Here’s a story about Halloween, family troubles, and Kids Cuisine. Happy Friday.
Growing up in the Castro made Halloween fun for reasons traditional and otherwise. The otherwise was funny in the same way a Simpsons episode was at that age: funny for a simple reason then, and a different, more intended reason years later. There were aspects unique to most five-year-old’s experience: three women dressed up like a tampon, sanitary pad, and the box they came in, nuns with stubble, and more than one very tall Dorothy. The last one caused me to blurt “Why do gay guys dress like The Wizard of Oz?” “Because they identify with her,” my mom answered. I nodded. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Like many other things I didn’t get off the bat, I tucked that answer deep in my brain, waiting for a time when the context that comes with age would allow me to understand. My tiny enlightenment about the actress came about six years later, a small exhaled “Ohhh” as I watched Judy Garland’s wide brown eyes look out over the Yellow Brick Road, her voice trembling in awe of a new, Technicolor world.
The more standard Halloween fun stood out too: bobbing for apples. Halloween-themed worksheets, a parade on the basketball court at school. Staying up well past my bedtime to seeThe Nightmare Before Christmas at a movie theater, and getting the Kids Special: a colorful cardboard tray filled with popcorn, gummy bears, and a small soda that was almost as exciting as the movie. Discovering which neighbors gave out good candy like Twix or Kit-Kats, and who gave out the bottom-feeder stuff like Smarties and Bottlecaps, or even worse, animal crackers or fruit. Collecting a giant sack of sugar that lost its allure ten pieces of candy later, and hung out by my desk until it was thrown away in March. My friends hated me.
And the costumes. My name is Rosamund and my sister’s name is Peregrine. This is absolutely an indicator of our parents’ political leanings, at least in the 70s and 80s. Our mom’s beliefs stayed much the same while dad drifted uncertainly to the moderate right. Mom was an artist and involved in Harvey Milk’s campaigns, dad had a small role in the Pixar Luxor animation, and was one of the sound editors on Apocalypse Now. Halloween was very much encouraged: mom would make whatever I asked. I had good costumes: a carrot complete with leafy green hat, a gauzy pink princess dress I refused to wear at the last minute because I was going to be Catwoman (this did not go over well with the costume’s creators), a fuzzy dalmatian with mom walking alongside as Cruella deVille. But my sister’s were the best. Per had the greatest ideas, and the talent to make them happen. One year she was a tea cup, complete with a little Twinnings tag, possibly in tribute to her favorite ride at Disney World. One year a fly with iridescent wings, and goggles that looked like compound eyes. She liked to dress me up too, and didn’t need Halloween as an excuse to curl my eyelashes and apply mascara before having me recite passages from Alice in Wonderland.
These costumes were all good. But my favorite was the TV dinner. I remember this one most clearly, possibly because I was involved in its creation, maybe because it was a fantastic costume, or maybe because I really, really loved TV dinners. I could be bribed with Kids Cuisine, which if you are a child of the 90s, was the one in the blue box with the penguin. He may have also had a hat. Peregrine’s costume was less inspired by Kids Cuisine, and more the TV dinners of the 50s. The tray was made of foamcore, covered in the shiny silver wrapping that surrounded sticks of margarine or Crisco. We had an enormous roll of it. At one point, a parent of one of my mom’s students had worked for a margarine factory, and one day he brought it to my mom. It was really heavy, and I still wonder how he got it out of the building unnoticed.
The top left part of the tray held the cake, which was made of light orange-brown foam dotted with giant, clear red beads. The beads were the berries. I sat beside my sister on our living room carpet, cutting the foam into square chunks of roughly the same size. I was using those dumb safety scissors that never work that well, so it was slow going, but I didn’t mind. I can’t remember if she actually used the chunks to create a fluffy, bead-encrusted pile, or just wanted to give me something to do while she worked. It was fun either way. I’m pretty sure she used them.
Per stopped to review. The costume was amazing and it wasn’t even finished: the peas and carrots lay on the floor, green balls and orange discs I corralled into piles. The salisbury steak, carved out of thick styrofoam, was a meaty brick red marbled by white paint lines. The berries on the cake shone rosy pink in the late morning light. It was beautiful. We stared in companionable silence, in that moment together and at peace.
And then, as soon as it started, it broke. She started teasing me about something. I don’t remember what. I got angrier and angrier, flinging the scissors to the floor, their blunted blades as ineffective as my kid fury. The skittering noise of metal hitting linoleum prompted a look from my mom. “Per,” she said, her voice a warning. “Leave Rose alone.” My dad was lost in the newspaper, and did not look up — the beginnings of a trend that would only increase.
