A Keckler Family Halloween Special: Do You Do Voodoo?
October 31, 2002

Witches, screaming skulls, stuffed corpses on the front lawn, you name it -- no one does Halloween better than my mother. "It's my favorite religious holiday," she says every year. "Don't tell your father I said that." Mom used to preside over sťances for all the neighborhood kids at Halloween. When he was feeling playful and not so Presbyterian, my dad would get under the sťance table and administer answering knocks to the questions Mom solicited from the audience. While under the table, Dad was also responsible for letting loose the huge mechanical bugs Mom usually kept with her science books in the basement. They were black with yellow spots, eight inches long, and made an odd grinding noise when wound up. The odd grinding noise added a certain something to the effect. Especially when mingled with screams from the audience. Another special effect my mother went in for was the dead body. It was really just my dad's old clothes stuffed with newspaper and given a skull mask, but at night it was really convincing as a bloated corpse. One night after my older sister and her Catholic school friends spent the better part of her fifteenth birthday contacting dead relatives via our family Ouija board and getting hysterical over it, my mother tossed the dead body out a second floor window so it fell past the living room bay window. You never saw so many wet sleeping bags.

Brandishing a Ouija board, a moth-ridden Wednesday Addams doll, and my grandfather's twisted sense of humor, Mom got quite a reputation at the University of Michigan back in her undergrad days. Close friends at the Alpha Gam house christened her Hecate -- goddess of black magic -- with her sťances, tarot readings, and wild room parties. Coincidentally, she was also elected Pledge Educator. At times Mom even aided the lovelorn. There was a particular occasion when a sorority sister came to her, despondent. The story goes that her boyfriend, who was at a military academy in another state, had called to let her know he was taking another girl to their regimental ball. The despondent sister begged for Mom's help. So, on the night of the ball, they made a doll of the boyfriend's date and stuck a pin in the stomach. The next time the despondent sister talked to her corporal sweetheart, she asked how the dance went. "Not so great," he told her, "She threw up after dinner and I had to take her home."

In the later years of Mom's career as a witch, my dad got laid-off from his job. He had the temerity to ask for a raise, backing up his request by citing all the business he had brought to the firm. Not only was he unceremoniously turned down, but it was suggested that everyone would be happier if he started getting his paycheck elsewhere. That was not an easy time for my parents. All I really remember about it is liking the looks of Evanston, while my father considered offers from a firm in Chicago. That's when my mother and Jeanette started getting together late at night and doing things in the kitchen.

Jeanette was the mother of my best friend, Julie, and she wore bright, flowing dresses, complicated twists of turquoise jewelry, and lots of purple scarves around her neck and in her wild hair. Jeanette was very theatrical and called everybody "dah-ling" but not in that obnoxious L.A. tone. The way Jeanette said it made you feel glamorous, and I loved going over to their place for lunches and sleepovers. On the outside, the house looked so snug and tucked into itself, you were amazed how roomy it really was once you stepped past the ivy-choked wooden door with the ornate brass knocker. Inside was another world filled with exotic fabrics and weird curiosities. Piles of huge gypsy pillows with those little hand-stitched mirrors littered the floor, a wooden table painted five different colors stood in the dining room, and Ali Baba baskets of various sizes were used for storage. We drank Coke out of magenta goblets and ate popcorn out of a slightly lop-sided orange ceramic bowl. Jeanette's bohemian touch was everywhere. It remained even after she died of breast cancer when we were in sixth grade.

Every year, Jefferson Elementary had a carnival with cake walks, raffles, games, and -- in a specially reserved corner of the third floor gymnasium -- Madame Medusa and Mademoiselle Clair Voyant, Fortune Tellers. Madame Medusa was my mother, Jeanette was Mademoiselle Clair Voyant and together they drew a crowd of kids from the first grade all the way up to the sixth. It could have been the crystal ball, which, until later years when Mom invested in a real one from Sunsight Gifts and stood it on a heavy brass stand decorated with open-mawed dragons, was just a milky glass globe belonging to an old overhead light. It could have been the fortune cookie each kid walked away with after having their tarot cards laid out or their palms read. It could have been my mom's old lady wig and fake nose, complete with warts. Or it could have been Jeanette's sudden screams, which scared the kids so much, they got right back in line with more tickets to hear it again and again. Whatever it was, Madame Medusa and Mademoiselle Clair Voyant's tent always had the longest line of any attraction at the carnival. But the nights Jeanette came to our kitchen soon after my dad's layoff weren't to make plans for the Jefferson Carnival. They didn't always stay in the kitchen, either.

In the early 80s, while my mom was at a high school reunion in California, my dad built us a playhouse in the backyard. We went to the lumber yard with him to "help" pick out what pieces of wood were needed. When the playhouse was finished, we painted it light blue with white trim. Later, my mom added red hearts to the dark blue shutters to mimic cottages in Holland. The Dutch door was also dark blue with white timbered Xs on each half. The separate top and bottom pieces of the door could be latched together from the inside to make one door, or unlatched to keep both halves swinging free. We could reach the second level of the playhouse by crawling up a built-into-the-wall ladder and pushing up the trapdoor above our heads. Once upstairs, the trapdoor could be locked with a sliding barrel-bolt latch. Because of the slanted roof, there wasn't a whole lot of headroom on the second level. If you were taller than two feet when sitting down, you could sit in the tower, which was just big enough to stand in. As kids, we could just sit or lie down comfortably in sleeping bags. The playhouse was often used as a base for treasure hunts around the neighborhood.

But a treasure hunt wasn't what Mom and Jeanette were planning on those nights. We're still not completely sure about all that went down when we smelled baking in the kitchen, saw candles flickering in the playhouse, and heard loud cackling coming from both places, but we did eventually see a doll. It was made of lumpy dough, had three black-headed pins stuck in it, and was haphazardly wrapped with a thick string of fuzzy red cotton -- the same stuff Mom tied at the ends of my braids before I cut all my hair off in fourth grade.

Close on the heels of those mysterious nights, a lot of other people followed Dad's lead and left the company that had forced him out. Soon the company was so weakened, they were compelled to merge with a larger corporation to avoid total bankruptcy. They lost their power and their name in the process. About eleven years later, one of the three former partners -- who had been particularly loud with his suggestion that my father leave -- now needed Dad's help on a case. The former partner knew very well that, since his leaving the old company, Dad had made quite a name for himself in his profession. Citing a conflict of interest, Dad referred him to a co-worker.

When you look at the doll, you can see black type-covered pieces of paper mushed in with the dough. And if you look really carefully, you can see bits of signatures in three different handwritings.

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