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A Halloween Like No Other

With my kids growing up, we're starting new traditions.

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Row of pumpkins with one with angry face on orange background.
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Sitting in the darkness of the cinema at the age of 6 with my mum and my older brother, I was mesmerized by everything about E.T. I wanted to adopt him, and I also wished I could experience Halloween in movie style, the way Elliott’s neighborhood celebrated.

Set against the orange and pink sunset, groups and pairs of costumed children scurried from house to house, filling their bags with candy. In my English village in the 1980s, Halloween meant perhaps carving a pumpkin, and the occasional teenager — never dressed up — at the door, hoping for a treat. One year, we woke the morning after to find we’d been tricked: a squirt of treacle on our front door, its residual stain lingering on the red paint for years. That was pretty much the extent of my early childhood Halloweens.

When I was 11, my mother, my single parent, passed away on Halloween, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Thereafter, Halloween was infused with sadness for me, a reminder of losing the most important person in my life. My mother, a mathematics teacher, had a way of making life an adventure, whether taking a trip to a castle, reading us classics at bedtime, or our backpacking around the world on a shoestring budget each summer. Her loss was monumental for my brother and for me. Even now, my body reacts to the first leaves falling, that first cooler breeze at summer’s end with a feeling of melancholy, as if to say, Halloween is on its way.

I moved to America when I was 24, with my husband and our 20-month-old son Cameron. It was a balmy August day when we touched down at JFK, and began to explore New York City. The shops were already stocking all manner of Halloween costumes and bags of fun-sized candy, plastic pumpkins and light-up ghosts. We moved to suburban New Jersey mid-October, and I asked my new neighbors if trick-or-treating was a thing in my new hometown. Turns out, it was.

My first American Halloween began with a call to my brother to reminisce about our mum, and a delivery of flowers from my husband — who was at work — to let me know he was thinking of me. I dressed up Cameron and he waddled around in his padded fluffy-bear costume, and then took him to the village where costumed children — clowns, animals, Star Wars characters, Thomas the Tank Engine — filled the main street, which was decorated in festive fashion. The children trick-or-treated in the shops, and as twilight approached it was time to trick-or-treat the houses and enjoy their spooky decor.

Cameron went to bed exhausted and happy, his pillowcase of candy stashed away. Halloween stateside really was like in the movies. Just as the kids in E.T. raced around trick-or-treating, so the children roamed our neighborhood, their faces sticky with candy and grinning with excitement. Halloween became a day of two parts for me. I couldn’t ignore the sadness of the day, but I loved the celebration. We added a daughter and another son to our family, and some of their favorite childhood memories, and mine, are from Halloween. Dressing up at school for the parades, the songs, trick-or-treating (especially the Candy Witch, two doors down from us who delighted all by giving out full-sized chocolate bars!), finding the houses with the most impressive lawn decorations, comparing their hauls of candy back at home.

In February 2020, my children’s father — my former husband — passed away suddenly, just as the pandemic was in its early stages, leaving our children, then 21, 18 and 16, and me devastated. In the summer, we decided to have a bench dedicated in his memory at the local reservation, where we all loved to walk our dogs. I emailed back and forth with our representative from the conservancy to arrange a time to meet and choose a location for the bench. When we agreed on the following Saturday, in my fog of grief and the pandemic, it hadn’t occurred me that it would be Oct. 31.

I woke on Halloween 2020 to a message from my daughter, a freshman in college. “Now I understand more than ever why this day is so sad for you. I love you very much.” My sons and I walked out into the woods, and we found the perfect spot for the bench, on a huge rock overlooking a rushing waterfall, a place we had climbed to many times with their dad. That evening, the pandemic kept the trick-or-treaters from our door, and on a Halloween like no other, it was, once again, a day of reflection and loss.

I came across an old photograph this spring. My brother and I, around the ages of 5 and 2, wearing masks — his a monkey and mine a witch — in front of a large pumpkin carved with a smile and triangle eyes. My mum, undoubtedly influenced by her American best friend, and neighbor at the time had shone a little American Halloween magic on us; a moment I was too young to remember. Inspired by nostalgia’s strong pull, I went through pictures of my children’s Halloweens, dressed in their various costumes — a baseball player, a zombie skateboarder, a princess, a vet — and participating in the school parades, baking ghost cookies, showing off their candy.

This year, my children and I will start a new tradition. With my children growing up, Halloween will change once more. While my youngest two will be away in college, my eldest son and I will head out to the bench to spend time in the woods, reflecting and remembering. And later, as the sun sets, I’ll be handing out candy to the neighborhood trick-or-treaters, honoring my children’s very American upbringing.