It was Halloween of 1955, and the kids of St. Joseph’s Catholic Elementary School had been looking forward to it, along with every other kid in the United States. We got to dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating from house to house. The sweet haul would last for several days. Our parents, whose idea of childhood nutrition was getting us to drink Ovaltine and eat Wonder Bread, would never make us give up any of our Halloween candy. My generation has been a mainstay of support for the dental profession ever since.
In those days, store-bought costumes were only for rich kids or snooty kids with indulgent parents. The vast majority of us went out into the night wearing homemade affairs. Ghost costumes were easy. All you needed was an old sheet with eyeholes cut in it and two more holes for your hands, with an old hat on your head to hold the sheet in place. In addition to sheets,
cardboard, aluminum foil, leftover material from Mom’s last sewing project, toy guns and many other items could be pressed into service to create some memorable couture and accessories. The one thing our parents would actually consent to buy would be a mask, but even then some of us had to be content with the cheap variety instead of one of those really neat, super scary-looking rubber monster masks.
The Catholic Church didn’t completely approve of Halloween, but they tolerated it, probably because there was nothing they could do about it. Pagan tradition or not, no kid was going to give up a chance to run around at night knocking on doors and getting free candy from everyone. Turning into temporary heathens for one evening was a small price to pay.
At St. Joseph’s Catholic Elementary School, however, Halloween was officially celebrated as The Eve of All Saints. Every classroom had a party at the end of the school day, with cupcakes, little pieces of candy in paper cups and little cups of juice. Instead of dressing as witches, ghosts, cowboys, fairies or Superman, we came to school dressed as a favorite saint. This year I was going for the gold. I would go as the saint of all saints: Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
This was a stretch for me. Even though I was only in the Third Grade, I was not exactly immaculate and without sin, at least according to my parents. A strong will, a low threshold of boredom and a talent for smarting off were a lethal mixture in a little kid.1 I didn’t care, though. This might be my one and only chance to play the part of Mary, because
nobody but me would ever even think of casting me in the role. Opportunity was knocking and I grabbed it. I might not have been a saint, but, gosh darn it, I could look like one and even try to act like one, as long as I only had to keep it up for a little while.2
It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day. I didn’t even mind being stuck inside a classroom on such a day, because I was looking forward to the party, to trick-or-treating and to not having to go to school the next day. November 1, All Saints’ Day, was a “holyday of obligation” for Catholics, which meant we had to treat it like a Sunday, including going to church. It also meant that we schoolkids got the day off. A party, trick-or-treating later and a day off from school – I was in Heaven and I hadn’t even died yet.
The first part of the day consisted of our usual lessons, shortened to allow time for the party. That was okay, but sometime after lunch an omen began to sneak up and reveal its ugly face. I started to feel queasy. My Mom had always told me if you ignored people who were bugging you they would get bored and stop. I figured the same principle applied to feeling sick, so I just ignored the increasingly sick feelings. It was the Eve of All Saints and Halloween, and gosh darn it (again!) I wasn’t going to miss either one of those if it killed me!
It wasn’t until the party had gotten into full swing that I finally had to succumb. I put my head down on my desk. I heard the other kids gasping, and one girl said to the nun/teacher, “Sister, Sister! The Blessed Mother is sick!”
I liked the way she called me “The Blessed Mother.” It meant that I had done a good job with my disguise. My semi-euphoria was immediately broken, however, by Jimmy LeBoeuf, a fat kid who sat across the aisle from me, who said, “I think God is punishin’ you for impersonatin’ His mother!”
That was it! All thoughts of holiness vanished along with my blue veil, which fell off my head. I was sick and mad, and you know what that means.
“You take that back, you creep!” I shouted, as I wiggled out of my desk, pounced on Jimmy LeBoeuf and knocked him out of his desk. I pinned him to the floor and would have pounded him into a pancake if our teacher hadn’t grabbed me, pulled me off, forcibly shoved me back into my desk and ordered me in a voice like a drill sergeant to sit there and pray Hail Marys until I cooled off. She made Jimmy go to the front of the room, where she slapped his palms with a ruler. She then gave the whole class a ten-minute sermon on how we were supposed to love each other, forgive and turn the other cheek.
The school called my Mom and she came and picked me up. I was put to bed, where, for the next few days, I was fed our family’s usual sickroom fare of Lipton’s chicken noodle soup and Seven-Up. I missed trick-or-treating that year, and I had to spend All Saints’ Day in bed. The only good part of that was that I got to watch “Queen For a Day” and “Art Linkletter’s House Party” on TV. I had a black eye, courtesy of Jimmy LeBoeuf’s fist. My Mom thought it was disgraceful, and she got mad when I told her I thought it was a badge of honor and that I wished I had given one to Jimmy.
I was hoping that I would be suspended for a few days because of the fight, but I had no such luck. As soon as I was over being sick, I had to go back to school.
The following year, I went to school as St. Catherine of Alexandria.
1I’m glad I kept the talent for smarting off. It comes in handy when you are trying to write funny stuff for people who are not your parents.
2“Gosh darn it” was the strongest cuss that was ever spoken in our house, except for once or twice when my Mom slipped in a moment of great anger and said, “Damn!”