Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trick or Treat

It's that time of year when leaves turn brilliant colors, fireplaces are awakened for the first time of the season, and kids begin to get excited about going trick-or-treating, a tradition that families have taken part in for ages. But I have a confession to make: I've never been trick-or-treating, at least not in the traditional sense. Growing up, I lived next door to the Monastery of St. Clare, a secluded order of Franciscan nuns who spend their days in prayer. My family lived in a house on the grounds and worked for the monastery. My mother drove the nuns to doctors' appointments and ran other errands, and my dad, on his days off from the fire department, cut the grass and served as a general custodian. One of the byproducts of this unconventional living arrangement was a lack of friends. Any other time of the year this wouldn't have been a problem, as I was happy to entertain myself, but in order to trick-or-treat, especially at the age of eight, one needed friends to go with, and my solitary existence severely limited my candy-gathering potential. So did my parents' paranoia about my going from house to house "begging for candy," as they called it. They were convinced that our neighborhood was filled with sadistic child murderers, and that I would meet an untimely death after having consumed candy laced with poison, or discover too late that a stranger's apple concealed a razor blade, as if fat kids even ate apples to begin with. But I had a bigger problem; if I didn't have candy to share at my second-grade Secret Pumpkin party the following Monday, I would be subject to public humiliation and a subsequent pummeling by Richard Baumgarten, the class bully.

Since the neighborhood was clearly off limits, Mom suggested that I go trick-or-treating at the monastery. I had not previously considered this as a viable alternative, but it wasn't a bad idea. The sisters adored me, and they had scads of food in the place. Yes. I would trick-or-treat at the monastery. A last-minute trip to the local Ben Franklin yielded my first and only Halloween "costume," a simple tiger mask, the only thing left in the costume bin that hadn’t been destroyed. Its hard, razor-thin plastic edges cut into my face, and a wisp of a rubber band served as the only means of securing it in place. The microscopic air holes in the nose were never meant for a human to breathe through, causing an inevitable build up of condensation—not to mention carbon dioxide—on the inside of the mask. I wore it the entire afternoon, bumping into walls and door frames due to the lack of visibility through the tiny slits masquerading as eye holes. Mom told me repeatedly to take it off, that she would tell me when it was time go.

As dusk approached and the blue sky began to melt into orange and pink and gray, I went to the hall closet to find a bag in which to carry my loot. Bag selection would be crucial; too big a bag and they might think me presumptuous, while too small a bag sent the message that I didn’t want or expect much. After some deliberation I chose a middle-of-the-road paper grocery sack, one you might use for a few oranges, say, or a couple of handfuls of golf balls. As soon as the sun sank out of sight, taking with it the last remnants of light and color from the sky, I began to get antsy, waiting for the go-ahead from Mom. The sisters usually retired to their individual rooms around 7:00pm, writing letters, reading the Bible, or spending time in prayer. If Mom didn't hurry, I would miss my window. As soon as I heard her call my name, I sprang into action, grabbing my loot sack and mask and heading for the door. She had originally insisted on going with me, but I talked her out of it, reasoning that she could watch me make the entire 150-foot trip while standing on our back porch. With Mom at her post, I stumbled across the parking lot, through the covered walkway, and into the monastery. It seems they were expecting me. Mom, I later learned, had called and told them I was coming. Eleven of the twenty-six sisters—most were older and had already gone to bed—greeted me at the front door without my having to even ring the bell. They each held a mixing bowl full of goodies. They all ooh-ed and ahh-ed about my "costume," remarking how scary I was and asking if I bit. One after another, they approached me and emptied the contents of their bowl into my grocery sack, which was soon overflowing. They were prepared for that as well. Sister Jude, one of the younger, newer members, pulled out a canvas tote bag large enough to hold a baby elk. The rest of the sisters emptied their bowls into the tote bag, then laid my puny bag on top. They hugged me, tousled my hair, and generally made a big deal over me, after which I issued a muffled "thank-you" through my mask and made my way back across the dark parking lot, struggling to drag the tote beside me.

Once in the house, I peeled off my mask and unceremoniously dumped the contents of the bag on my bed to survey my take. There was candy: Tootsie Rolls, root beer barrels, butterscotches, peppermints, caramels, candy corn, circus peanuts, Dum-Dums, bubble gum, and Hershey's Kisses. There was also less traditional Halloween fare such as apples, oranges, and bananas. Then there were items that didn't fit into any other category: a packet of powdered lemonade mix, a dozen or so Oreos in a plastic sandwich bag, a small crucifix, and a tin of Sucrets lozenges. I knew instantly that these items came from Sister Gabriel, an eighty-nine-year-old nun who was young at heart but oblivious when it came to social situations. She didn't understand the rules of Halloween, the unwritten protocol of costumes and candy. She simply knew she was supposed to give me something, and she likely just collected items that were lying around in her room. But I loved Sister Gabriel, and I would find a use for each of her gifts.

Our Secret Pumpkin party was in full swing when our teacher, Mrs. Yarbrough announced that it was time for us to play Secret Pumpkin, the portion of the party where everyone placed on our desks the jack-o'-lantern lunch sacks we had created earlier, and then walked around dropping some of our Halloween candy into each sack. As we prepared for lunch, we all grabbed our pumpkin sacks, excited to see what we had gotten from our classmates. As everyone sifted through their candy, they found root beer barrels, butterscotches, and bubble gum. Everyone was pleased except Richard Baumgarten, who sat at his desk with a sour look on his face, staring at a handful of Sucrets.