October is a stressful month for both my husband Mike and me, as each of us is haunted by profound tragedies that occurred in our lives before we met. It doesn’t get easier with each passing year, and as October creeps into our lives so do our separate legacies of loss. As parents of a 4 ½ -year-old highly creative, imaginative superhero-obsessed son, we have come to indulge more and more each year in the festivities surrounding Halloween.
A magical thing happened this morning. Mike returned home from the gym this morning rather than rushing directly to the office and we met me outside of Michael Alexander’s elementary school. As we waited for the costumed kids and teachers to parade around the storied 109-year-old building, we breathed in the chilly fall air, kissed many times, smiled and gazed into each others’ eyes and enjoyed a rare few moments of life in Manhattan’s coveted West Village. A few stolen moments that generated the same sensation as landing in a tropical paradise for a much-needed escape from the daily drudgery.
I was raised Russian Orthodox, my mother and her parents celebrating a dozen “major” holy days and dozens more secondary holy days to commemorate various events in the lives of prophets, apostles, martyrs, saints and others, all by the Julian calendar. Thankfully, I was not begrudged the feast days of the Gregorian calendar as they pertained to secular life (the Christmas tree going up for Dec. 25 even though the immovable feast took place on Jan. 7 by the Julian calendar). Halloween always was a favorite, as it didn’t involve standing for hours in church, fasting for weeks or being expected to act with reverence and restraint.
My mother indulged my Halloween costume requests, making those that couldn’t be store bought and allowed me to participate in every trapping of suburban life in liberal Western Massachusetts in the 1970s and ‘80s, including bobbing for apples (today’ parents are more afraid of spit-swapping in a communal bowl than they are of a nuclear apocalypse) and collecting candy from strangers while carelessly frolicking in the streets.
For me, Halloween is the opposite of the horror that is built around Christmas, the high feast of capitalism, with all its frenzied shopping and focus on gift exchange. Halloween encourages individual creative expression, allowing children to role play and publicly engage their alter egos and fantasies. Sure, the vast majority of Michael Alexander’s classmates are dressed as generic Frozen princesses and Marvel superheroes, but even from within that mass blur of pop culture there are little details that scream out to reveal each child’s unique identity. Michael Alexander, who already chose Captain America and Thor in 2012 and 2013, this year asked to be Red Hulk. There is no store-bought costume for General Thaddeus E. "Thunderbolt" Ross, but I did find a mask on eBay that arrived quickly from a seller in Hong Kong, and Michael Alexander approved of the rest, even helping to rip Hulk’s pants.
I blissed out watching Michael Alexander and his classmates march with pride, while for a few precious moments they were not being silenced or told to behave. From their collective roar emerged a calm that blanketed Mike and me as we walked away hand-in-hand, not running frantically to the office and an appointment as if being a minute late would destroy all our hard work and reputation.
From our interpretation and appreciation of the modern incarnation of an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead has come new life. October is ending, on the most delightful of days.