My sister smirked, then whispered something that was like throwing a lit match on gasoline. I don’t remember what it was. I do remember that I lost it, throwing beads across the room and screaming “Fuck you! I wish you would move out and never come back!” I was five. I don’t know who was more surprised, me or the rest of the room. There was a brief, stunned silence, during which I bolted to the other side of our apartment like a bat out of hell. I heard laughter erupt behind me.
Halloween came and went. We moved again, then again, then a big move to Minnesota, which was technically across the country but might as well have been the far side of the moon. Per did not come with us. She went to college at Kansas City Art Institute. She would graduate eight years later, but by that point had become one of the youngest accepted into the Whitney museum, owner of an all-ages-venue and gallery, and an artist of no small acclaim. Meanwhile, I got used to -30 degree winters and classmates who had been friends in the womb and weren’t too interested in anyone who fell outside that category. They talked about some earlier Halloween where there had been over two feet of snow. I had never seen snow. I realized we weren’t moving back to California.
There were other costumes during this time: I was Xena, Warrior Princess, then a Renaissance princess, then nothing for a few years. I claimed I was too old to trick-or-treat, but really, the desire for fantasy and escape had merely changed directions: I read Frank Miller’s Batman, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Alan Moore’s Hellblazer like they were holy books, wishing for a mask, a cloak, a magic spell to ease an adolescence characterized by cystic acne, a deep and stymied general hatred, and various costumes involving a neon blue bob wig and lots of badly applied black eyeliner. Halloween changed meaning in high school. It became another reason to drink Mailbu rum and Cokes and get home later than I said I would. But secretly, I still loved a good costume: I’d stare at a girl’s gauzy fairy wings through a hazy cloud of cigarette smoke, feeling a sharp pang as I quietly wished I had the skill to make something that cool, or the courage to try.
Per probably still made amazing costumes, but I wouldn’t have known. By that point she had stopped speaking to our mother, and by extension me. My dad, always quiet and strange, had became quieter and stranger as the years passed. The demons in his head came out in a combination of meanness and detachment, and eventually culminated in him leaving a note on the table, informing us that he was leaving permanently. Also, my costume sucked that year. It was less a costume and more an excuse to wear a cheap corset from Hot Topic. It was a bad year all around.
I love origin stories. Bruce Wayne, upon seeing his mother and father killed in front of him, vows to become a bat and hunt down criminals. Kal-El is sent to earth by his mother and father, blasting off of Krypton before its destruction. Harry Potter’s parents are killed by Voldemort, leaving him with a lightning-bolt scar and a magical destiny. Logically, many origin stories involve parents, and mine is no exception. Unlike stories of aliens and wizards and ordinary men with lots of money and secret lairs, I find my more mundane creation hard to reconcile. The place that taught me malicious anger and creepy secrets are what love looks like is the same place that provided a discerning eye, a love for ephemera, and an appreciation for history and camp. It lies in the West Coast and Midwest and a family with enough drama for a telenovela, if telenovelas had less boobs and shrieking and more mental illness and uncomfortable silence. It lies in Halloween of 1991, a sister nine years older, and a giant, shiny TV dinner tray made to be worn like a sandwich board.
That TV dinner gathers dust in my mom’s basement, shoved behind boxes of old clothes and bookended by several of my sister’s paintings. I doubt it will see another Halloween, but it probably won’t be thrown away, either. In this instance I am thankful for my mother’s hoarding tendencies, because although thinking of its shiny surface pricks something touchy and unresolved, I’d be more sad if it wasn’t around. I have not spoken to my sister in eleven years. As I get older, my memories of her get spotty, and I struggle to remember family myth and legend, while at the same time trying to walk away from it forever. It is a history bound together with ritual, the Halloweens and birthdays as memorable as the daily, sometimes hourly screaming fights. This may be why I can recall a frozen meal with embarrassing clarity, but interactions with family members are indistinct. Remembering the chicken nuggets, pile of corn, applesauce, and perfectly square brownie that made up Kids Cuisine doesn’t inspire intense paranoia and despair, or memories of chaos and financial ruin.
It has been said that myths provide explanations for things people don’t understand. My sister has become something of a myth to me. She made the best costumes. We have the same mother. We spent 10 years living together. She is a famous artist. We don’t talk and possibly never will. I wonder if she feels the same way about our mythology as I do — a story increasingly hard to remember, yet difficult to forget.