4 min read


A Halloween short story I wrote for Portland Monthly Magazine.
The image is of four young girls wearing white dresses, white veils over red wigs, pink blush smeared over white foundation, and bright red smeared lipstick: the Halloween costume of the laughing ghost.

She could not have known she would inspire hundreds of schoolgirls over the years to trick-or-treat door-to-door costumed in long white dresses, strawberry blonde wigs flaring out of lace veils, faces streaked in pink blush over clown-white foundation, and laughing lips smeared in blood-red lipstick.

She could not foresee a future where impersonators would distort her laugh into a wild cackle echoing through the streets on Halloween. Those of you from my hometown will know I am referring to the legendary Laughing Ghost that haunts the ten-acre St. Joseph Cemetery on the hill overlooking the village center.

I am not asking for your sympathy for a spirit. I am talking here about my mother.

In 1951, after a beer bottle spun out of the graveyard darkness and shattered spectacularly in the headlights of his Buick Special, Monsignor Kevin McKenna resolved to permanently halt the nocturnal nonsense going on in St. Joseph Cemetery. He ordered a fence built “to respectfully enclose the Holy and Consecrated Grounds honoring the Saints awaiting Resurrection within.” Completed in 1953, it remains an impressive enclosure: black wrought-iron bars ten feet high topped with sharp fleur-de-lis crosses. The front gate is twenty feet high, two lanes wide, and swings on massive hinges that cry out when opened. The barrier was, coincidently, a godsend to a good Catholic contractor who surrounded the cemetery with modest houses built with their backyards against this formidable palisade. These homeowners lived simple lives enjoying their flowerbeds, patios, and lawns without thought to the tombstones and monuments among the solemn oaks visible through metal stripes on the hill behind their homes.

At some point in the 1970s, my mother thought it important to create a standard style to get her comfortably into her later years. She decided on white flats, a long white flowing linen dress, and hair “rinsed” a color red not seen in nature and held in place with a 1950s headband for socializing or for solemn occasions covered by a lace veil held in place with bobby pins. She readily embraced the facial cosmetics recommended especially for her by the young women at the perfume counter at Weinstock's.

Around noon or later, my mother emerged daily from her toilette, face made up like a silent film star, lit cigarette in hand, and dressed in her habit to address the day. She believed this outfit worked well enough in daylight and even better in the evening when she entered the VFW hall for a little drink. This may seem eccentric, even sadly vain, but my mother grew up isolated on a small farm, married at 18, was a mother at 19, a homemaker for thirty-odd years, and then widowed with two grown natural children living hundreds of miles away, and me, the bachelor son checking on her once in a while. A woman living alone could have worse faults than being concerned about appearance.

My mother considered herself devout. She was certainly faithful in her belief that signs did not apply to a woman of her stature. When she walked through the gate of St. Joseph Cemetery with an armful of daisies to lay on my father’s grave on the day before All Saints’ Day, that is, All Hallows’ Eve, the large sign that read “GATE LOCKED AT SUNSET” meant nothing to her. It was 5:50 pm, and the sky overhead was orange with sundown. My mother took her time at my father’s headstone. She prayed, or smoked, which to her are the same as both require contemplations.

The Groundskeeper closed the gate with a heavy chain and went home. When my mother found it locked, she went to the nearest backyard where a teenage girl removed sheets from a clothesline in the darkening twilight. My mother gripped the wrought iron with both hands and called out, “Excuse me. I can’t get out.” The girl screamed and ran into her house. My mother screamed and ran back into the murk.

So the legend began as my mother went from backyard to backyard calling through the bars from the gloom, “Help. I am locked in.” or, “I can’t get out. Please help.” Her victims shrieked, froze like statues, or dropped their beers and ran. My mother retreated back into the shadows laughing out loud at herself, at her situation, and at the faces of those sure they had seen a ghost.

My mother would love to tell you more, would love to smile flirtatiously as she told you how she was rescued by the handsome graveyard caretaker who moved into her house a month later, but unfortunately, she can no longer remember what happened. The past is vague and distant to her, and when she tries to remember specific things that happened, it feels funny to her and she laughs, though she cannot tell you why.

She still lives independently, a woman of substance and propriety. When Halloween comes around and costumed children come to her door seeking treats it is inevitable she will answer her door to see before her the painted faces and red-wigged heads of a cadre of young girls dressed as laughing ghosts guffawing shrilly and calling out, "Trick or treat." My mother laughs with them and drops candy into their outstretched bags. I am usually there on this holiday and she has never mentioned that the girls are dressed similarly to her. She has said, with a sigh of resignation, "Young girls nowadays can be quite cavalier with lipstick."

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