PHILADELPHIA — August, it begins in August. Once theFourth of July decorations come down, our daughters, ages 8 and 10, begin talking about Halloween. Blessed with creative minds, they've already answered the critical question, "What am I gonna be?" (I'll never tell.) Cursed with a woefully uncreative mom, they know their stapled-together costumes won't win kudos in the merciless sunlight of their school's mid-afternoon Halloween parade. But their eyes glow when discussing the vivid impression they'll make as they "trick or treat!" with their dad through the forgiving dark of ourcity neighborhood streets: forget "Little Mermaid," think "Mummy Bride." Our darling daughters don't want to be pretty - they want to be scary, very scary.
As the designated candy giver, however, I find the dark of our surrounding streets, with its many unlit houses - the universal symbol of "stay away" - pretty scary itself. The question forthis middle-aged white woman becomes, "Should I be afraid to open my door, too?"
For years, I discounted my elderly neighbors' fears of crime on Halloween night as the toxic byproduct of television hype (as in, "Tonight's big story is: Will Halloween turn into a nightmare on your street?").
When younger neighbors complainedhowunfair it was that trick-or-treaters from "outside the neighborhood" (translation: of a different color)would come in vansand deplete their supplies of Halloween goodies, I thought, "What's the big deal? It's only candy."
One chilly Halloween, two women parked a beat-up van in front of our house and troopedfive or six giggling kids up our steps. When I held out the box of candy, one woman took a piecefor herselfand motioned "go ahead" to the other, painfully thin woman. "So much for Halloween beingjust for kids," I thought at first. But when Inoticedthe woman's worn coat and looked into her sad eyes as she hesitantlyreached inside the box, I found myself wishingthe candy bar were a thick sandwich and a warm drink.
What, then, is making me more worried this year? Was it how vulnerable I suddenly felt last Halloween whenfaced by a group of tall white teenagers who towered over me as they elbowed each other and grabbed for the candy? Or my husband's story of how he had to chase somekids who were banging on the window at the local dry cleaners as the owner, an Asian-American woman, worked alone behind the counter? Or is it the "for sale" signs that compete with the goblins and ghosts on neighbors' lawns? The whispered rumors among longtime residents aboutgang fights and drug deals now thatAfrican-American, Asian, and Hispanic families are movinginto this once mostly white neighborhood? Or is it the sheer loneliness of being one of the few houses whose lights will be on Halloween night?
But I couldn't send mytwodaughters out without welcoming visitors myself.
I think back, way back, to the city neighborhood where my parents knew every trick-or-treater's name - and did so even after their own kids were grown. My parentsenjoyed the costumes, the banter, the fun of Halloween, asking each disguised visitor, "Do I know you?"Whether the answer was yes or no, my parents' response remained the same - a smile and a treat.
Ialso think back to just last year, and how our new next door neighbors, a young Hispanic family, transformed their old Victorian into a Charles Addams showplace. When I went over to admire their cleverly frightful decorations, their daughter, aged 4, whispered reassuringly, "Don't be scared, my mommy's going to jump out at you in aDracula costume, but it's still my mommy." Later our daughters joined this little girl and her brother to go trick-or-treating. The youngsters were led by their two dads, who chatted and aimed their flashlights in front of the kids.
Norman Rockwell might have painted the scene - eager trick-or-treaters and indulgent dads, framed in a hopeful glow.
So thecritical questionforthis grown-up really is: What am I going to be this Halloween? A pessimist, sitting alone in the dark, or an optimist, ready to greet whoever comes to the door? Perhaps, a cautious optimist, I plan to sit on our porch, with portable phone close at hand, candy bars waiting, jack-o-lanterns grinning, house and outside lights blazing.
I understand the fear of the unknown that leads some folks to spend Halloween in the dark. But, asour daughters will tell you, being alone in the dark is pretty scary. Wouldn't we all do much better together if only we carried somelight, some welcome, within?
Elizabeth McGinley is a freelance writer. Her story 'My Daughter, the Ragged Individualist' will appear in the forthcoming 'Chocolate for a Woman's Blessings' (Simon & Schuster).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society