This Halloween marks the official end of my 17-year tenure as a trick or treat chaperone. It was a good run. Like a well-behaved mother of the bride, I kept my distance, took lots of pictures and helped myself to refreshments—Mike and Ikes and the occasional paper cup of cider (preferably spiked). I always looked forward to those chilly fall nights as the season opener of my down vest. I have no regrets. So when my 11-year-old announced my retirement, it took me a minute to understand what was happening. She said, “Mommy, I was thinking I’d go trick or treating alone this year.”
I said, “Won’t that be a tiny bit sad?”
A look of pity passed over her face and, suddenly, I knew what was coming—knew it right down to my fingertips, the same ones that carried her pumpkin when it was overflowing. This was a service I provided: candy sherpa.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m going with my friends. Just, like, without you.”
Of course I gave her my blessing. Who am I to stand in the way of an independent giraffe?
I hated Halloween as a kid. Dreaded it. Even in the years when I would have given anything to be someone else, I loathed dressing up. Sweet or frisky? Black cat or Madonna? And then there was the whole issue of who to trick or treat with and which neighborhood to go to and what kind of bag to carry and whether or not I’d need a coat. Windbreaker or cardigan? I was relieved when I outgrew the whole ordeal.
From there, trick or treating evolved into Halloween parties, including one where I had my first-ever long chat with my now-husband; and the occasional wacky colleague wearing an antenna headband on October 31. Realizing, Right, it’s Halloween. How liberating it was to buy my own fun-size Kit-Kats instead of asking a stranger to fork them over! I developed an appreciation for gourds, candy corn and pumpkin ravioli.
And then I had kids. For the first few years, I planned their costumes with my mother-in-law; she’s crafty, I’m lazy. My older daughter was an apple, then an eggplant—we were going for a produce theme—and then a dinosaur (Diner Horse, as she called it). At two-and-a-half, she came to visit me in the maternity ward in all her green felt splendor, spun around for the nurses and warily offered peanut M&Ms to her hours-old “sister-brother.” She was on the fence about the brother part.
The next Halloween, he was a black cat and she was a ladybug. We read books featuring witches, goblins and Clifford the Big Red Dog dressed as a ghost. We carved pumpkins, toasted the seeds, baked pumpkin muffins (from a mix, but still), marched in parades, trick or treated in our apartment building and went to a costume party where, in the space of an hour, every guest ran the gamut from elation to hysteria. I bought a pair of jack-o-lantern knee socks at the drugstore. I was fully-invested in Halloween.
Pretty soon my kids started planning their own costumes. The oldest and youngest were twin zebras; Dorothy and the Tin Man; a ladybug and a bumblebee. My son was Superman, LeBron James, and then LeBron James again. When he entered his Harry Potter phase, I perfected the lightning bolt scar on his forehead. It couldn’t be black or red; it had to be a realistic rust-color. I watched a YouTube video multiple times just to get it right.
Every year, my kids asked why I didn’t dress up. Some parents did—the fun ones who would put a red nose on the grill of their minivan in December. I told them I was a witch the other 364 days of the year; on Halloween I preferred to be a nice mom who said yes to everything. Now I wonder, why didn’t I put on a costume? How hard would it have been to go as the Cowardly Lion or Hermione?
What are you? It’s a surprisingly meaningful question. For me, October 31 is as good a time as any to mull it over. Anything is possible. Isn’t that the whole point of Halloween?
Two years in a row, hurricanes swept through our town—first Irene, then Sandy. Both times, we were without lights, heat or hot water, so trick or treating was the least of my concerns. But after Sandy, a friend who had power invited the neighbors over to her house, where kids trick or treated from room to room. Superior parents chose high-traffic zones like the mudroom and the living room; I grabbed a bag of Snickers and high-tailed it to the third-floor bathroom where I gorged in peace, huddled under a fleece blanket. When I finally emerged, I found a pack of monsters with masks on top of their heads, little hands wrapped around bowls of homemade chili. Someone handed me a goblet of wine. I took a deep breath—warm and spice— and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was the best Halloween we’d ever have. I was right.
But power or no power, rain or shine, my favorite moment of the holiday has been the same year to year. It’s the one when my kids and their friends finally get to answer the question they’ve been waiting for since the day they picked their costumes months ago, usually round the Fourth of July or when the first Halloween catalogs start arriving in the mail.
The question is simple, and constant through the ages: What are you?
Ask this of a group of kids on a crisp October night when the leaves have just started to fall and the sky isn’t quite dark and the neighborhood echoes with “Trick or treat” and “I’ll trade you Almond Joy for Nerds!” Shoulders straighten; chins lift; feet plant firmly on the ground, each one claiming the space it deserves.
One little girl says, “I’m Wonder Woman.” Another says, “I’m Cleopatra.” A third: “I’m Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” (The lucky ones will grow up to be a combination of all three.) Even the boy dressed as a carton of milk announces himself proudly, as if he’s ready to get poured into the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had.
What are you? It’s a surprisingly meaningful question if you tend to overthink things, as I do. When was the last time you asked this of yourself? Some people wait for January 1. For me, October 31 is as good a time as any to mull it over. Anything is possible. Isn’t that the whole point of Halloween?
This year, I’m ready to step into my new role at the front door. Let some other mom smile at her toddlers from the end of my walkway. Vampires and fairies, Oreos and bananas, Pete and Arianna, Meghan and Harry—you’re all welcome at my house. Even you, Melania (but leave your husband on Air Force One). I won’t ask too many questions of our visitors because my teenagers will be waiting in the wings, mortified. But I do want to know what you are, and I want to give you one piece of advice, the same one I’m giving my giraffe: Tomorrow, be yourself.