Trick, or treat, or treasure

Every October the local supermarket girds for the big day. Shelves brim with bags of miniature chocolates and peanut butter bars, gumballs, and caramels. Lest anyone forget what day is approaching, bright orange jack-o'-lanterns and velvety black cats perch on stands at the ends of each aisle.

This year, I promised myself, I'll be prepared. No matter how many children show up, they will have their pick of goodies.

Some days before last Halloween I watched my neighbor string silky ghosts across her living-room wall. On pages of newspaper spread across the kitchen table sat two plump pumpkins, ready for carving. Her husband was seated at the table with several knives and a bowl for the seeds and stringy center of the pumpkin.

"We like the house to be festive," she said. "We're going to put the jack-o'-lanterns outside, on the wall, so the kids will see them."

Like us, our neighbors are empty-nesters, but my husband and I hadn't carved a pumpkin in years. Even when the children were home, we did only minimal decorating for this holiday.

Ever nutrition-conscious, each year I had eyed the paper sacks our kids brought home, gritting my teeth at the sight of all that sugar. "Only one a night," I admonished them, discreetly removing the really sticky candies from their bounty.

But when last Halloween finally arrived, I still hadn't purchased any treats. My neighbor – a genuine Harriet Nelson, Donna Reed, or Florence Henderson – was the best of the TV mothers. Her husband was the amiable spouse, even-tempered and always wise.

Our children, I feared, had gotten a pair of Scrooges.

I decided to purchase one large bag of candy. So few young children lived in the neighborhood anymore, I reasoned, that one bag would be ample. I filled a large wicker basket with the miniature chocolate bars and placed it in the foyer.

Sure enough, with the first signs of nightfall came the first trick-or-treaters. Lively chatter accompanied the first ring of the bell, and I opened the door to find a brightly adorned clutch of young children crowded together in the alcove. Several amused parents waited on the sidewalk.

"Happy Halloween," I said, proffering a small candy bar to each child. When they left, the basket already looked reduced. Our Halloween would no doubt end early.

After only a few more rings of the doorbell, the candy was gone. Where had all these children come from? The bell rang again as I stood in the brightly lit foyer with nowhere to hide, caught with an empty wicker basket. Guilt-ridden, I opened the door.

Five or six young faces peered up at me, all in assorted holiday garb, most of them masked. "Trick or treat!" came the high-pitched voices in unison.

"Kids," I confessed, "I am so sorry. I wasn't expecting so many children this year and I've run out of candy." They stood there, perfectly still.

"I really am sorry," I reiterated. "If you come back next year," I promised them, "I'll give you any kind of candy you want." But the sad truth remained. I didn't have any treats.

In front of the gaily bedecked group stood a small boy, not even the length of my leg. He wore an outfit befitting one of Robin Hood's merry men, with a cap, but no mask. Suddenly, big brown eyes looked up at me as the child reached into his plastic pumpkin.

With a tiny hand he held out a miniature Milky Way.

"You can have one of mine," he said softly. I gazed down at his upturned face, feeling smaller than the candy bar he offered. His hand cradled the best he had to give – the very thing he had made this trip to collect. I thanked him, declining his generous offer as graciously as I could.

An image of that little boy, with his large brown eyes and outstretched hand holding the mini-chocolate bar, has nestled into a corner of my mind ever since. I hope it will remain there, a reminder of the depth and breadth of the human spirit, and its capacity to give, regardless of age, circumstance, or time of year.

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