MARTHA SEZ: How will you dress begging for candy?
October 6, 2017


All around us the world is in constant flux, but we tend not to notice change until a new season or holiday arrives or someone we remember as a small child appears as a young adult or an old driver's license turns up, triggering memories of bygone years. Then we make comparisons and realize that life is not the same.

My friend Laura and I were sitting at her kitchen table, drinking coffee and looking out at a morning sky hung with low gray clouds, like so much old cotton underwear hung out to dry. Not the wispy lingerie clouds of May, but but clouds like soggy union suits, or like other garments that started out white but which no amount of chlorine bleach can ever restore to their former pristine glory. After a prolonged summer, this was the first day that reminded us of the inevitability of November. There was a gloom about it. We started talking about Halloween.

Laura remembered when she was a little girl, living with her family on Staten Island in the 1930s. She and her sisters didn't go out trick-or-treating, she said, but orphans came to the door. Real orphans, from the grymes Hill Orphanage, dressed in rags and carrying burlap sacks, their faces theatrically blackened with ashes and soot. Tough little faces, Laura said.

"My father used to say, 'The ragamuffins are here!' My parents gave them apples and oranges, maybe a little money." Laura stopped to think.

"You know," she said, "that wasn't Halloween at all; it was Thanksgiving.

"Anything for Thanksgiving! Anything for Thanksgiving!" That's what they used to call as they stood outside the door. Everyone was so poor then, she said; it was the Depression.

Seeing the orphans' success, Laura decided to take it upon herself to go out begging. Her parents were surprised when she came home with fruit and coins. What was their reaction? I don't know. It was so long ago, and they are gone now.

Probably orphans no longer go begging door to door for their Thanksgiving dinner on Staten Island. Times have changed.

According to Laura, in New York state, deviltry preceded trick-or-treating as a Halloween youth activity. Sometimes revenge was postponed until this time of year because the perpetrators thought they would be able to get away with more on Halloween.

Halloween. A dark time where I grew up, too, near Detroit, a night when damned spirits rode the sleet-driving wind through the streets of our neighborhood. There I ran with a multitude of other Baby-Boom children trampling the mush of fallen leaves that covered the sidewalks and lay in the gutters like sodden cornflakes. All of us wore costumes sewn by our mothers and grandmothers. One year my mother made a wonderful dinosaur head mask from papier mache. My grandmother made me an organdy fairy princess costume in defiance of the weather.

We carried paper grocery bags instead of burlap sacks. Once my older brother took a pillow case. He always covered more territory than my sister and little brother and I did. We didn't use the term trick-or-treating; we called it going begging. Instead of calling "Trick or treat!" we wailed "Help the poooor," an eery lament that carried well on the wind, although we weren't poor.

Some of us were not above soaping windows of houses where treats were not proffered or were deemed unsatisfactory, but I doubt anyone ever menaced the home of Old Mrs. Quarton or her daughter. True, they did not hand out the candy we liked: Hershey bars, Necco Wafers, boxes of Good and Plenty and Milk Duds, Holloway suckers, Double Bubble gum or Tootsie Rolls- not even candy corn.

Old Mrs. Quarton and her daughter looked to be about the same age, ancient crones in dark-colored dresses of the type worn by elderly women before pastel polyester pantsuits took over. The Quartons were too dignified and austere for pastel polyester anyway, and I don't remember them ever smiling as they bade us enter and describe our costumes. We were made to sit on chairs for a tediously long time, a tedium we experienced as only children can. At last, Old Mrs. Quarton would extract, from a little coin purse, a penny for each of us, and we would burst forth into the night from the dread Quarton house which, although practically a twin to our big old familiar comfortable brick house next door, seemed mysterious and grim.

What are you doing for Halloween?

Have a good week.


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