Tuesday, October 27, 2009
My son is going to be a ghost-hunting alien this year for Halloween. Luckily, we're not a family that's averse to homemade costumes. He is bouncing around the house in excitement: Halloween is like a birthday party, Mardi Gras and New Year's Eve all wrapped up in one crinkly plastic wrapper for children. Watching him, and seeing how the holiday influences almost every aspect of our lives as the final countdown to Halloween day begins, reminds me very much of my own childhood.
When I was a child, like nearly every other child in my little suburban universe, I absolutely loved Halloween, every pumpkin-scented aspect of it. I loved the weeks leading up to Halloween, the thrilling anticipation that was almost too much to take, and as a result, I recall October as vividly as any of my childhood memories. I remember watching the Charlie Brown Halloween episode each year, knowing each line of dialogue, every plot development, but still bewitched by the whole thing. I remember going to the Woolworth’s, referred to by my mother as “the dime store,” (an old-fashioned term even then) at Eden’s Plaza every year, and - I can’t believe how incredibly quaint this is going to sound, but it’s true - my mother and her best friend Rose would sit at their long lunch counter and drink Cherry Cokes while I looked around for my Halloween costume with Rose’s daughter, Susan. I was Wonder Woman one year – with that creepy mask with the oval eyes cut out that I had to keep hidden away until the big day because it was so clearly going to suck the soul out of me otherwise – and I remember those cardboard-y wrist cuffs, which I wore all year until they finally disintegrated. I remember the caramel apples sales at our school (specifically Affy Taples here in Chicagoland) coming out just a couple of weeks before Halloween and I remember that squeamishly sick feeling I got as I was eviscerating a pumpkin, reaching in for the grotesquely slimy innards, and that particular pumpkin smell, all unripe and sharp. I remember Mrs. Lane next door and her homemade, orange-colored buttercream-frosted pumpkin cookies that she handed out to trick-or-treaters (imagine such a thing today – the Department of Homeland Security and the FDA would shut down her operation in a minute flat). I remember the thrill at school on the day of Halloween, and I remember shrieking with unbridled joy when I’d locate a friend in a particularly outlandish costume. I remember the Halloween celebration at school, where we would all parade across the stage in the auditorium with our ungainly swords and shields and robes everywhere. I remember racing home after school with my friends on Halloween day, so unbelievably excited; I remember that the air always smelled so delicious, like a candy version of itself. I remember going door-to-door as the sky began to darken, and how we would skip in pairs and small groups down Romona Road, and sometimes even into the townhouse development on the other side of our block. I remember hearing squeals of excitement everywhere, disembodied voices down our dark street, and I remember that the festivities became a little more deliciously sinister as it edged closer to nighttime. I remember lugging my bag of candy around until it felt like there were dumbbells inside and it was so heavy I was afraid the bag would rip. I remember going home and dividing up my candy into different tiers of preference, from miniature candy bars - even whole ones sometimes! - at the top of the list to boxes of dried-out raisins relegated to the bottom. I remember that I had a system of how my stash was to be self-allocated, and how I stored it all in my bed table drawer, those poor raisins never seeing the light of day again until six months later, on their trip to the garbage can. I remember the unsubstantiated rumors of “razor blades in apples” that had Been On The News and the candy in lunchboxes for weeks afterward. Every October, I remember it all with an enthusiasm that seems to build every day. I still think of Halloween from the perspective of a child who was really thrilled by haunted houses and spooking herself out and, yes, candy. Now that I’m a parent myself, none of that enthusiasm has really diminished.
Oh, except for the candy part.
Candy-will-rot-my-son’s-teeth-leave-him-unfocused-at-school-hyper-at-bedtime-and-it-will-alter-his-taste-buds-fundamentally. Sweet-and-sour will excrete from his pores. The arteries to his brain will become clogged with corn syrup. The little, pure, perfect body I nurtured and protected for nine months inside my own will be attacked from within by mutant armies led by artificial food dyes, scary preservatives, wholly unnatural additives, making him a human science experiments. His smooth, satiny skin will become rough and mottled, his bright eyes will become cloudy, his inquisitive nature will become dull. Right?
When my son was younger, Halloween was all about the dressing up and crafts, and we could easily pretend that whole other aspect of it didn’t exist; now that he’s seven, though, he knows about candy. And he likes it. Blame my mother, who never met a piece of candy she didn’t like, who maintained such a well-stocked kitchen of Bubble Yum and Milk Duds that all the neighborhood kids would come gather around our house like alley cats, in the most unsubtle manner imaginable. They all knew about the gum drawer and the candy cabinet, even the new kids, like the information was transmitted psychically. It was only a matter of time before my own child would become curious about Grandma’s stash of cute, squishy Swedish fish and Dum Dums (which includes the awesomely named Artificially-flavored Mystery Flavor, which just blows the mind with its post-modern riddle within a riddle). Or maybe his father started him on this path that one day when my son was crying at the restaurant and he gave him a peppermint candy to make him stop. Was that the gateway drug, the little hard candy with the bright red points hurriedly popped into his mouth? This was the baby who followed me around our apartment as soon as he could crawl, stealing steamed broccoli from my bowl as I ran away. This was the boy who loved miso soup and turned me on to avocado sushi when he three. These days, he treasures the stray pieces of candy we allow to fly under our radar and he savors them like he once savored apples.
I do make occasional exceptions and allow our son to eat the sort of thing I don’t otherwise approve of, but it’s just a few times a year. That seems balanced to me: he’s not eating it every day or even once a month. When he does eat candy, it’s vegan and, while I’m generally not thrilled about the ingredients, it’s appreciated by him. I feel like a zero-tolerance approach would be the recipe for a future rebellion. So it’s rare but candy does happen. And when it happens, I leave him alone: I try not to scrunch up my face or make derogatory comments (admittedly, it’s a challenge sometimes). I just let him enjoy it, the same way I enjoyed candy when I was a child, with his whole, passionate self.
There are people who take a hard-line approach to candy and I can respect that. I do have my doubts as to how effective that is in the long run. (Further, as someone who grew up in almost literally a candy house with pretty much no food-like substance prohibited, I have to say that I never crave the super-sweet stuff of my childhood.) I also think that it can be neurotic and irrational to think that candy a few times a year is going to have such dangerous and lasting repercussions. It’s not. If you raise your children to value their health and to appreciate how sublime a ripe mango can be and how our bodies feel kind of icky on junky fuel, I don’t think there’s any reason to create an environment of fear and anxiety around the occasional detour: in my view, that's more about the parent's own food phobias than anything else. If a parent is creating such a tense and unpleasant environment around forbidden foods, I just don’t think that’s healthy. Those of us who are health-seekers can go overboard just as those who let their children eat anything they want can go overboard. Allowing that little bit of candy every year works for us and my son does not get the message that he needs to go behind my back if he develops curiosity about the “forbidden fruit.” So every year on Halloween night, after we pass out our last organic lollipop, we sort through my son's stash together, separate out the acceptable items, and he can choose five pieces. The rest goes to the Good Halloween Witch (a.k.a., a local dentist who takes candy off the hands of nervous parents) and she leaves a little toy or book behind as a gift. Again, this wouldn’t work for everyone but it works for us.
I want my child to experience Halloween like I did: as a time of year full of anticipation, excitement and absolute joy. I’m not going to deprive him of this experience. And, like it or not, candy is part of the Halloween experience. I want my son to have how own warm memories of Halloween when he grows up, not remember how uptight I was about everything, how he didn't get to enjoy things because of my rigidity. It's a time of celebration. Why would I create anxiety around that?
Happy Halloween, everyone!