Like all the other memories she left, it was a Halloween to remember.
|STAR OF THE SHOW
It was a perfect night for Halloween. The moon was a sliver in the darkness. Clouds obscured the stars. And we kids tiptoed through the tent, trying to not get caught.
“Eeeeeeheeheeheehee . . . come right this way, my purrrrretty.”
That voice screeched in our ears, shredding our nerves like metal dragging pavement. Black fabric flapped the air around us, like bats on the prowl. Bunched together, Dee Dee, Pete, Katy and me, along with five or six school friends, creeped along as one. Our elementary school held a Halloween festival every year, but the Haunted House was new.
“Aaaaaaaaah!” we screamed, scrambling as fast as we could in different directions. We were roaches when the lights go on. Only it was dark.
Out of nowhere, a face appeared, floating above us. That horrible, green face. The long warted nose . . .
“No! No! No-No-No-No-NOOOOOOO!”
“She got Katy,” a voice wailed. Five-year old Katy was screaming, her tiny voice ratcheting into hysteria. Like squirrels in the street, the rest of us froze, too frightened to move.
Someone turned on a light.
“Katy! It’s me! It’s me,” she yelled above our cries, pulling off the hat and that hideous nose.
Forty years later, a friend who was with us that night asked if I remembered the haunted house.
“How is your mother?” he asked. He hadn’t seen her since that night all those years before. “I remember your mother so well. I think of her sometimes. Especially that one year she dressed up as a witch for the haunted house. Do you remember that?”
Oh, I remember.
That Halloween night was only one of myriad memories. I remember plenty of nights when other parents relaxed inside their houses. Mama was outside with their kids, teaching us all how to play Kick the Can. Or rounding up players for a Hide ‘n Seek game. Older folks on our block may have wished they lived in a different neighborhood some nights. But no one ever complained. A bunch of kids, running, laughing, and having fun on their own street instead of roaming to others? Who could complain about that? Which is exactly what Mama would have asked, had anyone other than Daddy challenged her.
Besides, by that time we had moved into a neighborhood where everyone had central air. It wasn’t like all their windows were open.
As we got older, no one was better at rolling houses or spoofing rival high schools. Mama was the pack leader, and she taught us everything she knew. Back then having your house rolled wasn’t considered vandalism. It was a trophy awarded the popular. We’d climb into cars, trunks crammed with toilet paper, and head out, driving up and down back streets. Too many kids stuffed inside a car, hanging out windows, laughing and horsing around? That was a sight guaranteed to draw the wrong kind of attention. Police cruisers kept to busier streets.
Approaching the X drawn on our maps, a stillness crept over us. Drivers turned off motors. We’d coast like ghost ships, landing as close as we could to our darkened destination. Looming like giant sentinels, trees threatened to sound an alarm with any misstep.
We moved like phantom pirates stalking a treasure. Then we’d deliver our load, like Mama taught us. We’d each rear back, toilet paper roll grasped firmly in one hand and, aiming at the top of a tree, throw that sucker like it had been shot out of a cannon. By the time we left, the target’s front yard would look like a weeping willow forest, long white branches swaying in the coastal breeze.
A master in the art of tomfoolery, Mama coached countless teenagers in the craft. She was always the star of the show, the life of the party, regardless which show, regardless whose party. Her vivacious spirit attracted people. Young, old, and in-between, they moved toward her as if by magnetic force. Mama possessed an inner essence that could not stay put, an energy that refused to still. It broke out through her big brown eyes, her broad, toothy smile and invigorated the world around her.
She never appeared in a theatrical production or on the silver screen. Her world was her stage. And her children, those she birthed and many she did not, were her biggest fans.
Ours was the house where kids liked to hang out, not because she was lenient. She was not. But she was fair. She was fun, and she treated everyone the same. If you were in her house, you were her kid and she loved you like her own. You were always welcome, as long as you respected her rules. If you didn’t like them, you could go home and not come back.
I’ll never forget the time she called John’s bluff.
When he picked me up for our first date, Mama told him she’d let me go. That time.
