With her permed mullet and Freddy Kruger nails, my stepmom Linda was a Halloween vision without even trying. But one year, I got the best of her.
As a kid, my default Halloween costume was a clown. It fit my personality—silly, eccentric—and I hated change, so I dutifully put on the clown face paint year after year. Under all that makeup, you could hardly tell if I was happy or sad, exhilarated or exhausted.
One year, after wearing the clown costume all day at school, I started to feel sick. It was Monday, October 31, 1988 and I was six years old. When I got home, I told my stepmother, Linda, who was in the midst of gathering coats and gloves, making last minute tweaks to costumes for trick-or-treating that night. Instead of dropping everything as my real mother would have, she ignored my calls for help.
In Linda's defense, there was a lot riding on that Halloween. It was her first with us, her new family. She and my dad had gotten hitched four months prior, though I'm not sure when or how they met. All I remember is that one night, a tall woman with a blond perm styled into a mullet came into my room, tucked me in with her long, Lee Presson nails, and said she was my new mommy.
When they came back from their honeymoon, I remember seeing the two of them walk through the door as Linda cooed in her dumb, slightly masculine voice, "We've got presents!" She was decked out in head-to-toe Disney, as was my father. My siblings and I had never been to Disney World; as a consolation, they brought us back Mickey ears, shirts, and toys—enough to make it clear we had missed out on an awesome trip.
"Linda and I got married," my dad explained.
"Call me mom," Linda said.
My actual mom and dad had split up about a year before my dad married Linda. I have zero memory of my parents being happy. In fact, I only have a handful of memories of them in the same room, most of which involve yelling, fighting, and abuse.
At the time it didn't feel all that strange—my siblings and I were too young to know any different. Every dad hits their mom, right? They'd get angry and they'd fight, and that was just how it was.
The last memory I have of my mom in our childhood home, one that I would obsess over long after my mom left, is of a particular fight between my parents. They were downstairs, near the laundry room, while my little brother and I sat in the living room upstairs watching TV. I was almost five and my brother was three. We turned the volume up as loud as we could to drown out their screams, but it could never get loud enough. Then we heard a crash.
I quietly got up to investigate, slowly stepping down each step on the staircase. I don't remember my dad leaving the house, but he must have, because what I found as I reached the third to last step and peered around the corner was my mother on the ground crying. She had been pushed through the wall. The size of the hole would have been comical if my mother hadn't been jammed through it, the kind of hole left by the Roadrunner in Looney Tunes. She just sat there, sobbing. I don't remember any blood or bruises, but she must have been in pain. I don't think she saw me. Scared and uncertain, I didn't help her; instead, I went back upstairs to the TV and pretended nothing had happened.
Many months after that, my parents' divorce proceedings began. Besides the individual therapy each one of us kids received—no joke, it was called Kids in the Middle, as if our family needed more of a cliché—I remember very little about this period. We spent most of the time with my paternal grandparents, who tried to shield us from what was happening with our parents.
Then one day, my dad told my brothers and I that we were going to be living with him. Even as young as we were, it didn't make sense. He was the one I was afraid of, and where was our mother? I missed her, and wanted to be with her, but fear kept me from saying anything.
Now, nearly 30 years later, things have come into focus: After years of abuse, without a career to speak of, my mother was lost. She had to get away from my dad, she needed to rebuild her life. And with no job and little family support, how would she have been able to take care of four boys and support them while recovering from years of trauma? My dad had never hit me or my brothers, and if we didn't live with him, there was a chance we'd wind up in the foster care system that my mother had once been in. So she gave up full custody. It's the decision that I respect my mother most for.
We saw her occasionally, on weekends mostly, each visit more uncomfortable than the next. We were too angry and too young to understand. But as she rebuilt her life, we saw a side of our mother we had never seen before: happiness. And fortunately, we didn't have to wait long to find someone else to refocus our anger on.
Linda prided herself on organization, which was more for appearances than any actual satisfaction of an orderly family, and that Halloween night of 1988 she was on her game. The kids were dressed, the husband was in place, and it was just about time to start trick-or-treating.
"I don't feel well," I complained as she zipped up our coats. It was a cold Halloween that year, fall turning to winter quickly in the St. Louis suburb where we lived.
"The cold air will make you feel better," she said. It's a wonder the one kid she had from a previous marriage survived with that kind of logic. (Years later, it would become clear that her parenting skills were a bit off-kilter when she punished my little brother and I for sneaking Hostess cupcakes by locking us in the room devoted to the cat's litter boxes.)
When we were all zipped up, she went to the closet and put on her own coat, made of white and grey fur. It was one of her most prized possessions, a wedding gift from my father, and she wore it with the confidence of Cruella de Vil in her Dalmation fur. Between her mullet, the fancy fur coat, and the Freddy Kruger nails, Linda was a Halloween spectacle without even trying.
We all made our way out to the green Jeep Grand Wagoner. Linda piled my siblings into the backseat, but because I wasn't feeling well, I got to sit in the front seat, on her lap. Instead of trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, which was mostly middle-class, we were headed to a wealthier part of town, where they handed out full-size candy bars.
"Are we ready to trick-or-treat?" she asked as my father started the car.
My siblings responded, but I stayed quiet. I felt a churning in my stomach as my father put the car in reverse. I couldn't think about candy or trick-or-treating; all I could focus on was the explosion that was about to erupt from my mouth. I opened it and directed all of my vomit toward Linda's coat.
Panicking, she opened the door and leapt out as quickly as she could, while I emptied my stomach on the floor of the car. My brothers burst into laughter and a chorus of "ewww," which only made my father focus on yelling at them instead of comforting me. Linda started to cry.
"My coat!" she wailed.
Once I'd finished my act of terrorism, I looked up at my brother. He was smiling. All of my brothers were smiling. For a split second, I smiled too, because I knew we were all thinking the exact same thing: I got her, and I got her good.
I wasn't allowed to go trick-or-treating that night, even though I felt immensely better after marking Linda's coat. So instead, my dad took the others out to collect candy while Linda stayed home with me.
As we sat in the living room watching Unsolved Mysteries, I felt a sense of pride. There was no way I could get back at my dad for everything he had done to my mom, nor was there a way for me to change the circumstances of our family's reality. But on that Halloween night, I took control in the one small way that was available to me as a kid, and I showed Linda just how I felt about her.
Ever since then, I've loved Halloween.
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