Constable: Halloween family balances macabre with memories of late father
By Burt Constable
Exhausted from the physical and emotional toll of battling pancreatic cancer, Michael Podlin depended on his wife and three kids to put up their family's annual spectacular display for their Arlington Heights neighborhood last October. This Halloween, a box of Podlin's ashes, topped by a grinning skull with glowing, red eyes, is part of the scary scene.
"I've done what Michael wanted, but I just keep crying," says his widow, TammySue Margalit, whose red eyes come naturally during a year that saw the loss of her husband and her mother, the murder of a close friend and the deaths of several relatives. "I've never been so frazzled."
The happy memories of the past 17 years of building scary extravaganzas, with lights, music, moving creatures and live characters every Halloween, compete with this year's macabre reality of Podlin's death on June 11 at home, in the arms of his wife and kids as his daughters sang Bruno Mars' "Count On Me."
"Death is basically our house decor," Podlin said last Halloween as he was running out of options to treat the cancer that killed him. "We live Halloween all year round."
Knowing he wouldn't live to see this year's display, Podlin requested his ashes be included somehow.
"That's a bit of an odd request, but I get it. I admire their tenacity to make that happen," says an anonymous Arlington Heights man who spent several hundred dollars commissioning an artist to make the maple urn, fashion the skull out of resin, and run wires through the spine to the red LED lights in the eye sockets.
"I never met TammySue or Michael, but I know the house. I've been by their displays before. So I went ahead and made that happen."
Together for 32 years and married for 27, Margalit and Podlin have a son, Sam, who turns 18 on Halloween, and two daughters, Sabrina, 16, and Ginger, 15.
Smiling as she shows the funny note her father wrote on a card to be posthumously delivered on her birthday, Ginger also cries as she explains how he gave her a necklace with a skull that contains a pinch of his ashes.
Still facing medical bills and the expense of raising three kids while looking for a job, Margalit says she has been touched by donations to the Michael Podlin Family Help Fund on GoFundMe.com and by the kindness of strangers.
"I want to stress how grateful and how blessed and how loved and how cared for I feel from the community. It's made me overwhelmed with love," Margalit says as a good friend who helps build the displays screws together a haunted office cubicle that will feature a skeleton, dressed in Podlin's favorite clothes, working on a computer.
"I've had people come up to me and say, 'Hey, can we help you set up?'" Margalit says. One woman, a stranger, pulled weeds while her kids picked up trash.
Hundreds of people stop by daily and nightly every day of the week, but 1,500 (Margalit has a clicker counter) show up on Halloween to see the display at 1119 N. Forrest Ave. in Arlington Heights. Margalit warns that misspelling Forrest as Forest will, ironically, send GPS users to a nearby cemetery instead.
Without Podlin, and in a financial hole, Margalit says this is the last year for their annual display.
"If anybody wants to buy anything, it's for sale. I've got to pay for this house," Margalit says. While she already sold some complex and scary clowns, she notes that she won't sell "The Woodies," a pair of 12-foot movable wooden skeletons that took her husband more than 1,000 hours to construct.
One longtime visitor bought a simple spider as a souvenir of all the Halloweens he spent there.
"It was a privilege to be part of something like this," Margalit says. "I want people to remember this forever and forever."