A good three years before I became a mother, I purchased a book at an airport bookstore somewhere that stuck with me over the years more than so many other any other airport-purchased book. It was Marjorie Williams' The Woman at the Washington Zoo.
The bulk of this book is brilliant -- it is one part political profiles (Bill Clinton, Barbara Bush, etc), one part essays, and one part memoir -- but it is one essay in particular that has haunted me all these years. Like I said, it was three years before becoming a mother myself, and a good seven years before I'd be diagnosed with cancer myself, that I first read this book. And yet it was an essay Marjorie wrote about parenting her then-eleven-year-old daughter on her last Halloween before she (Marjorie) succumbed to cancer.
The essay is called The Halloween of My Dreams.
I was the one who insisted on the body glitter. Normally, you understand, I am a mother who pulls her daughter's shirt down and tucks it into her waistband every morning to keep her from showing her navel to the whole third grade. I make her scrub the supposedly water-soluble unicorn tattoos off her cheeks before she goes to school. I court her wrath by refusing to buy the kids' fashions that seem designed to clothe tiny hookers.
[...] So how could I explain the euphoria of the 45 minutes Alice and I spent in her bedroom, colluding over her hair, giggling at her faux-leather, deeply fringed bell-bottoms? The pleasure of watching her strap on those awful silver platform shoes, like something I wore in 1973?
[...] We could hear her friends pull up to the curb. As her momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, Alice looked back and tossed me a radiant smile. She had become my glimmering girl: She looked like a rock star. She looked like a teenager. She looked absolutely stunning. She thundered down the stairs in those shoes, and as the front door slammed behind her, it came to me -- what fantasy I had finally, easily entered this Halloween.
I'd just seen Alice leave for her prom, or her first real date. I'd cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I'd played was the 52-year-old mother I will probably never be.
Timothy Noah, Marjorie's husband wrote that one month after writing this essay in November 2004, her oncologist told her there was nothing more they could do to fight her cancer. She died in January 2005.
You can read The Halloween of My Dreams in its entirety in the Washington Post here.
Ever since reading this essay, I've believed in another kind of Halloween magic, the one Marjorie was able to glimpse that day: A sort of wrinkle in the fabric of time when children get to age before our eyes and show us a little bit of who they will become.
Tonight my little one & I participated in our own budding Halloween tradition: We carved our pumpkins.
It was 7:15p when we started. I noted the time because it was exactly one hour before our new "in bed and reading by 8:15" deadline. I was anxious that this wouldn't be enough time. But it was Halloween Eve. If we didn't carve the pumpkins tonight, when would it -- when could it -- happen?
So I spread a sheet on the floor, got out two big spoons, a bowl, a dish towel, and the pumpkin carving knife. We dug in.
She was thrilled! She plunged her arms into the gaping hole and squished the pumpkin goo between her fingers. Mama, I'm getting gooooood and funky! she declared. She giggled and wiggled and sang little pumpkin carving songs.
She was in a Halloween-inspired heaven.
Next to her, I was in another place.
I was scraping goo and seeds out of my own pumpkin as quickly as possible, sneaking glances at the clock. How did it already get to be 7:45?! As my spoon scraped, scraped, scraped, I was trying not to get pumpkin ick all over my clothes or the floor or Nia's hair. I bit my tongue from saying anything admonishing to her as she danced about, but I thought the thoughts.
And then suddenly, my head filled with a mental image, an image from Marjorie's essay, a Halloween some seven years ago, came floating back to me: That night in Alice's bedroom, a mother helping her daughter get dressed for a Halloween evening out with friends. A mother loosing herself to the moment, even though she didn't care for glitter or even Halloween really. A mother going with it because it thrilled her daughter -- and because she knew she might not have other Halloweens, other moments, like that again.
And so I relaxed. I looked at my daughter and really saw here there, shoulder deep in a pumpkin, clad only in her underwear, asking if it was ok if she got pumpkin seeds on her feet.
I laughed out loud.
What kind of face will your Jack-o-Lantern have?
A scary one! A really, REALLY scary one with lots of teeth!
And then we carved the faces, and went out on the deck (in only her underwear and goose bumps) and lit the candles and it was pure Halloween magic.
I love you, mama, she said, leaning into my leg.
I love you, too, honey.
Thank you for letting me slow down and be here -- be right here -- tonight.