Growing up in the Castro made Halloween fun for reasons traditional and otherwise. The otherwise was entertaining in the same way a Simpsons episode was at that age: funny for a simple reason then, and a different, more layered reason years later.
Certain details of my Halloween would have been unique to most five-year-olds: 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 causing 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 bring understanding. My tiny enlightenment came about six years down the line, a small, exhaled “Ohhhhh” 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.
My mom’s Wizard of Oz answer hinted strongly and correctly at a liberal, creative slant, as did our names. Mine is Rosamund and my sister’s is Peregrine, though I usually called her Per. This was absolutely an indicator of mom and dad’s political leanings, at least in the 70s and 80s. Mom was an artist and involved in Harvey Milk’s campaigns, Dad had a small role in the PixarLuxor animation and was one of the sound editors on Apocalypse Now. Our mom’s beliefs stayed much the same, while my dad drifted uncertainly to the moderate right. But in 1990 they were still somewhat on the same page, plus mom knew her way around a sewing machine: Halloween was very much encouraged. Mom and sister would make whatever I asked, and they made good costumes. One year I was a carrot, complete with leafy green hat. Another year 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: My sister, nine years older, barely stifled her “Are you kidding me?” and eye-rolls. Another year, a certain 1961 Disney film was re-released in theaters and I was 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 time she was a tea cup, complete with little Twinnings tag – possibly in tribute to her favorite ride at Disney World. Then there was 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, apply mascara, and have me recite passages from Alice in Wonderland.
All our costumes were 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. 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 at my mom’s daycare program had worked for a margarine factory, and the roll made its way into her hands. 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 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. 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.
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 Styrofoam Salisbury steak 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 the Kansas City Art Institute. She would graduate eight years later, but by that point had become one of the youngest accepted into the Whitney, the owner of an all-ages-venue and gallery, and an artist of no small acclaim. Meanwhile, I got used to 30 below 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 Cokes and get home later than I said I would. But secretly, I still loved a good dress-up.
Per probably still made amazing costumes, but I wouldn’t have known. By that point she had stopped speaking to our mom, and by extension me. My dad, always quiet and strange, had become quieter and stranger as the years passed. The demons in his head came out in a combination of meanness and detachment and culminated in a note on the table, informing us that he was leaving permanently.
Silence by extension isn’t exactly accurate. We were more self-identified distinct units. At some point, Per and I had taken sides. I was team mom, she was team dad. The reasons behind this were numerous and varied, but whatever made the division was powerful stuff: we stuck with our teams all the way into adulthood.
It wasn’t like I never tried to reach out, I told myself later. When I was 19 or 20, I worked up the courage to call her. I was terrified – my hand shook as I keyed in her number. We talked about high-level things. Her gallery. My school. She said I should come out to Kansas City and visit her. My heart raced. Sure, I said. I’d like that.
I waited for something about her buying me a ticket, some plan about when this could happen. A date. An event she might like me to attend. I sucked in air, closed my eyes.
The silence hung heavy. I waited. Nothing. Her words twisted and petered out, like I’d called her bluff. I felt my breathing even, slowing with a familiar disappointment. No need to get excited. Dad used to talk about going on bike trips sometimes, too.
Per never called me back, though she did send me a pair of hand-painted panties. I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone again. Even the idea made my brain shut down and my eyes prickle. No more letdowns, I decided. I was done.
I did wear the panties. They felt like a costume, giving me a secret identity: College Student with Estranged Famous Artist Sister. Not quite Superman, though I did feel like an alien sometimes when it came to family.
It wasn’t the first time I’d turned to caped crusaders. I read a lot of origin stories during my teenaged years, and knew them by heart: Bruce Wayne, upon seeing his mother and father killed in front of him, vows to become a bat and hunt down criminals. Superman’s mom and dad send little Kal-El to earth, 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 harder to reconcile. The place that taught me anger and 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 sadder if it wasn’t around. I have not spoken to my sister in 10 years. As I get older, my memories of her get spotty. 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 remain indistinct. Remembering the chicken nuggets, pile of corn, applesauce, and perfectly dry, square brownie that made up Kids Cuisine doesn’t inspire intense paranoia and despair, or memories of chaos and financial ruin.
Origin stories are shrouded in myth. It has been said that myths provide explanations for things people don’t understand. My sister has become more and more of a myth to me, as remote as a legend. But sometimes, details of our growing up float to the surface. She made the best costumes. We have the same mother and were born in the same state, almost the same city. We spent 10 years in the same homes. 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.
The product of nine years in San Francisco and eight years in St. Paul, Rosamund Lannin is pleasantly surprised to have lived in Chicago for over a decade. During that time, she has been an editor and contributor for Gapers Block, and performed stories at Essay Fiesta, Tuesday Funk, That’s All She Wrote and more. By day she does something with computers, by night she co-hosts lady live lit show Miss Spoken and tries to write essays that make you feel things, or at the very least laugh.