“Costumes!” screams the sign at the corner of the strip mall as I pass by. “Glad I’m done with that,” my mind screams back. I immediately feel guilty.
My daughter, our oldest, is now away at college. Her younger brother, a high school sophomore, is more interested in taking his girlfriend to the homecoming dance than in Halloween festivities. Shouldn’t I be wistful about the end of this particular childhood ritual? Had Halloween costumes been such a burden?
Not a burden. A test. The fact is, unlike Christmas or Easter, Halloween is a holiday I learned how to do right along with my kids.
I come from Los Angeles, where trick-or-treating happens under balmy skies and palm fronds — just a one-day affair with no accompanying seasonal change. Until I moved east with my husband, I’d never been to a corn maze or harvest festival. I didn’t know that apple cider and doughnuts are as much a part of October as eggnog is of December. Sure, I’d carved pumpkins — but they came from the grocery store, not the ground. My single mother and I had no leaves to rake, no porch to decorate with mums. But we had real-life worries and fears my kids don’t have. Fears that made her edgy and me shy. We clung to each other. We had no practice in the yearly letting go that Easterners have as one season turns to the next.
The first time I took my children to a pumpkin patch, the owner told us we could go out and pick what we wanted. On that late midweek afternoon, the field was empty except for us. With the air chilling, we walked over the soft, turned earth. In the gloaming light, pumpkins as far as you could see lay like lolling heads. I found myself hurrying my children back to the car as if the vines that had tethered the pumpkins in place might wrap themselves around our ankles. I could see why autumn is so intertwined with ghost stories.
We moved to our house in the historic West End of Rockville, Maryland a decade ago in the fall. A woman passing by with her dog warned us: “Your neighbor really gets into Halloween.” She’d seen our small children and no doubt worried they’d be frightened. By the first week in October, I understood what she meant.
We’re not talking headstones and a few skeletons. A darker imagination choreographed the unfolding scene. First came the guillotine, then the cherry-red devil with his curling goatee. Plaster zombies and unraveling mummies staggered across the lawn. Just inside the chain-link fence, the head of a woman stared up at us as we crunched through leaves on our way to school each morning.
“It’s the Halloween House,” said my daughter, then 7. She was already in tight with the neighborhood kids. “I hear they serve bats’ blood and eyeballs,” she added. My son urged me to “decorate up” so our house would hold its own.
Rather than being frightened, my children — unencumbered by any real-life bogeymen — looked forward to the day our neighbor’s spectacle with its flashing lights and echoing moans would be revealed. I marveled, as I have done many times since, at their ease in the white-picket-fence life my husband and I were creating for them. They are native speakers in a world that would always be a second language to me.
We soon learned that it wasn’t just our neighbor, but the whole block that got into Halloween. When the big night came, the bats’ blood turned out to be hot chocolate and marshmallows served from the porch of a big blue Victorian. By 5 p.m., the turnout for a potluck at a friend’s rivaled the summer block party. Carloads of kids from other neighborhoods arrived. Five bags of candy didn’t cut it. My husband went to the grocery store twice for reinforcements.
Next year we knew what to do: homemade cornbread and chili for the potluck. Alternating shifts doling out candy and trick-or-treat chaperoning. As my son and I stood at the door to the Halloween House that second year, he beamed when our neighbor correctly identified him as Aragorn from the “Lord of the Rings” — a costume made from an old suede vest of mine.
The “Costumes!” sign grows smaller in my rearview mirror. My relief at not making another comes from knowing that the hardest work of raising little children, of setting them on their path, of protecting them from pumpkin fields, Halloween Houses and scary things in the night, is mostly done. My daughter is thriving at college, and my son will soon be on his way. Here in this foreign land, I’ve learned to sow, to reap, to let go. The mums are by the door, and there is nothing to be afraid of.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.