In 1982 we left rural Chester County for the suburbs of Philadelphia.
It was not exactly a great time for my family. We had been living in the little town of Marshallton. We were fleeing the violence of small-town life for the comparative safety of the big city.
I know what you are thinking. Safe of the big city? Is that a joke?
Unfortunately, no. Our time in Chester County was like siege warfare. The town was overridden with violent crime. Our little general store employed two brothers who lived down the street. One day they went home and, with help from their mother, beat their father to death with a barbell in cold blood. Have you ever seen the movie At Close Range? Bruce Johnston and his gang used to shop at our place all the time. A guy once wandered into our shop, bummed a pack of cigarettes and then blew his brains out in my treehouse. I could go on like this for pages and pages, but you get the idea: small towns can hide big evil.
After everything we had experienced, my mom and dad were thrilled to be in Philadelphia. The hard part was my grandparents.
My grandfather was so tough that it is hard to reconcile his behavior today. His idea of a fun party trick was to take a table lamp, unscrew the bulb, stick his finger in the socket, turn on the switch and then poke any poor sap too dumb not to run out of the room. When my cousin called to tell the old man that he had a new great-granddaughter, he gave a derisive snort. “I knew you didn’t have it in you to make a boy!”
My cousin was an asshole, but damn. . .
Almost everybody in my mother’s family lived in abject terror of my grandfather. His big tough sons could be transformed into quivering masses of tear-soaked gelatin with just a few sharp words from the old man. This made most holidays into a weird sort of nightmare landscape where people showed up long enough to drop off a gift before running away. The real cowards sent expensive gift baskets that my grandparents never bothered with, so I would raid them like a little pirate. Some years my room would be littered with Swiss Colony boxes of obligatory soulless holiday cheer. I once took a giant torte to school just to throw at somebody (It was totally worth it!).
When visitors came, smiles never reached the eyes. They would say nice things, but there was a coldness. A resentment that left a film on everything after they were gone.
My grandmother was not well when we came to Philadelphia. This was heartbreaking because I remembered her when she could be as tough as my grandfather. My mother sassed her once and the old lady picked up a raw egg and chucked it right into my mother’s mouth. She once had a love for puns, wordplay, and thimbles. When we came to Philadelphia, she cried a lot, refused to eat and spent a lot of time on the couch clutching her rosary looking as though she was waiting to die.
Some of my relatives blamed my grandmother’s state on grandpop. This was bullshit. As hard as the old man was on everybody else, he treated his bride with love and patience, unlike anything I have seen before or since. After they had both passed, I found a love letter he had written her when they were courting.
That love letter is epic. My grandfather spun a fairy tale with words written in a hand so flowing that I am convinced one of his sisters was responsible for the penmanship. My grandmother worked as a maid in a Philadelphia mansion, and the love letter describes the dishes and cutlery in her charge getting up in the magical moonlight to finish her work so that she would have more time to spend kissing him.
Such tenderness from a man I once saw punch the monsignor of our parish square on the nose. He loved her madly.
My father and my grandfather had a sort of unspoken truce. The two men loved my mom, and they both loved me. For the two of us, the men kept things peaceful.
When October rolled around that year, I realized that this would be my last time trick-or-treating. That was an emotional thing for me because Halloween was the one time of the year where I felt normal and none of my asshole relatives would show up.
I wanted my last Halloween to be special. I racked my brain for days trying to dream up a costume.
Then I heard my mother call her father Scrooge, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Up in the attic, there was a pair of vintage top hats. I pinned some lace to a dress shirt for a ruffle and I almost had what I needed. There was one thing missing: Grandpop.
I mustered up the courage to tell the old man my plans while we were on a job.
Grandpop was coming up on his eighty-second birthday, but he refused to retire. He had Social Security in a tizzy for ages because he kept sending the checks back muttering, “That’s for old people!”
He worked as an electrician, and he was terrible at it. More than once I saw him leave a perfectly good breaker box in flames. Sometimes we would run wires in old houses by busting out huge chunks of plaster and lathe. On good days he would have me at least try to repair the damage by smearing plaster over the holes with my fingers. On bad days we just left houses in complete disrepair.
The day I asked him about Halloween. We were working at Doctor Rothman’s place. The doctor had his home, office, and housing for medical students in this massive stone mansion. We were always getting called in for simple jobs that the old man would botch and I would end up having to deal with the temperamental old bastard.
My mother and I were the only people who could handle my grandfather because we would yell right back at him. If he cursed me, I would curse right back at him. If he threw something at me, I would throw it back at him.
At Doctor Rothman’s place, the med students — in lab coats — would start taking notes every time I got into a shouting match with my grandfather. He would be chasing me around the kitchen with a pair of pliers, and I would see these geeks whispering and taking notes like we were rats in a maze.
The day I pitched my Halloween plans was one of the few times the med students got involved. Grandpop was wiring a new ballast into an old fluorescent light fixture. These things were big black rectangles of metal that weighed a couple of pounds. Well, I was holding the ladder and the old man dropped the ballast on my head. I went out like a light and woke up with my head on the lap of a lovely young student.
“Sir, we should get him to a hospital.”
Grandpop waved that away. “Aw, he’s fine. If he was hurt, he would have shit himself! You didn’t shit yourself, did you? He’s just trying to get you to kiss him!”
She looked down at me. I batted my eyes and tried my best to look alluring. She let my head drop back to the floor with a thud.
Grandpop shook his head. “If that was me, I would get a kiss!”
“At least I didn’t shit myself.”
We both started laughing. The med students looked perplexed.
