I wrote this in 2008, in response to a writing prompt about the last time we had worn a costume.
The last time I wore a costume was Hallowe’en 2003. My mother, who was about to move north to help my brother and his wife with child care, went to a party with me. This party consisted of a weenie roast and bonfire down in a field on a farm that belonged to some friends of ours, over off Cove Road and halfway up Sassafras Mountain. There was a grass labyrinth behind the bonfire and you could see most of it clearly in the moonlight and by the light of the fire. The labyrinth was starting to pass back into the larger body of drying meadowgrass around it and the trajectories and curves of its pathways were ragged and unclear in places. I wore my time-honored gypsy get-up, a long funky thrift store skirt with tiny mirrors spattered across the fabric and little spirals of raised yellow and scarlet cloth coursing along the cloth in wild fraying spirals. The elastic at the waist of the skirt had been absent when I found it but I liked it so much I disregarded this and belted the skirt with a broad black silver-buckled leather belt. (Coleman Barks once asked me who I was supposed to be when I wore a variation of this outfit out on the town when I lived in Athens, Georgia, several years ago. I told him a gypsy and he chuckled and took a sip of his bourbon.) My most recent iteration of this regalia included red fishnet stockings and thigh-high black suede Chinese Laundry boots as well as a variety of antique glass beaded necklaces once owned by my great-aunt Fannie Mae Floyd, tumbling circles of pale blue and green against my bare neck. As I recall I also sported a pair of long dangly earrings with stars attached to them at various spots along their way to my shoulders, acquired solely for such occasions. The outfit was topped off by sort of a gauzy black cotton gypsy blouse with a round scoopneck. I looked absurd but was full of enthusiasm for the pageantry and play of Hallowe'en. My mother, who wasn't particularly enamored of the holiday, wore a simple black turtleneck and sleek black pants. She donned a rubber clown mask that she'd borrowed from a friend. The clown was a sad one and his mouth drooped at the edges in a ludicrous thick-lipped parody of a frown. He looked as if he was about to burst into tears at any moment. My mother played at little mock leavetakings of her friends before we left for the party, the clown face a lugubrious and somehow heartrending prop.
Just before heading out to the field we joined my aunt, uncle, and cousin for dinner at the local bed and breakfast. The owner and chef, a crotchety old German fellow who had once been a guard on the Berlin Wall and had fled East Germany years ago, stood with his wife and us in front of the inn after dinner. The night was solemn and the imminence of my mother's move north felt heavy on my heart. Joe, the owner of the inn, took photographs of the rest of us standing in front of and around a tumble of hay and pumpkins on the lawn. My cousin remarked, ah, the ancient pagan feast of Samhain comes round again. There was a heft and density to his words that struck me powerfully at the time and I marked it in my head, thinking that perhaps I would write something about what he'd said later.
Mom and I headed out to our friends’ field and stood around the fire, balancing our hot dogs and potato chips on paper plates. I talked and laughed with my friend Frank, who held his ubiquitous Dos Equis tightly to him while finishing off a mound of coleslaw. At one point he placed his black straw cowboy hat on my head and told me to keep it. I remember thinking that I should have carried my Rider Waite Tarot cards with me. The night held an edge of spookiness and exaggerated solemnity to it, leavened with the subtext of merry pagan ostentation I always felt on Hallowe'en. Mom and I stayed for a couple of hours while Frank played the guitar and sang covers of Johnny Cash songs.
The next morning, the first day of November, was of course the Feast of All Saints, as well as the Day of the Dead, and it dawned cold and foggy. For me there has always been a pall of sadness about this day, a dismal misty scarf washed clean of the bright harvest colors of autumn and of Hallowe'en. My mother set forth on her journey north and called me from the road, tears in her voice. She told me to be true to myself and ‘never settle.' Ten months later, she was gone, lung cancer metastasizing swiftly and powerfully, a force probably already present that night as she stood all in black in front of a snickering October fire, her sad clown's mask both a challenge and a bow to the encroachment of that threshold thin place we were all calling ourselves into, there beside the shaggy grass of the homemade labyrinth and the cold meadow moonglow of Hallowe'en. When I remember that evening, though, I recall the beauty of it more than anything. The details of my mother's playful self-mocking and the timbre of her voice resonate along with the tableau in the field alongside the bonfire and the husky declarative tones of my cousin as we stood in front of the inn. In some way the remembrance of those hours holds the essence of Hallowe'en for me as well as the Day of the Dead and All Saints' Day. There's a liminal shadow to the scene in my mind, along with a shawl of impending grief and remembrance. But there is play there too, whistling past the graveyard but pausing to bow and tip its hat, its skeletal figure a jaunty hopeless form already acquainted with the threshold we honor and all that lies beyond it.