As an elementary student at Lincoln School, our school year, like most children’s was bracketed by holidays and celebrations. Labor Day marked the beginning of school, followed relatively quickly by what may have been considered by many the most important holiday, Halloween.
Bought costumes were virtually unknown in my childhood. You wore what you or your parent could come up with. My father being a tailor that usually meant something relatively complicated and impressive for me. My black cat suit, made out of black velvet and worn for years until I was struggling to get both in or out of it, was a case in point.A lot of the boys dressed as hobos, putting on raggedy clothes and using make-up to create a kind of beard. Some kids were “ghosts” which meant they draped an old sheet with holes cut in it over their heads, cowboys and cowgirls were popular, as were devils and angels. I do not remember any “pop culture” figures ever being represented in costumes. No singers, no actors, no politicians. One of the status symbols, besides having a purchased costume, which was considered an indication that your family had money, was to have a specific container for your candy. A lot of kids simply took pillow cases for their booty. I had a plastic pumpkin with a handle.
Halloween, or as we referred to it Trick or Treat, was a big deal, especially when you got old enough to go out by yourself, generally around ten years of age in those days. Now, this was a time before anyone thought of putting razor blades in apples or poison in candy. And, because the community valued its children in general and took communal responsibility for their safety there was little danger of running into an adult with bad intentions. The worse you could probably encounter would be a teenager too old to go door to door who might snatch your bag of candy. That was unlikely to happen, however, in a community where virtually everyone knew everyone else and the majority of parents held thrall over their children. If you did something wrong and your parent heard about it, something that might be embarrassing to them in the community you were going to be punished.
Do the happy beggars would roam the East End and in the way of all children we had a network of information that let us know which houses had the good loot and which ones wanted to give you something crappy. A few people gave things like single sticks of gum or a handful of candy corn. Unlike complaints I have heard recently, pennies, which actually bought quite a bit of candy then, were not considered a bad treat. A lot of the treats we got were homemade, popcorn balls, candied apples, etc. In our youthful ignorance we thought these treats were okay, and we certainly ate them, but candy bars were the gold standard.
But Halloween still had a dark side, even if we were not in physical danger the full moon, the rustling of the leaves that made it sound like someone was walking behind you, the wonderful frisson of wondering if one of those people in a sheet was not a person in a sheet but the real thing all served to make us shiver just a bit and, of course, we tried to scare each other. On the corner of Market Street where I lived and Evans Avenue the next cross street to the east, sat Johnson’s Funeral Home. I had been in it several times, but only once to see a body. When Ms. Nickens a teacher at Lincoln died they trooped the entire school across the street to see the body and pay our respects. My mother was livid when she found out, she did not think it was appropriate to show small children dead bodies.
The funeral home itself was not scary to me, but the bank of garages behind it, where they kept the hearses and where they unloaded the bodies I presumed, to do whatever they had to do with them was terrifying. Every time I walked in front of those garages with the doors closed I was afraid one would roll up and some zombie or other undead entity would run out and grab me. On Halloween, however, Mildred and Mack gave out good treats, and we would go to the front of the house with impunity. Traversing the path from Market to Main, however, we would cross the street to stay as far away from the garages as possible. Nothing was ever said, we just knew to cross the street to keep from getting too close to those doors.
The East End, like all communities, had its spooky myths. One of them was about Mrs. Maxwell who lived in a house on East Main Street, almost directly across from my church, Zion Baptist. Her house was not in good repair, and weeds and grass grew long in her yard and around her porch.Mrs Maxell herself was a very light skinned woman with almost waist length white hair which was unkempt and made her look like the witches in our fairy tale books. Her hair, her house, her demeanor and her lack of friends or family made all of the children decide she was, indeed, a witch. I mean it was obvious. Her house was spooky, she was spooky and nobody knew much about her. She even had a slight stoop, of course, that was probably osteoporosis, but we did not know about that in the 1950’s. We only knew about diseases like cancer ( which was always whispered when mentioned for some reason) and “the sugar.”
Her house sat back rather far from the sidewalk and it always seemed to be darker than houses on either side. The rule for Trick or Treat was that houses that had something to share would have their porch lights on. Mrs. Maxwell never had her porch light on at Halloween. She was a rather reclusive person and everyone, even the adults, liked to share “sightings” of her. There were all kinds of rumors about why she kept to herself so much, ranging from she was trying to pass for white, to she had murdered someone and buried them in her overgrown backyard and was keeping a low profile to avoid detection and arrest.
It became a ritual of Halloween for kids to dare each other to go up onto Mrs. Maxwell’s dark porch and ring her doorbell and run. A group would cluster at the end of her sidewalk and one brave or foolhardy soul would go up and ring the doorbell and the entire group would run away screaming, certain she was right behind them with a meat cleaver.
The boys were always the ones who took the dare, I do not know if any female ever took the dare, until that fateful Halloween when my friends and I, working our way down Main Street, saw that Mrs. Maxwell had her light on! The sight of that bulb burning where we had never seen a bulb burning before brought us all up short. Should we cross the street for safety? Should we just tiptoe past her place and continue on? Or, should we take the plunge, go up on the porch and ring the doorbell?
A hasty conference took place, and the vote was split, some of us thought we should err on the side of caution and just ignore the light, scoot past the house and go to the Turner’s next door. The bolder amongst us said we should take this rare opportunity and ring the doorbell, all the while staying ready to flee should need to.
After waffling for about five minutes it was decided that the bravest three would go up on the porch and ring the bell while the rest of us, four in number, stayed on the main sidewalk, the reasoning being that if the three were attacked we could at least summon help, or testify in court if help came too late.
The three chosen to approach were Dale, Davy and me. I was not brave, did not want to go, but having been elected feared peer pressure more than decapitation. I was actually going rather as support staff, the two males had agreed I could stand behind them. We hesitantly approached the dreaded porch, walked up the front steps, which to our dismay did not creak ominously and Davy rang the bell. I was ready to run at that point. There were dead vines hanging from the porch almost everywhere and they reminded me of spider webs. I have always been scared of spiders, and I could just see a huge, black one, perhaps one of her familiars, darting out from those vines.
Nothing happened for a moment and I suggested we leave. Davy nixed that idea and rang the doorbell again. Now we heard movement! She was coming! The door swung open and there stood Mrs. Maxwell in a housecoat, her hair in its usual disheveled state, and in her hand she was holding…….. a bowl of Snickers!
She smiled at us, asked us our names and gave us each a candy bar. When the troops on the sidewalk saw the candy and that we were not being maimed or murdered they cautiously crept up the walk as well.
Turns out Mrs. Maxwell was just a reserved, poor widow who would not hurt a fly. It was with great angst I let go of one of my favorite childhood bogeywomen. After that year I do not think I ever enjoyed Halloween as much. I mean, if you cannot trust your neighborhood ax murderess to make your liver quiver what is the point?