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Personal Essays

All Hallows

Ghost masks, trampy nurses, and razor-stuffed apples—yes. But Halloween’s true character, as a day to remember the dead, can still sneak up on you.

For a string of Halloweens during the late ‘90s in Chicago, a group called The Redmoon Theater created a street pageant along five blocks of a beautiful old graystone-lined boulevard in Logan Square. Like the neighborhood itself, the one-night festival attracted an economically and racially diverse group of people who wandered between “stations,” elaborately constructed set pieces, like scenes from a medieval mystery play or from Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

Each year the pageant was organized around a theme related to the historic meaning of Halloween as a celebration of the dead. One year, the perfomances were about the ways in which the living deal with loss, and at each station participants acted out a particular concept or idea.

The summer leading up to that autumn had been a tumultuous one for our family. Our preschool-age daughters, Isabelle and Grace, had helped us welcome our new son, Spencer, into the world in September. Our joy and good fortune was set against the fact that my wife Heidi’s mother—“Mimi” to the girls—and Spence would never meet.

She had died in June, after a long and heart-breaking fight with breast cancer, a wretched disease. By Halloween, our loss did not hang over every moment of every day, as it had for months, but I still dreaded hearing the phone ring on Sunday nights. Mimi had called nearly every Sunday since our wedding. The phone’s chirpy, most normal of sounds brought with it a split-second of anticipation and then an immediate and crushing reminder. Better for it not to ring at all, I thought. Better for Heidi. Better for all of us.

Hoping the phone would not ring is probably an apt metaphor for my own inability to deal with emotion. I have convinced myself that the way to deal with grief and hardship, the way to be The Good Husband and The Good Father is to be tough and logical and pragmatic. To be stronger than the problem. To keep it inside. I imagine that I’m not the only man like this. That suit seems to fit right off the rack.

After we had wandered around the pageant, feeding the kids and meeting up with other families, Isabelle said she wanted to show me something. She’d seen balloons and wanted to see them again. I hoisted her up on my shoulders, pushed Grace in the stroller, and left Heidi and the baby and followed Isabelle’s tiny finger as she pointed the way.

Somehow I’d missed this one station earlier, or I hadn’t been paying attention when we first walked by. It was a large, ramshackle contraption, lit by torches and held together with ropes, unfinished wood, and wire. It looked like the skeleton of a ship. Actors scurried around performing a series of motions, over and over again like a silent assembly line. Their clothes were tattered and blandly colored. They didn’t smile.

On one end, two people filled white balloons with helium and gave them strings. The balloons were then passed along, cradled one at a time as if they were precious and fragile. The next two workers stacked wooden folding chairs so a third could climb up into the structure with a balloon, guarding it against mishap.

To be stronger than the problem. To keep it inside. I imagine that I’m not the only man like this.Each balloon was then passed up to another worker who tied it to some sort of chain, checking and rechecking to make sure the knot was tight so that it couldn’t get away. Serious business. Someone turned a crank and the chain moved, carrying each balloon haltingly upward along a long wooden beam.

At the very end of the beam was a young woman. She sat perhaps 20 feet up in the air, on a wooden platform out over the street and directly in front of us. She had the look of someone carrying the weight of a great responsibility as she untied each balloon from the chain and retied it to a crossbar in front of her.

I looked down at Grace in the stroller in front of me. Her face glowed in the torchlight and her eyes were fixed on the woman. Isabelle, on my shoulders, rested her chin on my head and was perfectly still.

The woman considered the balloon in front of her for a moment as it strained there against the string. Each time this happened, all the other workers stopped what they were doing and watched. She took a breath, and seemed resigned. Then she cut the string. The balloon leapt up into the darkness climbing quickly and as you watched it you could see the previous balloons leading the way, each further and further out against the dark sky.

Isabelle shifted her weight and asked, “Why are you crying, Daddy?”

“I’m thinking about Mimi.”

“Me too. She’s like the balloon, isn’t she?”

At the end of the evening, the performers from all of the stations carried pieces of wood, rickety chairs, and various props to one end of the boulevard. They stacked it all up, and as we stood in a circle with hundreds of others, they lit a bonfire, and a million orange sparks went chasing after the balloons.

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Jim Coudal runs a small creative studio in Chicago. Coudal Partners work for companies and they build companies, like Jewelboxing, The Deck and The Show, and their studio site is a real productivity sucker. CP has been accused of doing nothing but following their whims to their logical or illogical conclusions. And they’re OK with that. For more on the company check this heartwarming story of courage and design, “Copy Goes Here.”More by Jim Coudal