Once upon a time, during that period in our country when we no longer rode horses to the general store but apple was just a fruit, I was a 10-year-old girl who dreamed of being a witch for Halloween. I wanted to be Glinda the Good Witch, swathed in pink taffeta and glitter.
My mother, of local beehive fame, would have rather had her head shaved than sew costumes for her kids. Off we went to Hills Department Store. And there she was, my immediate future: Popeye’s nemesis, the Sea Hag of the Seven Seas.
“You wanted pink,” Mom chirped, pointing to the fake fuchsia babushka framing the Hag’s plastic green face, which was so wide and long the eye holes were in her mouth, just inches from the hairs sprouting from her chin warts.
Mom strapped the mask on me and clapped her hands together. “Nobody will have this costume.”
She got that right. I was the only Sea Hag in my entire school. There are so many reasons I wish Mom were alive. Today it’s because I’d love to tell her that I just found that 1960s Sea Hag costume on Etsy — for $275.
I don’t remember my other childhood Halloween costumes, but this one is seared into memory because of a humiliation that had nothing to do with my squinting through the open mouth of a green Sea Hag.
On trick-or-treat night, Mom would stand on the sidewalk as I led the delegation of my younger siblings and their friends to the door and yelled, “Trick or treat!” That year Mom, infused with a sense of adventure, walked us down a street we seldom visited. A few houses in, I came face to face with “the neighborhood Barney Fife,” as my mother later described the woman to my father.
The woman peered down at me. “Take off your mask,” she said.
I yanked the enormous chin up over my face and smiled at her.
“You don’t live on this street,” the woman said. “Shame on you.” She slammed the door, and I tried not to cry.
My mother’s face was on fire by the time we huddled together and made our way like a giant caterpillar back down the driveway. She was furious, and embarrassed, and she didn’t feel she could say a word. I seemed to have kicked that habit. So here I am, with a brief tutorial on how to behave as an adult on Halloween night.
Every year, there are those neighbors who tether generosity to residential requirements. I’m not fond of these people. In my single-mother days, a woman two streets over tried to rally all of us to the cause. When I suggested Halloween was for children regardless of where they lived, she sputtered, “You rent.” I was reminded immediately of a male neighbor who once told me I had no right as a renter — squatter, he meant — to vote for school levies because I don’t have to pay the taxes. My children are grown now, and I still vote for school levies, but now I pay the taxes, too. I wish I could tell him how it all evened out.
We live in the largest development built in Cleveland since World War II. Only a handful of children live here, but last Halloween more than 500 kids showed up on our porch. Watching the pilgrimage is part of the fun, as cars pull to the curb and children spill out. Their parents trust our community to be a safe place for their kids, and for a few hours, their kids can believe there are strangers happy to see them.
I can’t ignore that this has not been America’s story in the last three years.
Earlier this month, The Associated Press reported that hundreds of children of families seeking asylum at our border remain separated from their parents, “in detention, shelters or foster care.” More than 200 children have been determined “not eligible for reunification or release,” and that “holes in the system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents.”
You may think it’s unfair to bring up the plight of these children in a column about trick-or-treating. I think it’s unfair to tear away young children from their parents and adopt them out like prize puppies. I suspect most of you agree, but I worry that you don’t even know this is happening. I’m trying to reach you any way I can.
All right. This column is about Halloween. If you are able, buy the good candy, turn on the porch light and welcome other people’s children like they were your own.
We have to start somewhere.
Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.