While on my way to the post office Thursday afternoon, I shuddered as I noticed a haze of snow flurries slightly obscuring my view of Mount Chocorua. None of that precipitation made it to the ground down here in the valley, but that bite in the air and those bare branches don’t lie – winter is coming. Though the weather left me chilled to my bones, it also stirred and warmed my heart as I fondly remembered what Halloween was like growing up in Hebron, Maine.
First of all, speaking of warmth, it was never warm on Halloween night back then. Not once. I can’t recall a single night of trick-or-treating as a young kid when I was able to showcase my costume in all its glory, all because of the hindrance of a winter coat that my mother made me wear. In fact, I do remember a snowy night of going door to door, holding out my plastic bag and my little teeth chattering. But despite being cold (which I didn’t really mind so much when I was a kid) it was such a thrill to be out after dark, dressed strangely, begging for treats from my neighbors.
To this day, my fondest holiday memories from childhood aren’t of birthdays or even of Christmas, with all of the gifts and decorations and other trappings. They are of Halloween, of the license to pretend to be someone – and even somewhere – else for a while. The goofiness, the fun, the hours spent thinking about and creating my costume every year, the spookiness, the anticipation of seeing what others had come up with.
And, of course, the candy!
Hebron is a very small town – the population during those years was right around 500 or so – and I lived in the “busiest” part of it, in the big gray house nestled between the old elementary school and the post office. Being a rural area, most everyone was pretty scattered and far apart, except where we were, right in the thick of things next to the Academy with lots of neighbors close by. Thus, our corner of 119 was the hotspot for trick-or-treating in Hebron.
But there was another reason that kids from as far away as East Hebron and even Buckfield and West Minot would come in carloads all the way to our house every October 31st – my mother’s homemade popcorn balls.
The whole process of making these delicious things would start a few days before Halloween when, on our weekly excursion to Shop ‘n’ Save in Oxford, my mother would push the cart around the aisles and say, “Hen, will you grab those bags of marshmallows?” She only bought those big white fluffy slices of heaven once a year. I remember smiling so big and then eagerly helping her fill the cart with marshmallows, butter, popcorn kernels, cooking oil and fold-top sandwich bags.
It was a family affair. My father was a popcorn nut – that’s where I get it from – and so it was his job to pull out the old black soup pot with the broken handle and pop all the corn that Mom had bought at the store.
pop pop pop ding pop pop p-p-p-p-pop
While he did that, my mom would set another pot on the stove to melt the butter and marshmallows together. The smell was one I’ll never forget – sweet and salty, warm, creamy, unbelievably delicious. It had to be stirred constantly or the concoction would burn. When I was really small, I would stand on a chair next to the stove and watch with fascination as the sticks of butter and the marshmallows slowly lost their perfect shape and would then soften and blend into each other.
“Don’t salt th’corn, Butch – the butter’ll dae tha’.”
Then, at last, once everything was ready for the first round, my mom would take off her rings, pour that yellow ribbon into the big stainless steel bowl of popped corn, and then work her magic, stirring it all together manually, molding the treats by the handful.
My job was to hold a sandwich bag open into which my mom would plop a finished popcorn ball, and then I would fold the top over, close it up, and put it into a paper grocery bag on the floor next to my chair.
It’s amazing how long it took to fill those two – and in later years, as the popularity of the treats grew, three and sometimes four – grocery sacks. And because it took so much time, and because all three of us were involved, we would often have to make them the weekend before if Halloween was on a weekday. That meant that there were years when I would sneak into the closet where the bags were hidden from the dogs and just breathe in the scent of those incredible things, my mouth watering – and yes, sometimes I would sneak one up to my room before Halloween, but somehow she always found out.
And I know my dad would sneak them, too.
Every year on Halloween night, the front porch would rumble under the footsteps of all those kids in search of the best treat in the whole town.
I used to brag, when I would hear kids at school rave about them. “Yep, my mom makes those. And I help her.”
The years when it was rainy, or there just weren’t a lot of kids for whatever reason, were a gift to my dad and me – that meant there would be more popcorn balls to pack in our lunches for the first part of November.
I don’t recall when she stopped making them. It might have been the year that Dad died, though I seem to remember helping her make them as an adult at least once when he wasn’t around.
I’ve never tried to make them myself. I’ve pretty much sworn off of sweet things like marshmallows, and I don’t eat dairy anymore… but one of these days, I may have to amend the recipe and give it a whirl.