It’s Halloween night. On my dash to the store to pick up bags of Kit-Kats and Dum Dums, I saw Princess Leia, Episode 4, out having a smoke on the front porch, which made me cackle with glee. As I jump up and answer the knocks from the costumed, wee, sugar-amped scamps running up to my doorstep, I am thinking, of course, of my own childhood Halloween lore– falling into a cactus while dressed as Casper the Ghost, toting a daisy-embroidered pillowcase as a trick-or-treat bag, sorting the crinkly loot in the middle of the bedspread, sinking into a queasy, luscious candy coma. (I’m also thinking of Rick Moody’s Demonology, whose title story knocks my socks off every time I read it.) But I also find myself, more and more — in this moment and beyond — thinking of the parents.
Those parents. Look at them out there, hovering in the darkness of curb, waving and smiling their thanks as their robots and Spider-Men and princesses and teary-eyed vampires pluck chocolates from the bowl. I wonder: what was their day like? Are they exhausted from work, from their co-worker’s malarkey or the 40-minute commute? What days led to this day? What came before? Are they holding it together? What’s going on out there in the dim light of the crescent moon?
The truth be told, I am thinking of my parents.
October is the month of my father’s death — as of yesterday, he has been gone 16 years, a timespan that I can barely fathom. I was 24 then. I am 40 now. (A whole teenage life has lapsed — she’s got her license now, and a gleam in her eye.) I am not that young woman anymore. I have grown into a new self — grayer, heavily lined, puffier in strange places, but happier, somewhat wiser, changed in ways that I could never have predicted. I can’t help but wonder: What self awaited him? Who else would he have become? His former self, the life he lived before my entrance, is unknowable. What remains is old yearbooks and file-cabinet documents and photographs of people I never knew.
But who am I kidding? Wouldn’t he still have been unknowable? Wasn’t he allowed his private self, his secrets? Aren’t we all?
(Good grief. Why can’t I ever just write about candy?)
My mother turns 68 tomorrow. She is healthy and exuberant, and she travels at a dizzying clip; TW and I are the homebodies. She lives across the continent from me, in the desert state where I spent 28 of the first 34 years of my life. She packs a shotgun and wears flip-flops in winter. I last saw her face in June, and I will see her again in December. Two times a year: it’s not enough.
Of late, I have been carrying a certain image in my mind, one of those that Joan Didion says “shimmer around the edges.” It is this: My mother, who was about the age that I am now, sits on the front steps of our small, northern Arizona home, whose only illustrious feature is its backdrop: the astonishing red sandstone rocks, the caves where bats flew out at dusk. I am a teenager, and I come home to find my mother there on the steps, sobbing her eyes out. My mother rarely cried, not like that, and not on the front steps next to the ice plant, under the spindly shade of the mesquite, in full view of the street. I don’t know where my father was. I don’t remember what she told me; she probably waved it off as nothing, just a bad day, and maybe that’s all it was. So why does it haunt me?
I am not sure, but I wonder if it isn’t because that day I started the process of recognizing that my mother, a title assigned to her by virtue of my existence, was also this whole other woman, one chock-full of mysteries and secrets and lies and worlds to which I had no access. My mother, well, she wasn’t mine. What tugs at me here is this: there is a very good chance that she was crying that day about where she found herself. I say this not as a selfish child but as a woman of the same age, who has at times found herself unexpectedly sobbing in public spaces, full of longing and grief and regret.
On this night of display and ritual, I am tender and nostalgic, longing not to be a child again but instead to peer at the mysterious lives of those people, my parents. I traipse up their street and I look in their lighted windows. I catch glimpses of the selves that I knew: they curl up in the corner of the couch with a paperback, hunch under the hood of a car in the garage, smooth the hair of their candy-fueled children. I press myself closer to the glass, straining to see the selves that I do not and cannot know: the people they once were, the ones they hoped to be and couldn’t, the ghosts who follow us all.