Bothered and Bewildered

This essay aired on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM in October 2007.

It was unseasonably warm that Halloween in 1992, as if August had snuck back for one last joyride. The first flush of trick-or-treaters who climbed up our steps included mature toddlers clutching a parent’s hand and plastic pumpkin treat buckets, eyes so eager for candy given by an otherwise taboo stranger that they could not always manage to say “trick or treat”, but produced a “thank you” when prompted.  Kindergarteners, some brave, some timid, some orbiting their family and friends with the unbridled joy of the night’s magic, delighted in the parade of the costumed revelers.  Fourth and fifth graders, emboldened by their assumed identities and the fair weather, boisterously demanded a preferred brand of candy from my bowl.


And as the night went on and the neighborhood grew dark, the trick-or-treaters became bigger and more intimidating: teenagers out for fun and free candy, the look in their eyes daring me to refuse them, promising the mischief the night could hold.


The most heartbreaking were the teen moms, alone, holding their costumed babies in front of them with their treat bag, lightly exclaiming “Trick or treat!” in voices still carrying a trace of the child they themselves had so recently been, pretending that the candy bar I slipped into their bag was for their infant.  What magic, I wondered, did this night hold for them?


My melancholy turned to bewilderment when a teen father climbed the stairs with his baby girl.  His hard, acne-smattered face squinted from the smoke rising from the cigarette dangling at the corner of his mouth.  He croaked “Trick or treat” gently as he lifted the treat bag and the four-month-old toward me.


The baby girl gazed up at me, pink-cheeked, pure, and perfect, blond hair and blues eyes glowing and twinkling like the moon and stars of that glorious gift of an evening.   And suddenly I found myself horrified by the prospect of her life.  Though I knew that the Snickers bar I placed in her bag would be eaten by her parents, I was overwhelmed by the irrational vision of her choking on caramel, nougat, and peanuts; overwhelmed by the smoke-filled air her tiny, growing body breathed in every day; overwhelmed by the manner her immature parents’ choices would shape her future, shape her psyche.


In recent years we have had a similar parade of trick-or-treaters come to our door each Halloween.  The biggest and most disheartening difference is the ever-growing number of children who come without a costume, sometimes accompanied by weary parents, all too often un-chaperoned.   Two years ago a mature-bodied twelve-year-old came to our door scantily and provocatively clad as a prostitute.  Without thinking I blurted out, “Does your mother know you are dressed like that?”  “Yeah,” she said, motioning her thumb behind her, “she’s right there.”  And last year, for the first time ever, I had costume-less parents in the 35-and-over crowd trick-or-treat for themselves, an act which bothered and bewildered me beyond belief. “Aren’t you the wicked one!” I laugh as I begrudgingly drop candy into their bags.


Teen parents still bring their babies to my door: lone mothers celebrating quietly with their infants, or groups of teens pushing their babies in strollers, laughing loudly in the night, one or two not even bothering to bring their costumed child to the door in their pursuit of candy.


The image of the smoking teen father and his beautiful baby girl so haunted me that Halloween in 1992 that every year since I have on hand a dozen or so jars of baby food so that when a parent brings her baby to the door and says, “Trick or treat,” I look the baby in the eye and say, “Have I got a treat for you!” and drop a jar of sweet potatoes or pears into the bag.  Every young mother’s face lights up at the unexpected inclusion of her precious baby in this celebration, a look filled with the magic of a mother’s love for her child as they share their first Halloween together.


2 Responses to “Bothered and Bewildered”

  1. Gemma Lee Says:

    This has to be my favorite piece. I love it!

  2. Jennifer Delanty Says:

    I’m with Gemma! Sweeter and more satisfying than Halloween candy!

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