JoAnne Milburn – Memories of Halloween

From an early age until relatively recently, I have participated in Halloween. As a child my usual costume was a sheet with holes for the eyes and nose, or perhaps a paper bag over the head with holes. It was usually very hard to breath inside the costume. I don’t remember anything approximating the ornate costumes available now. Back then it was perfectly safe for my siblings and me to go around the neighborhood by ourselves doing “trick or treat.” It was also safe to eat the things people put in our bags. There were often oranges or apples, cookies, cupcakes, and unwrapped candy. I think it was not until the 50’s or 60’s when we had to sort through the trick or treat treasures to make sure that needles or some other dangerous substance had not been added.

I have noticed changes over the years. Now children have a parent, sometimes in costume, lurking in the background, and candy is always wrapped. I have always over-prepared for trick or treaters.. Heaven forbid that one would run out of goodies and have to turn out the porch light and pretend to go to bed so no one else would ring the doorbell. Of course one benefit of having too much is that there were left-overs if you miscalculated. Over recent years I have tended toward small Snickers bars, my favorite, and it has not bothered me at all to have some left over. I recall one Halloween I was not feeling well and did not want to have to answer the doorball repeatedly. I experimented with putting a large bowl of wrapped candy on the front porch with a sign that said “Help yourself but leave some for others.” Interestingly there was still some left at the end of the evening, even though I knew there had been quite a few visitors.

My children were always dressed up for Halloween and could go out by themselves, but when they got back with the loot, we usually spread a towel or something on the living floor and examined their booty before they could eat it. And then there was the question as to how much they could be allowed to eat before making themselves sick. Since my eight granddaughters have all lived in the East, I have had to content myself with sending them Halloween cards and candy and inquiring over the telephone about their plans and their costumes. There is now only one granddaughter, a nine-year-old living in Iowa, who is young enough to go all-out for Halloween. This year she dressed as Little Orphan Annie with a curly red wig. It might have been a little strange, because she is Chinese, one of the abandonned Chinese baby girls who was adopted by my daughter and huer husband when she was 18 months old. My son-in-law went trick or treating with her this year dressed in a Dame Edna wig, glasses, and a dress, while my daughter stayed home to pass out the candy.

I think my major contribution to Halloween celebrations took place in Columbus, Ohio. From 1975 to 1989, I was director of a residential treatment center for troubled children. These were boys and girls from six to 13 who were mainly wards of the court due to abuse and/or neglect. The first Halloween there, I discovered that it was the practice for the staff to load the children into various vehicles and transport them to an affluent suburb. They were then turned loose, all 30 of them, on the unsuspecting householders, hopefully with at least some staff supervision. I was somewhat dismayed by this but let it go, not wanting to destroy too many traditions my first year. I came up with an idea for the next year, however, a Halloween party at the facility rather than taking the children out. That became the new custom, and it was highly successful. We decorated with jack-o-lanterns and lots of orange and black crepe paper, set up stations with candy and other prizes, gave the children trick or treat bags, and let them go. We had activities like bobbing for apples, games with prizes, and a lottery where the winner could throw a pie made of shaving cream in the face of a staff member. We finished off with cake and ice cream, and the staff had to wrestle with the problem of how much candy the kids would be allowed to eat that night.

My claim-to-fame at those parties was to assume the identity of “Milburna”, a fortune-telling witch. I acquired a black robe from somewhere, a witch mask and hat, and thanks to a basic book on palmistry, I read palms. I sort of knew where the life line was, the head line, the heart line, and a couple of other simple things. Needless to say, the kids were fascinated and took what I said for the gospel truth. I realized quickly that I had to be as positive as possible. I would often take what I already knew about a child’s problems and turn it into something which I hoped would help the child. For a bright child with learning problems who was disruptive in class, I could say something like “I see by your head line that you are pretty smart. It says in your hand that you can do a lot better in school.“ Or if I knew that a child had been ill at some earlier time, I could point to a jag in the life line as evidence of a past illness and predict future good health.

I often predicted wild things like getting married and having ten children, or finding an “M” in their hand and suggesting it meant lots of money in their future life. I heard that they would repeat these predictions to the staff and other kids, so I knew they regarded them as important. Children who might have missed my palm reading would come up to me later and beg to have their palm read. I did my Milburna shtick for about 13 of my 14 years there, and I always looked forward to it. I have sometimes thought that I would like to learn how really to read palms. I have also wondered if anyone has done empirical research on palmistry to find out, for example, if a long life line would really predict a long life.

Now living at a mobile home park inhabited only by seniors, there is no trick-or-treating. I have lost my excuse for stocking large quantities of Snickers bars.

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