These days it creeps up on me like an ache — the occasional pumpkin in a front yard, the synthetic cobwebs in trees, the subtle turn in the weather and, yes, there’s that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the hollowness of those dreams in which you’re lost in a white tunnel, with nowhere to go but forward, though you know that every step will take you farther away from home.
I know why Lot’s wife looked back.
From early September, the discussions begin. What am I going to be this year, and when are you doing to decorate the house, and do we have enough candy for the trick-or-treaters, and why don’t you dress up as well — my friend’s mom wears a costume every year and my teacher painted her feet green. Throughout October, negotiations revolve around which stores we’re going to shop at and how many trips we’re going to make and how many hours in total we’ll spend looking for “the same as last year, but different.” My older son is a ninja redux, the younger one wants to dress up as a cowboy, even when it’s not Halloween. My daughter, who likes fine clothes and red lipstick, has been a ballerina three years in a row and wants to be a ballerina again, “only not the same kind of ballerina,” she says, and the boys join in the chorus, “and not a ballerina that has to wear a sweater if it’s cold.” Ninjas and cowboys, needless to say, don’t wear sweaters either.
Our neighbors are mostly young families with small children. The house directly across from ours is one of those haunted mansions that spits out fog and echoes of laughter, with the shadows of headless corpses popping out of open coffins every 60 seconds. The owners have the whole decorating thing down to an art, so they don’t have to start until the weekend before the big day, but the rest of us, bumbling pumpkin carvers and clumsy spider-web spinners, get to work in mid-October and are still “perfecting” the set at 5 o’clock on the 31st, when the first few kids with their parents appear at the door. By then, my little cowboy has been dressed and ready for a couple of hours already, and has posted himself, basket of candy in hand, in the foyer. The ballerina is waiting upstairs for her cousin, Cleopatra, to arrive for hair and makeup, and the ninja is setting boundaries for me as to how much of the evening’s spoils I’m allowed to take in the name of tooth decay.
So much of my remembrances of motherhood is traced with guilt — at the mistakes I made thinking I was doing the right thing, the chances I missed because I was focused on the wrong thing, my impatience and arrogance and just plain ignorance. So much of it, too, is condensed into a cluster of midnight feedings and birthday parties, school trips and beach outings and, “Alex, stop working and go to bed”; “Kevin do your homework and go to bed,” seven nights a week. Amid it all, those early Halloween memories sparkle — bright, fleeting, untainted, brimming with anticipation, rife with possibility.
When did I last put my children to bed with the makeup still on their faces and the candy tucked under their beds? Close the door behind the last trick-or-treater? See the back of that young woman with the long, pale hair and giant angel’s wings? The zombie impaled with a sword and still walking?
The next morning, the street is strangely quiet. The cobwebs have been cleared from the trees, and the doorbells no longer howl. The haunted mansion has been sold to a less theatrical family, and the basket full of candy remains, untouched, by the front door. The kids have grown up and left home. Oct. 31 is just another day on the calendar.
It’s not that I have nothing else to do with my time, now that the obligatory visits to the pumpkin patch have stopped. It’s not that I have no identity outside of being a mother. On any given day. I’m a good few months behind on a whole lot of work-related projects, my domestic talents still waiting to be discovered. I can attend to neglected friendships and an ailing social life, spend more time with my parents, travel again with only my husband to places that are not necessarily child-friendly. But even with all that, I feel like a typewriter in the age of Siri: still operational, but functionally obsolete.
I think that’s why Lot’s wife looked back: to see her daughters one last time and, through them, the part of herself she most liked.
I do have other things to do with my time, yes. I just can’t think of anything better to do on those October mornings when I drive by the little preschool on my way to the gym and see tall those little fairies and wizards march, single file and effervescent with joy and pixie dust, before their adoring, admiring parents.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.