Former Resident Reflects on the Spooky Season
by Chrystal (Duquette) Houston
HARDWICK – When my children were younger, they loved the Magic Tree House series, in which a pair of siblings travel through space and time by touching books in an enchanted library. This scenario would seem like mere fantasy, except that I experienced the same phenomenon recently when I found a coffee table book called The Ultimate Book of Historic Barns at my local library in Nebraska. (I’m a sucker for old barns and was delighted to find multiple volumes on the topic.)
The magic happened when I turned to the section on the barns of New England, arguably the most beautiful part of the book. On page 40 is a picture of a farm near Cavendish, shot through the red-orange foliage of a maple tree in full fall glory. The barn is partially obscured by early morning mist, it’s natural wood-stained boards blending in with the surrounding woods.
My breath caught in my throat when I saw this photograph. The peaceful morning scene transfixed me. Standing riveted to the spot in the library stacks, my skin tingled with the chill and moisture in the air of an autumn morning in Vermont. I inhaled deeply and smelled earthy leaf litter and woodsmoke. The calls of white throated sparrows filled my ears.
And on my tongue was the sweet taste of candy. Halloween candy.
Transported by this magical volume, I am suddenly a kid again, walking to Hardwick Elementary School on a cold autumn morning down Glenside Ave, my older brother Patrick at my side. The year is 1987 and it’s Friday, October 30. Bundled warmly with hats, mittens, and scarves knitted by our grandma (longtime Hardwick resident Cecile Duquette), the only place we feel the chill is our noses, as red as the autumn leaves we pass on our journey. Our breath comes out in clouds of white as we talk all the way down the hill about the holiday to come–the biggest event of the year on the kid calendar. Our parents, Cabot employees, always make sure we have plenty of cheese in the house, but seldom do we have access to the cocaine of childhood: pure, unadulterated sugar.
Exhibit A: the lightly sweetened popcorn balls my mother likes to make at Halloween. Have you ever met a child who was eager to eat popcorn when the house next door is handing out Hershey’s? I rest my case.
This holiday is our chance to dress up and stock up. We plot and plan and probably learn nothing at school that day. Doubtless there is a classroom Halloween party with hot cider and cookies and a viewing of the 1966 classic “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” On the way home we stop at the arcade on Main Street where we start the sugar fest early, pooling our pocket change to buy Bazooka Joe bubble gum, three cents a piece or two for a nickel. The gum is so hard it nearly breaks our teeth and loses its flavor within 60 seconds, but it’s a thrill to be able to buy anything when you’re a kid.
That night we put the finishing touches on our costumes, ready for the big day. We also carve pumpkins by the light of a waxing gibbous moon, the pale partial orb a comfort as my brother insists that if the moon were full, Michael Jackson would be stalking us in werewolf form. We light our jack-o-lanterns and leave them by the front door, hoping that neither wildlife nor wild youths will disturb them in the night.
On Saturday evening, we excitedly don our costumes and begin the festivities. I’m dressed as a witch, head to toe in black. My hat and warty nose were purchased at Brooks Drugstore in Hardwick and while they look fantastic, the rubber nose smells awful and makes it hard to breathe. No matter. I am confident in my shiny black trash bag cape. I know I look amazing. Patrick is dressed as a Transformer, his costume like mine a mashup of store-bought and homemade pieces. Our little brother, Luke, age 3, is dressed rather creatively as a “backwards Frenchman” with his clothes on backwards (perhaps politically incorrect by modern standards, but it was the 80s and he is French).
At last … sunset! We run to the door, ready to trick-or-treat around the neighborhood. While we hate to cover up our costumes, we yield to our parents’ insistence that we wear coats. As soon as we’re out of their sight, we unzip and feel the frigid night air. What’s Halloween without a few shivers?
The collection of houses at the top of Glenside is not large, but the neighbors are generous. We fill our pillow cases with plunder, sampling the sweetness as we walk from house to house.
The best is yet to come as we head back to school for the community celebration in the gym. We bob for apples, dance to spooky music, and stuff ourselves with treats. Ditching our coats, we compare costumes with every kid in town. I must say in this era before Pinterest, the mothers of Hardwick have gone all out for Halloween. My porcelain-faced friend Marie is a miniature geisha girl. Abby is dressed in an elaborate 18th-century gown with flag accents, a pint-sized Betsy Ross. Another boy from our class is the essence of the 80s, dressed as the Karate Kid. Some adults are also wearing costumes, everyone getting in on the fall fun.
They announce it’s time for the annual costume contest. The kids assemble on the stage at one end of the gym that also doubles as the lunchroom. I proudly march up the steps and take my place in the lineup, confident that my witch-wear is the height of Halloween fashion. The tension is palpable as each mothers’ handiwork is examined and costumes are compared. What joy as my name is called! My ensemble wins recognition — alas, it’s the prize for ugliest costume. I manage not to cry as I exit the stage, my chin wobbling and shoulders as drooping as my rubber nose.
Mom and Dad drive us home, my sadness softened by the bulging bag in my lap. My brothers and I dump out our candy bags on a bed and get to the serious work of sorting. I will gladly sacrifice any number of Tootsie Pops, Skittles, and Starbursts for my top picks, Reese’s, Snickers, and Twizzlers. When we have agreed to an even split of the loot, we commence to consuming, eating as much as possible before our parents put up the rest and ration it out over the next few weeks. We head to bed, glowing with the satisfaction of another splendid Halloween in Hardwick.
I close the historic barn book and am once more in a library a thousand miles and 30 plus years away from that sweet scene. Soon it will be Halloween and my own children will be making memories, though this year will be unlike any other, as trick-or-treat is put on hold for public health. I wonder what they will tell their children about this Halloween someday. I reach for my phone. Time to call my mother and ask for that popcorn ball recipe.