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Memories of Pat Miller


Haunted House


Four girls break into a haunted house in the fall of 1960.

The sky was a sooty color when the expeditionary force reached the haunted house. Street lights made a buzzing noise and the wind rustled the dense foliage. We stared up at the two-story building where one side was a windowless wall of stone. Wild shadows danced along the wall, ghostly images if you squinted. The windows were boarded but one plank was loose and it creaked as it moved in the breeze.

We pried back the loose board and climbed into the basement. Our beam of light swept an area of empty space, catching the odd cobweb and rusty tool lying on the concrete floor. There were wooden stairs leading upward. The kitchen was a strange place with missing appliances and wires coming out of walls. We tiptoed into the living room. The beam of light revealed dirty wooden floors and heavy curtains layered with dust. Someone coughed. We held our breath. It was one of us. There were stairs leading to the second floor. We moved forward in pack formation; no one wanted to first but no one wanted to be last. Then it happened.

There was a LOUD RATTLING NOISE. The flashlight fell to the floor. Six or seven piercing screams filled the air. Someone fell. Someone said a dirty word. There was the sound of galloping feet. With scrapes and bruises we were suddenly back on the street a block from the haunted house, all four of us.

Halloween Decoration

To be honest I didn't see the ghost; but the image of that house is branded into my memory with smoking intensity. The most important part of every haunted house was always the house. Shhhh. Don't tell anyone. Above is the real house with people now living there, I think.



THE COSTUMES. The witch costume was the obvious choice for girls in the 1950s, but only girls. There were no boys dressed as warlocks. A popular choice for boys was the low-budget ghost. Since most sheets were flat and white when they were old or ripped, one was tossed over the head and a friend drew the location of eyes, nose, mouth and arms. When the holes were cut with scissors the ghost could see, breathe, talk and wave the arms wildly. Many ghosts wandered our streets, voices hoarse from screaming "Boo" with the sheet dragging on the ground behind them, collecting damp leaves.

A bedsheet ghost and friend

Many mothers in the 1950s and 1960s sewed well and produced Disneyesque versions of princesses, toy soldiers and cuddly animals. The major pattern manufacturers, McCall's and Simplicity, offered a wide variety of children's costumes that a mother with a sewing machine and afternoons to spare could produce. Making a garment from scratch was not easy. Ready-made store costumes were still exotic. As with today, they reflected the time period. There were monsters (skeletons, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman and the Mummy), fairytale characters (Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Hansel and Gretel, and trolls), Western TV show characters and pirates. More popular than all of these was the clown, either store-bought or mother-made. These were still the days when clowns had good public relations.

Halloween reached its full potential when the sidewalk surveillance by parents or older siblings was gone because you were finally old enough to roam for a few blocks with your friends after dark and be rewarded with sweet treats.



Stars dotted the dark sky. In the suburbs we were still distant enough from the dazzling city lights to see lots of stars. Most houses had their porch lights on which cast shadows across the lawns. Carved jack-o-lanterns were glowing in living room windows, the effect heightened by the absence of room lights. Our street was filled with laughing, squealing children, calling out "trick-or-treat" after they rang doorbells. The three of us scampered up the steps of a house a few doors down from my house. A lady we didn't know complimented our costumes. There was an awkward pause before we murmured our thanks. Then the lady turned her back on us and walked into her house. We stood still and wondered. Was there candy? Should we try another house? Suddenly she reappeared carrying a huge china plate filled with orange and chocolate iced cookies on a lace doily. We each took one, thanking her, then hurried away. We did it! First house done without parental supervision.

The next house gave us bundles wrapped in a large white paper napkin, tied with an orange ribbon. This was a known mother which produced friendly chitchat from us. Outside one of us was too curious about our bundles to wait. There was the sound of running feet but it wasn't near the known mother's house so my friend plopped down on the steps and opened the napkin in her lap. We studied the contents in awe: sour tarts, black balls, a licorice pinwheel, a strip of candy buttons, a lollipop, syrup in wax, humbugs, molasses chews and Tootsie Rolls. She dumped the treasure into her treat bag and we walked on, seriously discussing candy trading.

