-or-treating, a dollar that was supposed to go to the children and some guy named Younaseff.
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