Ask Maxwell: A Halloween Memory — 1976

published Oct 25, 2021
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Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Ursula as a witch heading out on Halloween 2014.

This week I’m trying something new — a childhood story about Halloween — because remembering what it’s like to be a child is always useful.


1976 was a big year. That year I turned 10, my brother was 8, our parents split up, and my father moved out. It was as if he went somewhere for a long weekend.  He moved to a magical apartment a few blocks away that had a bar in the living room with a stuffed monkey hanging off of fake palm trees. In the bedroom was a round bed with mirrors on the ceiling. My younger brother and I had never seen anything like it before and it was far more fun than the house we lived in. So the break up wasn’t that bad. We loved the apartment and considered ourselves lucky to have it in the family. 

My mother and father seemed confused by and resigned to the break, and my father came over every night to sit with us while we had dinner. They would talk, occasionally go behind a door and speak in loud voices, but my father would come every night, like clockwork and we would sit and talk about school and homework. I was a quiet, shy kid and my younger brother always had more to say. He didn’t know what was going on so he’d pull up his shirt, stick out his belly, and say anything. We often had our all time favorite meal: soup and sandwiches (Campbell’s Chunky Beef Soup in the tall red can was our preference — “Soup so chunky, you’ll be tempted to eat it with a fork!”). We were simply given bowls of soup with sandwiches on white paper towels for easy clean up. My mother would eat by herself later, after our father left and we were doing homework. She loved chicken livers, and I remember her eating her creamy brown chicken livers alone in the quiet kitchen at the round oak table reading “The New Yorker.” She seemed to need her alone time and I don’t remember her ever eating with us on a weeknight. 

The break-up was so gradual I could barely remember them 100% together or what that was like because they were still pretty much 25% together, what with my father coming every evening and then being with him on weekends.

My mother got to stay in the house we grew up in, which they’d purchased as a new couple — a handsome brownstone townhouse on east 78th Street. It was old, sat in a pretty row with six others, and people used to like to walk down our block from the subway stop on Lexington because it was prettier than the rest. When my mother and father had gone looking for a home to buy, they’d found two they could afford that captured their imagination, the four story brownstone and a large apartment in The Dakota on the Upper West Side that seemed to have no buyers. Years later John Lennon and Yoko Ono would famously make The Dakota their home and I felt my parents had really missed the boat on that one. They argued, however, that the apartment was so big it was too expensive to heat. Those were the days when no one wanted to live in the city. Many had moved to the suburbs and others gravitated to modern new apartments high up with views of the streets below. We lived on the street, took out our garbage, shoveled our walk, and tried to catch the milkman who left us whole milk in glass bottles twice a week (we never did see him).

My father got to keep the big old country house that they’d purchased when I was born in 1966, so my mother got industrious and found a new place to take her restless young boys on the weekends and in summer. She had an old friend named Mab with four children whose husband was a struggling screenwriter so they had no money and were living in a boarding house and running a little fish shop in Sagaponack, Long Island. It was called Loaves & Fishes. They sold fresh fish, bread, and artwork in the window. They also had a rotisserie chicken machine, which was a huge treat and Mab would give us one if it was our birthday. For a while they all slept in the back of the store and kept their money in cash under the mattress. Not quite believing anyone would do that, we used to lift the mattress to make sure it was there when the grownups were not around. Later on their father returned from LA having made a successful movie and a lot of money and they moved away forever. I remember they visited New York a few times and always stayed at The Plaza Hotel. When we came over the kids ordered room service and my jaw dropped. To me, their life journey was amazing.  

Officially Sagaponack was right in The Hamptons, but it didn’t feel like it in 1976. Lost between the bigger villages it was a little world unto itself, with one main street around a graveyard with a general store and a post office. Everyone seemed to know one another and it was an easy mix of potato farmers, horse breeders, and those escaping the city to live a simpler, more affordable life. There was also a school. It was a one room schoolhouse and Mab sent her kids there. It looked like something out of Little House on the Prairie. It was tiny. I was jealous that Nonny and Boosey, who were roughly our ages, got to go there. We had to go to school in the city and wear a jacket and tie. I hated the clothes and the strictness and dryness of my school. There was no imagination in it at all, but out here in Sagaponack the world felt different. It felt free.

My mother moved us into the boarding house weekends and vacations that fall and we shared a floor with Mab and her kids. The Stepankowskis lived downstairs and they ran the house. Up the street the Toppings had a big horse farm and everyone came to ride there. Paul Ewing lived on the potato farm with his parents where we could go walk on the hot dirt between the rows and throw potatoes at one another. On the corner, behind a big dark hedge the writer Peter Mathiessen lived with his son Alex, who was also our age. Alex’s mother had died of cancer and their house felt like someone was missing. There was a sadness that seemed to hang from the walls. I didn’t know anyone whose mother had died back then. Unlike others who went to church, they were Buddhists, which meant that they had a room where they sat on the floor and were very quiet for long stretches of time. I thought it must be very hard to be a Buddhist, but then I thought church wasn’t easy either, and we rarely went because my father was sent by his father to a Catholic boarding school run by nuns and he said he hated it. They made him get in bed and go to sleep while it was still light out, he said. Nevertheless, we figured that Peter Mathiessen was the smartest one in the village. He’d written books. 

So the break up wasn’t so bad because our world expanded and we discovered other things that stirred our imagination. Halloween was one of them. Mab was great with costumes and made them for her kids. Her daughter Nonny was going to be the Headless Horseman and ride her horse around to neighbor’s houses with a costume that lifted off her shoulders so that it looked like she had no head. In her hand she carried a fake head by the hair. It was GLORIOUS. My brother and I did our best with black capes and face paint and swords. For us — being city boys — we were always in a fighting state and so pirates and vampires or devils with bright red forks were our fare.

The whole little town on the one little main street was alive that night with bands of small roving kids. There were only about 20 houses, so it wasn’t a long night and we easily mingled with the other children to compare candy notes and ask which houses were the best. Running around at night without our parents was the main thing. It was pure, delicious excitement – to be in a gaggle of kids, dressed up as pirates and ghouls and knowing we were all allowed to be out under the moonlight and that we could go wherever we wanted. For one evening we were in charge and could whoop and shout and run as much as we wanted to.

When Nonny arrived on her horse we all cheered for her and helped her because having no head and being on a horse made it very difficult for her to actually knock on any doors. 

But the biggest trick of all was to be played on us. While we were running from house to house, the Topping’s mother had hidden in the graveyard covered in a white sheet. Crouched down behind the gravestones, she jumped up in a silent shout of activity when we passed by and ran, full speed through the graveyard only to disappear behind another stone. We were all stunned at first, it happened so fast and looked so real, and then we let out a loud shout and a laugh and applauded this bold, free parent who had joined in the fun with us.

Mrs. Topping was probably in her 40s, but she’d decided to not stay home and take Halloween as seriously as we did. Whenever a car drove by the graveyard she’d leap up and repeat her ghostly run to great effect, making all heads swivel. I had the greatest respect for her and for her kids. She was a cool mom.

Walking home, Alex joined us and lit off an M80 firecracker and then a smaller group on a string that made a lot of noise. I’d never lit a firecracker before or seen one as big as an M80, which he said was so dangerous it was illegal. We had to keep it a secret, except for the loud noise, which seemed to contradict the effort of keeping it secret. For some reason our parents never asked about it. 

It was a fabulous night and we got home to our moms, unpacked our candy, and got ready for bed. Living in the old boarding house with friends always around was lovely and it never occurred to me that we were only there because my parents were fighting.

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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