A commotion on the opposite side of the street attracted our attention. There was a line forming in front of a house. Good stuff, someone yelled and we ran to join the line. This house was giving caramel apples. The apples were served with the bottom resting on waxed paper and a popsicle stick bursting out of the top. Convincing the gooey apple to leave its paper was a problem. Strings of caramel followed our movements. This was a candy to be eaten immediately. We sat on the lawn and enjoyed our apples. We weren't alone. Other groups of trick-or-treaters did the same. Of course there were those who tossed the gooey food in their treat bag. Mothers would have to deal with that later.

Further down the street we were served on waxed paper again, only this time the treat was homemade fudge. The lady, who knew our parents but didn't know us, wanted us to sample her fudge. We told her it was the best fudge in the world. This is the way we were taught to speak. If something was the best as far as you had experienced then it must be the best in the world. She stood there, beaming at us, then gave us a second serving. Good stuff, we yelled to costumes across the street and pointed excitedly at the 'fudge house'.

Then we reached the 'surprise house'. Later we would learn that every Halloween there was a 'surprise house'. This was our first experience. A man flung open the door. He told us we were naughty and didn't deserve any treats. He bent down and wagged a finger in our faces. We moved closer together and clung to our half-full treat bags, unsure of our next move. Then he roared with laughter. His wife appeared, also amused and offered a tray of candy bars. We reached but it was withdrawn before our tiny hands could claim a treat. They were speaking to each other. Something about cute costumes, picture, camera. We posed, hoping the tray of candy bars would reappear. The cutest costume, happily not mine, won the hug. My friend's small frame was flattened against an enormous bosom. She emitted a muffled sound, then wiggled free as if she was a pimento squirting out of an olive. The tray appeared; we grabbed our bars and ran.

We had just done one street and we were exhausted. We only did seventeen houses and we were exhausted. Time to go home. I spread my treasure on a table. Dad accused me of robbing a store. Mom handed me a basket and ordered me to choose half. Dad said he'd take the other half, but he wasn't allowed. She gave him two pieces. The other half of my treasure was delivered to my homeroom teacher's desk, which was already piled high with treats from other students.

The Tree


In the 1950s artificial trees were a joke. They were usually pink and bought by swinging singles who liked to party on Christmas Eve and nurse a hangover the morning after. For families a live tree was a must. We drove to an outdoor lot beside our new shopping center where there were rows of bushy green trees that smelled like wilderness. I pointed wildly at the tallest, fattest one and my father laughed. The tree had to fit in our living room, he said. Not at all discouraged I chose another one. He leaned to the right and resembled the tree. Okay. I understood the tree had to be short and straight. I patrolled the neat aisles of this temporary forest searching for our short, straight tree. There it was. I squealed, bounced on the stubble of packed snow and clapped my mittens.

Dad picked up the tree by the trunk and shook it to check for falling needles, he said. When none did he bought my choice which was very important to a little person. I watched as he tied it to the roof of our two-toned Ford that had back fins. On the ride home I rolled down the window to alert every single pedestrian that we had a TREE.

At home Dad dragged the tree through the kitchen once he learned Mom was somewhere else. In the living room he screwed the tree into a stand inside a bucket which he then filled with water. The tree, which nearly touched the ceiling, had become part of our house. I touched its soft needles and breathed in the pine fragrance.

That night Mom and I decorated the tree. The decorations were stored in the cellar in a 1930s steamer trunk. The metal trunk had cloth-covered compartments and the ornaments and lights filled one side. On the other side were Mom's diagrams of dissected frogs from her biology class in university. I once asked how she could do it and she told me they were dead frogs. It took a while for me to understand she answered a different question than I had asked. We carried the decorations upstairs.

First we strung the multi-coloured lights on the tree, then we wrapped the silver tinsel around the branches, using a chair to reach the highest ones. Our coloured glass balls, some etched in silver frosting, were various shapes, resembling plump apples, pointy-ended sweet potatoes or smooth eggs. We carefully placed them on the branches, Mom reminding me to place them securely. We only bought the tree. The decorations were the same very year. Mom stood on a chair in her stocking feet to attach the silver star to the top. The final act was to saturate the branches with silver icicles.

When we lit the tree Dad joined us and turned off the living room lights. The snow was falling outside and it was a beautiful moment with our TREE in a darkened room.

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Thank you so much, Karen. What a lovely comment!
posted by Pat Miller
Beautiful-such evocative description! I would read your books any day!
posted by Karen Schuyler