When I was small my mother said we would have a Halloween party. We bought decorations. By now, I only remember the cardboard witch. We hung her in the closet. We slipped the bag of party favours onto that same hanger and, over time, as the handles began to sag, the witch’s belly grew bulbous. There she waited for years, her accordion, crepe paper legs dangling. Her spells cast aside.
When I was a little older, my mother told me she’d had a fight with her sisters one Halloween. My grandmother sent the three girls to bed without partaking in my mother’s birthday cake. After awhile, my grandmother relented and invited them down to celebrate. My two aunts went, but my mother remained in her room, perhaps preferring her mother to stew in that same cauldron of guilt she’d stirred.
If I really think about my mother’s life or even my own, these events seem relatively small losses in comparison to others. Or, at least they seem small enough that I should have long been able to offer some compensatory action against the mutual angst they caused.
For three decades now, I’ve been trying to invite our inner children to a party, with spiders made from black liquorice and enough Jack-O’Lanterns to light up a cathedral. For three decades, something never works out just so, so it seems.
Despite celebrating her own birthday with scant semblance of visible joy, she has always embraced the iconography of the Halloween season with some satisfaction. She often wore a sweatshirt imprinted with Frankenstein’s image, simply captioned, “Frank” in bloody red font. She often wore it all through the year. As she seldom ever stepped fully, into her runners, her step sometimes mimicked the gait of Shelley’s great man-child, depicted on her chest.
When I met my father for the first time, I immediately noticed his limp. Back then, I liked to imagine it as his karmic comeuppance for my Oedipal issues unbound. Of course, it was merely the result of a football injury. But now, I often wonder what my mother made of it, on a conscious or an unconscious level.
Currently, I am taking a course in Jungian psychology at the University of Toronto. We were assigned to go and view Guillermo Del Toro’s “At Home With Monsters” exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and to record our emotional reactions to two monsters in the show.
In the spirit of embracing one’s shadow self, I thought perhaps this could be the impetus for making good on bad, in some lasting, communal sense. I sent my mother a text, inviting her to attend.
Her response was sparse. Our schedules conflicted. Well, the exercise obviously had a deadline. I resolved to go alone and write the paper, but offered that we could go back next week and celebrate all ‘Hallows-birth.’
I was somewhat relieved we could not coordinate. Examining a sliver of promotional material for the show online, and I was quite honestly flooded with associations for which no sandbag would cease.
There is supposedly a recreation of Del Toro’s “Rain Room” at the gallery—a window of glass, with rain visually and sonically recreated. The effect reportedly coaxes out the director’s creativity. The mere mention of it had me recalling Sunday evenings in Autumn, as a child … a roast of beef is in my grandmother’s oven. All the trimmings of a feast no one can really afford, are bubbling on the stove. Time is mired in a manmade humidity and will not move, but nothing feels warm because we are all, already dead.
Rheumy condensation inside the window panes, conspires with plump, starched raindrops outside, wildly distorting my reflection. Someone brings the wash in from the laundromat, through the long front porch. My eyes are drawn down to a corner of the storm window where layers of white paint have chipped and feathered. The effect surely was the result of water damage, but now I imagine a hawk dropping the bones of a dove into the middle of a desert.
My feet were still so small, I could confine them both to a single yellow tile, swirled with deep red and a grey wisp of cumulus.
I now imagine each of those tiles a monument to the Oracle Sybil … a spot on the ground where the wizened hag cracked open a Robin’s egg and spat on the yolk, before slicing it with a bloodied fingernail and swirling the mixture ‘round, imposing her vision of the future while passing it off as a conjuring …
And, if descriptions of the exhibit cause this level of flooding, it is possible that, in seeing the entire exhibition of monsters, things might get downright diluvian.
If the task of the assignment for this class and for this life is to face down my own demons, I decide it is better if I face them alone, so as to be sure they are my demons.
In the midst of a self-congratulatory lark, where I believe analyzing my emotional response to an art star’s collection of kitsch might make me seem courageous, I happen to discover my father had been dead two months to the day.
Perhaps shock sets into the living at the same rate rigor mortis stiffens a corpse, creating the illusion that death has the eloquent segue way it seldom does.
Often the same is true of birth.
Even by the mid 1970’s, it was still taboo—shameful even—to have a child out of wedlock. Particularly in a small town. I know because the term “bastard” was still bandied liberally about, as it applied to me back in the day. Unlike my cousins, my birth was not heralded in the local paper. I know because I went through the archives at the local library when I was 12.
I also know that, because my father held a privileged position in society—as an upper-middle class, educated, white male, 18 years my mother’s senior—that it was easy, necessary even, for me to use him as a containment unit for my demons. This is especially true in relation to the feelings I shielded from my mother.
My mom worked 12 hour shifts at a factory for 21 years, and often slept through the serious depressions her own upbringing inspired.
From my mother, I often had to hide not only my anger at life’s circumstances, but also my intense love of life itself. From my father, I hid nothing.
When I was 21 my mom broke her silence to tell me his name. She gave me his business card, folded in a letter. She stood at the kitchen counter and sobbed as I read it in the bedroom.
He was a Peter Pan, and not an “ogre,” she wrote, placing the latter word in quotes as though she herself were still unsure.
Reflecting on that now, I understand how much of her emotional life informed by fantasy. Perhaps there is a reel of idealized birthday parties she plays in her mind. Sometimes they acknowledge her birth, and sometimes they acknowledge mine.
Ultimately, I couldn’t go to the exhibit this week. I hadn’t the emotional energy left to immerse myself in the themes of a holiday that has so utterly been gutted of joy. I did see pictures of the large sculpture of Frankenstein’s head online.
Every nuance of the bust—from the triangular licks of hair on his forehead, to the equally angular hollows of his cheekbones—point to his eyes. And, although the eyes are sunken, they are highlighted by hollows of skin below them, that ape the shape of the monster’s chin.
All aspects of design on the monster’s face serve to redirect our eyes to his, which are cast down onto the world.
My resilient self would like to say that they are eyes that twinkle with tragedy. I briefly imagine Herman Munster, who claps and laughs as he lurches, clumsily, to and fro. But the head seems purposely disembodied, so as to represent a heft which no shoulders are large enough to bear. It can’t be easy being the sole, physical representative of humanity’s spiritual diaspora, and those eyes are more likely moist with the contemplation of a perceived lack of identity—both for himself and those in his purview.