The Ghosts of Halloweens Past

Take One: Saadia in kindergarten. Only a few short and stormy months since she came to me. I was hanging on by a thread. My once-promising relationship with my fairly new girlfriend was on rocks… apparently it really killed the romance for her to get a blow-by-blow of Saadia’s tantrums and my ineptitude by phone every evening. Locking myself in the bathroom to avoid doing bodily harm to anyone within reach was a regular occurrence. My late night sessions revolving around hair pulling and agonized cries of “What have I done!” aside, I was desperately trying to be as good a parent as I knew how. I knew that a better parent would be infinitely understanding. This little African American girl had just been taken away from the only parents she ever knew — her fundamentalist Baptist foster parents — and not reunited with her sisters, her dearly-held dream, but plunked into this Lesbian WASP’s house that must have seemed like some other planet. But so far, infinite and understanding were not adjectives I could apply to myself, although I was striving for them. I was determined, and I realized what I must do as Halloween approached. I would help Saadia make her very own costume.

Saadia looked at me doubtfully at this announcement. Her idea of a perfect Halloween costume involved something boxed, vinyl, and potentially toxic for $12.99 at the Big K. For my daughter, who had arrived on my doorstep on moving-in day with a bin full of Happy Meal toys and little else, making a costume was deeply disturbing. But one Saturday I managed to carry her along on my fake enthusiasm. (Perfect parents pretend all the time, don’t they?) Out came the paints. We somehow cut a plastic milk jug to make her a hat shaped like a cat’s head. The neck of the jug was the nose. We painted the thing black. We attached whiskers, eyes, a felt nose and ears. We found a black turtleneck and tights. There it was. She was a black cat.

Saadia was proud of that cat. She showed everyone what she had done. And hey, we had spent a Saturday afternoon in relative peace. I basked in the glow of my fabulous parenting skills. But soon that façade would crack open.

And I mean literally crack open. I had brushed aside her teacher’s question when I dropped her off in the morning, “Are you a pig?” and proudly showed up at her Halloween parade that afternoon. And then it happened. About half-way down the street the paint on her hat started to crack and peel. I had stationed myself near the end of the route, and there she was, huge splotches of plastic milk jug showing through. My stomach plummeted. I knew I was a bad mother. My partner’s son’s gay dad had spent the weekend sewing him super-cool wizard robes, satin with contrasting lining, ala Harry Potter. I think there might have been small round glasses fashioned out of wire and spray painted a perfect dark metallic something or other…. Me, competitive? No, of course not. Still, I couldn’t help but think about those robes as I surveyed the flecks of black paint all over Saadia’s face, turtleneck, and the small amount of flowered white underwear sticking up out of her tights.

The mask was nearly done for by the time she got it home after school. By that time, wracked with guilt and feelings of ineptitude, I was all for chucking the whole thing and heading for the Big K. But Saadia, go figure, was attached. “I wanna be a kitty, Mom!” she wailed. So we ran for more black paint and dabbed it on, using a blow dryer to dry it out before dark. And out we went.

I hadn’t been trick or treating since I was a little girl, and frankly, that was fine by me. But I knew good parents delighted in these adventures. So I made plans to meet a friend and her toddler over in their more residential neighborhood, the trick-or-treating nirvana. (Think so many shouting, crying, giggling, loud children that you had to wait in line to go up the steps to every house on the street.) We knocked at her door. And who opened it up but two perfectly dressed black cats!

And these were no Big K specials. Mother and son looked exquisite. And surprise, surprise, no plastic milk jugs were involved. The little boy was looking adoringly at his cool mom. My daughter on the other hand was looking daggers at me. I imagined she was plotting how she could overthrow my parenting regime. “Okay, let’s go!” I said, hoping to escape the death blow. We trooped next door. “Trick or Treat!!!” our two children called out. And then I heard it. “And what are you, dearie, a pig?”

I think it might have been at that moment that I lowered my parenting aspirations. No one could tell the difference, I’m quite sure. After all, I had never had a perfect parenting moment in our three months together, glowing feelings about craft projects involving milk jugs aside. But right then, something shifted. Perfection? Forget it. I decided merely adequate would probably do the job.

Take two. The next year, Saadia wore ridiculously expensive cowboy boots brought back from the Southwest as a souvenir by her foster parents that fit her feet for about three weeks. And we headed to my girlfriend’s house — we had miraculously survived those first few months of adoption hell. There I made the neighbors martinis, toasted the good weather, and hung out on the porch handing out candy while Claudia took out the kids. No more trick-or-treating for me. It would become an annual tradition.

Yesterday Saadia and I had the ok- I’ve- finally- decided- what- I’m- going- to- be- for- Halloween- can- you- make- it- happen-Mom conversation. And as she talked, I had to wonder what Saadia thought about that first Halloween. I steered the conversation toward Halloween pasts. Only after thinking pretty hard did either of us remember that cowgirl costume. But Saadia still recalled our first year together perfectly. “Remember Mommy?” she said excitedly, “In kindergarten, I was a pig….”