Remembering my dad & Halloween on Washington Street

Will, dressed as a bumblebee, following his Poppy.

I sat at the dining room table, stitching together the King Tut toga I had promised my kid for Halloween, when I burst into tears.

We bought the Egyptian pharaoh hat at the King Tut exhibit in Indianapolis this summer on one condition: that it be Will’s Halloween costume. Will had a condition of his own: “You have to make me a King Tut toga,” he said.

So, I bought a pattern and some shiny, gold material on sale that seemed worthy of the wondrous King Tut. I figured I had plenty of time to sew it until Will got an invitation on Monday for a Halloween party Wednesday night.

“Do you have to have the whole outfit,” I asked him. “What if I can’t get it done? You could wear just the hat.”

“You’ve got 48 hours,” Will said.

With just six hours left, I began the project, relying on a mix of my iPod tunes to set the pace. When the lovely “Lullaby” by the Dixie Chicks rotated in, I found myself reduced to tears.

“How long do you want to be loved,” asks the song. “Is forever enough, ’cause I’m never, never giving you up.”

Like a middle-aged volcano, I erupted in tears, triggered by the song, the fall season and Halloween, which always remind me of my dad.

Just a couple weeks earlier, Will’s school had a Family Harvest Party that featured pizza and crafts and a deejay. We wandered the school and read the “bio-poem” Will wrote, which hung above his locker. The assignment had students write about themselves by finishing sentences.

The first sentence in Will’s bio-poem was “I am …,” and he had to choose three adjectives to fill in the blanks. He chose, “funny,” “cranky” and “devastated.”

I agreed with the first two descriptors, but devastated?

“Why would you describe yourself as devastated,” I asked him.

“Well, that’s how I felt when Poppy died,” he explained.

It’s how I felt, too, but I never considered how deep and long-lasting sorrow would be with one so young.

And so I cried some more.

I remembered how my father threw himself into Halloween the last part of his life. He bought an old Victorian house on Washington Street, just a few blocks from my bungalow. At the time, Washington Street transformed itself into Halloween Central.

Homeowners went all out, engaging in friendly competition to come up with the most crazy and elaborate Halloween displays. There were spaceships and cemeteries and dinosaurs with moving parts and the largest insects I’ve ever seen. There were strobe lights and macabre music. It was a trick-or-treating paradise, and word of its existence spread far and wide.

During the height of the Halloween haze phase, well over a thousand trick-or-treaters would come begging; cars jammed with kids streamed into the neighborhood all evening long. It was difficult to walk the sidewalks as the invasion of humanity moved along on foot in search of sugar and a good-natured fright.

My parents moved there during the height of the Halloween craze, and they threw themselves into the fun.

When I was growing up, my father was never much for holiday decorations. We’d put up a Christmas tree, but never any outdoor lights. He’d hide Easter eggs inside the house, but never hang them from trees. A roasted turkey graced the Thanksgiving table; never did an inflatable bird nest on our front lawn.

Oh, we might have a lighted jack-o’-lantern in the front window. We might even have some paper snowflakes in the winter, but we were restrained; never, ever did our inner holiday children run wild outside.

Never, that is, until my dad caught the spirit of Washington Street.

I was amazed as my father threw himself into the spooky season. He hung a life-sized skeleton and some bats from a tree on the front lawn. On Halloween, my mother dressed like a witch and sat on the front porch with a crystal ball that glowed in the dark. A strobe light flashed in the room above the porch and a boom box my father rigged played spooky music. Dry ice in a cauldron smoked away on the front porch.

Friends and relatives gathered inside the house for food and refreshments and a turn at passing out the treats. Will’s first few Halloweens — as a baby tiger in my arms, as a little pumpkin, then a bumblebee — were spent at my parents’ place.

It was so much more than just fun, though: It was the zest with which my father set his spooky stage every year. It was as if my father had finally discovered his inner, holiday-loving self. His Halloween zeal spilled over onto Christmas, when he strung lights and hung ribbons and wreaths on the front porch. He and my mom put candles in each of the windows of their beautiful old home. It was the happiest I’d ever seen them.

Then, along came my boy.

It was as if my dad’s same inner child connected, too, with my son. No longer busy working to feed his family, my father was always available to Will, and the two of them shared a special, sweet bond. Will doted on his Poppy, assuming the role of his emissary as my dad’s health declined. “Poppy, don’t forget your cane,” he’d remind my dad when I’d pick him up for a drive or dinner out. “Wait for Poppy,” he’d tell us when we’d walk up ahead.

Will was just 7 when my dad died at the University of Michigan Medical Center. For the first week, we fully expected he would recover and come home. But what we expected and prayed for never came to be, and my father died.

Will was heartbroken. He never saw his Poppy in the hospital, and I know my dad wouldn’t have wanted his little grandson to see him hooked up to machines. What Will saw, instead, were worried, harried parents rushing about as they took turns at the hospital and kept their work lives going as well as possible. It was a difficult, emotional couple weeks, and the strain showed.

Then, at the end of September, as the leaves started to change colors, as Will was learning a lesson in school, my dad passed away. That first Halloween without him was heartbreaking, but the memory of the pleasure he took in the event when he lived on Washington Street buoyed me along.

And so I sat at the dining room table, making my kid his costume, crying for the sweetness of what had been and sorrow for what was lost, thankful for a child who carried around his Poppy in his heart.

For just those few moments, I, too, felt devastated. But there was a King Tut costume to finish, which I did, just in the nick of time.

— Halloween 2009

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Journalist Maria Stuart worked at The Livingston County Press/Livingston County Daily Press & Argus as a reporter, editor and managing editor from 1990-2009. These days, she runs The Livingston Post.