“John, if you want to date my daughter you need to get a haircut,” she said. “It’s up to you what you do, of course, but don’t come back without one.”
A real charmer, John grinned, looked directly into her eyes, and assured her he would get a haircut if there was a next time.
I was a senior in high school, and this was the beginning of the peace, love, and long hair era. John’s hair wasn’t even that long. A bit shaggy, but it only climbed down his neck about an inch and a half.
After he asked me out again, I told him I’d love to go, but assured him Mama wasn’t kidding about the haircut. John promised he’d hit the barber’s chair before he rang our doorbell.
The doorbell rang. I hurried to answer it, all dressed up for the dance we were attending with another couple. Mama intercepted me and grabbed the door handle before I could reach it.
“John! So good to see you again. Come on inside,” she gushed, opening the door wide.
He stepped through the doorway, and I was relieved to see his hair tamed. But Mama wasn’t fooled.
“Hi, Mrs. Prescott! Uh, um, my friend and his date are in the car, waiting for us, so . . .”
“Did you forget what I told you last time, John?” she asked, words dripping off her tongue like syrup.
“Oh! About the haircut? No, I, uh . . .” he replied, cupping his hair with his hand.
“Don’t even go there,” she interrupted. “Putting gel on your hair and tucking it behind your ears is not the same as getting it cut. But it is the same as lying.”
John looked at me, all pretty in my nice dress. My eyes were as round as tomatoes and my face the same shade. I tried to speak, but words wouldn’t form. He had been warned; she wasn’t kidding!
Mama was a good eight inches shorter than John. She had to reach up as she patted his shoulder and moved him toward the front door.
“Tell your friends I’m sorry you’ll have to be a third wheel,” she said as he began moving down the sidewalk. “And John?”
“Yes maam?” He turned back toward her, hopeful she had given in.
“It wouldn’t be a good idea to ever try fooling me again.”
“I’m really sorry, Mrs. Prescott,” he said. Head hanging, he made his way back to the waiting car, opened the back door, and climbed in. Alone.
Lying was at the top of Mama’s “don’t ever” rules. Still, regardless of which rule you broke, all you had to do to get back into her good graces was tell her you were sorry. As long as you meant it.
John was back. Several times.
Memories overtook me as kids from the old days, now parents themselves, wandered in and out of her hospital room. She laid in the bed, comatose, unable to greet them, and they were there to pay last respects. Each had a story. Or several.
“Remember that big cow bell your mom always clanged at our football games?” someone asked. Heads shook and laughter erupted.
Someone else answered, “Yeah! And remember that time she almost got kicked out of our baseball game for yelling at the ump?” More laughter, knees slapped, necks rocking back and forth.
“Oh, wait! Remember that time she bought about a million praying mantises for her garden? And they all broke out inside your house?” Everyone roared, then fell silent, eyes on the floor, imagining her best days.
Mama made an impact on every life she touched. She was only fifty-two years old when she left us, ripped too soon from life’s stage. But the stories continue to flow.
Do I remember that Halloween?
Oh, yes. I remember the haunted house. I remember plenty of other times, too. I remember our neighbor, Patsy. Beautiful Patsy, with Downs Syndrome. Thirty years old but still a sweet, sweet child. How she loved to play Dorothy to my mother’s Wicked Witch. For years they played. Patsy would come to our front door, asking to see the witch. Mama would put on her hat, pull up her fingers and screech, “Eeeeeeheeheeheehee . . . I’m going to get you, my purrrrretty!” Patsy would squeal.
“Run, Dorothy, run,” we’d yell, and off Patsy would go, waddling down our sidewalk and up her driveway. She pretended our little black dog, Dixie, was Toto.
The haunted house was quite a success when I was in elementary school. And the wicked witch was the star of the show. Children, young and old screamed in terror, trying to get away from her. Over and over again.
My mother has been gone longer than a lifetime. Yet, when I am asked, as I always am, “Do you remember . . .” the memories flood my soul, as vividly as if they’d been filmed.