“I’m going trick or treating for the last time this year. I’m going as Marley’s Ghost. I want you to be Scrooge.”
“You want me to go trick or treats? I’m too old.”
“We’ll just tell everybody that you are a kid with a well-made costume.”
He smiled. Then his smile broke out into a toothy grin. “I’d make a good Scrooge.”
“You are Scrooge. Where do you think I got the idea?”
“I’m going to wallop you again!”
“Again? I thought that was an accident, you bastard!”
We laughed and went back to dangerously wring that fluorescent fixture as the med students took notes.
As Halloween approached the old man started worrying about Marley’s chain. Being an electrician, he had lengths of the lightweight chain used to hang chandeliers. We fashioned a sort of wrap that would cross my chest and then added a long trail behind me. To finish the effect, we attached an old metal toolbox containing a handful of pennies to the chain so that it would drag behind me creating a spooky clattering sound.
On Halloween night, we strung orange lights in the dogwood tree in our front yard. My mom and Rose Marie Russo from next door put out a big spread for the trick or treaters.
Scrooge and Marley hit the street. I topped off my costume with some glow in the dark makeup. Looking at the picture today, even though the misty lens of nostalgia, we looked amazing.
My grandfather yelled, “Humbug!” at people we passed. I gave out ghostly groans shouting, “It is a ponderous chain!”
Every door we knocked on opened to a welcoming home filled with people who went bonkers over our costume. My grandfather had as much fun (probably more) as I did. We laughed the entire time.
Sacred Heart Church stood at the end of our street. I went to school there, and grandpop decided that we should stop and wish the nuns a happy Halloween.
My initial reaction was to say, “No fucking way!”
The old man gave me a hard kick in the ass.
I suggested that we go visit some nuns.
I have had some bad times with nuns. I seem to make them violent for some reason. 1982 was a little different because of Sister Mary Pachis.
In school, my teachers seemed to hate me on sight. The day I met Sister Mary Pachis she just chuckled, dragged me around by my tie and said, “I am on to you. You are a good boy; you don’t fool me.”
Sister Mary Pachis was a large woman. She was way past retirement age, but she loved teaching. In twelve years of school, she was one of only two teachers that ever treated me decently. She still kicked my ass when I screwed up — it was a Catholic school, after all — but she was also kind.
I was not sure what to expect when Scrooge and Marley knocked on the door of the convent. I was still bitching about not wanting to visit the penguin factory, so grandpop gave me another kick in the ass just as I was saying, “Trick or treat.” I staggered forward into the arms of a nun with a crash of chains. From inside I heard Sister Mary Pachis say, “Patrick’s here!”
Sister Mary Pachis was sitting in the living room with the other nuns. My fight or flight response kicked in, but before I could bolt out the door grandpop grabbed me and sat me down on the couch.
The visit was not what I expected. The good sisters were thrilled that a student was there for a visit, and they knew without explanation that we were Scrooge and Marley.
We talked for a bit. Sister Mary Pachis told my grandfather that I was doing well in school. That was kind of cool.
My grandfather and I shared our Halloween candy with the nuns. My first instinct was to leave them my least favorite bits, but then I just held the bag open and let them pick and choose what they wanted. My grandfather did the same.
Before we left, the old man knocked my top hat off. As I bent over to pick it up, he kicked me in the ass again. I staggered, the chain wrapped around my legs and I fell face down on the carpet.
Sister Mary Pachis said I was even clumsier with math. The old man and the nuns laughed and laughed as I tried to untangle myself — and I was laughing right along with them.
As I walked home through the cold October night with grandpop. I thanked him for sharing this night with me.
“I don’t know why you wanted me to tag along,” the old man growled. “Were you afraid of the dark?”
I ignored his ball-busting. He had been trying to scare me every Halloween for as long as I could remember, but the only things I am afraid of are nuns, math and bees.
“I asked you to come with me because I love Halloween. This is my last trick or treats. I wanted to go with somebody I care about, but dad had to work — and the Scrooge costume looks good on you.”
He cracked up. “You go to hell.”
He was standing beside me under the glow of the streetlights. “Happy Halloween, Patrick.” Then he swung his leg in a crazy sort of way and kicked me in the ass again. “C’mon! Race you home!”
We started running. My dragging chain rattled behind me until the toolbox got caught on a piece of sidewalk lifted by tree roots. My feet flew out from under me and I fell on my back like a sack of laundry. I rolled around trying to catch my breath while the old man roared with laughter.
Still laughing, he helped me up. We dragged each other home laughing and singing.
We got back to our house. Mom and Rose Marie were still handing out candy
Scrooge and Marley went inside. The old man started a fire in the fireplace, and the two of us shared our Halloween candy with my grandmother.
I watched the fire. I listened to my grandfather tell my grandmother about the evening’s adventures. Outside my mother and Rose Marie were laughing and singing. I popped a piece of dark chocolate into my mouth and savored the bittersweet taste rich on my tongue.
I looked over to grandpop. “For my last Halloween, this was a good one.”
The old man smiled. “I made a pretty good Scrooge.”
I got up to go to bed. I tipped my top hat to the old man, bowed deeply and said, “Happy Halloween, Mister Scrooge.”
“Go yank y’er chain.”
I went to my room and got out of my costume. I went out to help mom put everything away.
Next year I would transition from getting candy on Halloween to giving out candy. That was okay. Everything changes. I was just happy to share this special night with my grandfather — and I was overjoyed that he had a good time.
Happy Halloween, Mister Ebenezer Scrooge. I love you, PopPop.