Behind the Mask

Most of the year we are our ordinary selves, living out the beauty and adventure of each common day as it passes. At the end of October though, we get the chance to reach into the dark shelves of our imaginations and try out our uncommon self.

Costumes are such strange and interesting things, aren’t they? I can remember some of my childhood costumes: over the years I was a Care Bear, a witch, a princess, a punk rocker. Whether I was wearing bright blue eyeshadow or a steep black hat, I can remember a shock of excitement and fear as I peered into the mirror. Who was that strange girl peering back at me? Was I still myself?

In high school one year, my friends and I dressed as 1940s glamour girls, with tailored dresses from the downtown thrift stores, scarves tied smartly around our throats, and round, oversize sunglasses. Accustomed to tearing around campus in soft cutoffs and comfy flip-flops, I remember teetering down the stairs from my English class, trying to balance my three-ring binder, trigonometry textbook, and three-inch heels as throngs of costumed peers surged around me in the mellow October sunshine.

My grandparents married on Halloween, in Ohio, long ago. In their wedding photo my grandmother Aggie is tall and slender, with a thoughtful look on her face and a long, formal white gown. My grandfather Richard is leaning toward her slightly, one hand at her back, wearing a dark suit and simple boutonniere. She is holding a bouquet leafy with fern springs, budded in basic roses. His polished shoe is slightly stepping on the elegant train of her dress. Later they would move to California to raise their four sons, including my father, the youngest.

My grandparents would have surely been shocked at some of the costumes I’ve worn on Halloween. That’s how it is with grandparents – but that’s part of Halloween’s nighttime wilderness, isn’t it? We’ve all been there. Shocking each other, scaring each other, the sharp adrenaline zipline with the plastic-wrapped sugar. Peering behind the masks and make-up: Is that you? we ask each other at Halloween. I almost didn’t recognize you.

And a reminder that time passes. Last year’s costumes never seem to matter very much. Last year’s pumpkin never seems as perfect as this year’s pumpkin, though the air be dark and pungent with their burning pulp.

Last year’s trick-or-treaters might be long forgotten, but this year’s kids are always the cutest. Infants dressed as bears and bunnies. A thousand princesses and pirates. Children learning that the world is a mysterious and generous place.

I’ve spent one Halloween outside the United States. An undergrad at UCSD, I was living in Concepción, Chile, for a semester and taking classes at the university there. Nobody was dressed up in costume, although my friend Andrea and I did attend a nighttime fútbol game where the air was thick with smoke from fireworks, and the stadium rang with chants and screaming matches between the rival fans. Our night ended early, and I took the elevator to the third floor where I was living with a Chilean family. In my little room, sitting on my lumpy twin bed, I opened a shoebox my mother had mailed me from the United States. Inside, six carefully wrapped, homemade caramel popcorn balls my mother had made in her yellow-painted kitchen back in California. I unwrapped one of the popcorn balls and walked to my window, where I could see my clothes still drying on the line and watch people in the streets below. The caramel was thin and sweet. It was, I knew, my grandmother’s recipe.