I was going to skip Halloween this year. I made plans with a friend to go somewhere–anywhere–away from home so that I could keep the lights turned off and avoid trick-or-treaters. The candy has become so expensive, and I didn’t want to buy and carve pumpkins. It’s hard to know how many will actually come. Some years we get a fair number. Last year, when it rained, we only had two or three and at the end of the night I was left with a big bowl of candy that I didn’t want.
I just wasn’t feeling it.
Over the weekend, though, we had friends for dinner. They are Jewish, and as we talked about what is happening to them, for them, I found myself revisiting my Halloween plan. I found myself thinking about community, and what it means to be a member of one. In our conversation, I told my story about a rift with my next-door neighbor. More than a year ago we found ourselves on different sides of a conflict over the creation of a project to house unhoused people in our neighborhood, and since then my formerly friendly neighbor avoids me. She once turned around and walked in the opposite direction when she saw us approaching as we were out walking on a sunny evening after dinner. She is Israeli, spending part of every year with family there, and I have wanted to check in on her, offer something that would be helpful, but I haven’t had the courage to reach out.
I found myself revisiting memories of my childhood Halloweens.
There was the year my brother wanted to be a sprinkler. My brother, who is significantly autistic (though we didn’t know that until he was an adult), was fascinated with sprinklers. He could sit and watch them for what seemed like hours to me. He loved them so much that he would go into neighbors’ yards and pull out their hoses and turn their sprinklers on. (It was the 70’s, a different era. There were few fences and every kid we knew was free-range.) Our neighbors on one side complained, but the neighbors on the other side, the Fryes, were kind about it.
My mother was stumped about how to turn my brother into a sprinkler, but eventually she figured out how to do it. She made him a green cape, then fashioned a wave sprinkler (his favorite kind) from styrofoam and tin foil for him to wear on his head. Most people did not know what he was; many guessed that he was an alien. But Mr. Frye? As soon as he opened the door, he began laughing. Really laughing. Belly-laughing. He knew right away what Joe was, and that he knew made me like him even more than I already did. (The Fryes had two plum trees, and they gave me a standing invitation to climb them with my books in hand and to sit and read and eat as many plums as I’d like.)
Both Mr. and Mrs. Frye had cleft palates, and so their speech could be a little hard for me to understand. They knew, as our family did, too, what it was like to be judged and misunderstood for simply being who you are. What it was like to be treated meanly by those who more easily fit into society’s norms.
Another year, perhaps the last good year before invading hormones began to change Halloween for me, my group of girlfriends came to my neighborhood to trick or treat with me. We were a loud horde of shrieking tweenagers just beginning to glimpse what life might become as we kept running ahead of my mother.
We turned into one yard I was unfamiliar with, running and shouting and kicking leaves down a long front path to a small house. An old man opened the door to us, holding a finger to his lips as he waved us into the house. That was strange, and I felt a little uneasy, but we all trooped in. “Don’t wake the little one,” he cautioned, and I saw a young girl asleep on a couch, a hand-knit blanket draped over her body. There was a fire burning in a fireplace and old-fashioned music playing low from a radio. I felt like I’d stepped into one of my books, one that told a story set in a different time.
“Just a moment,” he said, and went into an adjoining room. He returned with a tray of caramel apples, each wrapped with the kind of plastic wrap our mothers all had in their kitchens. “Here you go,” he said, and told us that we should each choose one. We each slipped an apple into our bags, quietly, and moved to the door. I didn’t want to leave. Something about this house, so different from my own and from all the others we’d visited, felt so good to me.
Back out at the road, by mother was waiting anxiously. She asked me why we’d gone into the house.
“He asked us to,” I said.
“Don’t do that again,” she cautioned. I showed her the treat–one unlike any other I’d ever received–and she told me that I would have to throw it away because it was home-made. I protested, describing what the house had been like, what he’d been like, but she was firm. “We don’t know him,” she said, “and we can’t accept those kinds of treats from people we don’t know.”
I knew she was wrong–I knew it!–but I did what I was told, keeping only this memory that is still vivid nearly 50 years later.
After dinner with our friends, I thought of the children in my neighborhood, the boys who shoot baskets in the street and ride their bikes and skateboards in a loop in front of our house. They are Russian, and they’ve never come trick-or-treating, but there are others in our little part of this large city who have. I thought about how hard so many things are for so many children, and about my fears for the future they will be living their lives in.
Then I texted my friend and asked if instead of going out she’d like to come over for dinner and help me hand out candy. Ours is a neighborhood that doesn’t see a lot of kids on Halloween, even when the weather is good. We are tucked between two major thoroughfares. Many of the folks who live here are older, and a good number of the younger ones are members of cultures that don’t celebrate Halloween in the ways I traditionally have. Ours is the opposite of a destination neighborhood, one that people drive their kids to because they are full of large, decorated houses and streets filled with bands of costumed kids and parents. Even on a good year, our streets are sparsely filled.
But there are kids who come, and they live here.
So, Cane and my friend and I are going to eat soup and have a fire and maybe play a board game. When I asked her about changing our plan, my friend offered to bring some candy to add to our treat bowl.
I know that staying home and answering the door to families in my community won’t change the situation in Israel/Gaza. It won’t ease my friends’ or neighbors’ pain. It won’t house those without houses or fix the climate or our broken political system or any of the systems that make some neighborhoods a destination for Halloween and others something else. But it will help some people feel good right here, where we are all living together, even if just for an evening. Maybe it will make us something other than total strangers to at least some of our neighbors, so that if one of them at some time needs or wants something I can give, they’ll be more easily able to accept it.
In the work I’m doing with a school this year, we’ve been reading, thinking and talking about how to cultivate critical hope in children who are growing up in trauma. One of the keys to doing so is to provide “material hope,” and that “comes from the sense of control young people have when they are given the resources to deal with the forces that affect their lives.”
Maybe I’m pinning too much on a welcoming house and a generous treat, but a material gift that is an expression of love–one that says, “your neighborhood, too, has adults who want to care for you”–is probably worth the price of a few pumpkins and bags of candy.
A little visit from the ghost of Halloween Past…