“You say no to everything, Mama,” my 8-year-old complained as we thumbed through the costumes at a New York Halloween pop-up store: skeletons, ghouls, killer clowns and the worst, zombies.
“You cannot be a zombie,” I said. “Absolutely not.”
“Why not?” she said, eyeing the ghastly accessories of red makeup, vampire teeth and severed thumbs.
“Did you know that zombies are dead people?” I said to her.
“But they’re funny!” she said, raising her arms in front of her and teetering down the aisle like the Undead.
I pushed her away from the Scream masks toward the animal accessories.
Holding up sparkly black ears, I offer, “Why don’t you be a cat?” which feels like quite a compromise as I’m allergic to the animals and Team Dog all the way. She made a “no” face, which was not unlike her zombie face.
What I really wanted to do was steer her toward the princess aisle, to those bright yellow and pale blue poofy Cinderella and Belle dresses, so she could live in a land of make-believe where the worst thing that could happen was that your stepmother didn’t like you and all you wanted was a prince to save you. It’s true that for the last four years, when I was mired in the glitter, I was not happy that “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” as the book about dispatches from “girly-girl” culture explained; I was not happy that my athletic and outspoken daughter was being acculturated into passive female roles where all you had to do was sit and look pretty and some guy would save you.
But maybe I had no sense of humor then. Or no sense of perspective that the princess phase would pass — the giant boxes of tutus and evening gloves and glass slippers would have to be donated to some other innocent, dewy-eyed girl. Last year we had a brief pit-stop to more politically correct characters, like Mirabella from “Encanto,” who, by chance, looked exactly like my daughter, with olive skin, curly hair and glasses. But Mirabella got buried in the box with Elsa and Anna, with Barbie’s dream house and middle-of-the-night night terror cuddles.
I knew she was too old for princesses but I did not imagine she was up to this.
“I just really, really want to be a zombie,” she begged.
“Not this year,” I said to her. “Not with the war on.”
Even though we are Americans who live in New York City, 6,000 miles away from the Middle East, my husband and I are also Israeli — him by birth, me by citizenship, having lived there for almost a decade. Almost all my husband’s family lives in Israel, as do many of my friends. Everyone we knew was affected by the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel that killed 1,400 and took captive 200. I knew two of the mothers of captives. How could I know women whose children are being held hostage? My husband and I, both progressives in support of a two-state solution, were horrified at the loss of life that a terrorist organization had unleashed upon Israel and Gaza, with a death toll only growing with an ongoing war.
It is hard to parent in these times. With so many dead, injured and kidnapped children.
“It’s being frustrated with my twins’ temper tantrums — and then the overwhelming guilt because at least they are here and alive,” one friend put it on Facebook.
“I saw a poster of some kids who were kidnapped,” my daughter had said before we walked into the Halloween store, referring to the posters of the captives that some were hanging up and others were tearing down. I sighed. In third grade, she was in that liminal stage between sweet and sassy, between innocent and all-knowing. We were trying to shield her from the bulk of the heavyweight world, assuring her that all her relatives were alive and safe; we didn’t tell her that they were not “OK” — but maybe she already sensed that, somehow.
Was that what this new zombie gore phase was all about?
Fairy tales like Grimm’s “give us these ‘what if’ scenarios – what if the most terrible thing that I can imagine happened? – but they give us these scenarios in the safe space of ‘once upon a time,’” Maria Tatar, professor of Germanic folklore and mythology at Harvard University, told the BBC, noting that the stories also show how the hero or heroine come out of it alive — and happily ever after, of course.
As my daughter looked longingly at the bloody angel costume, we both saw something different: I saw terrors of the world — not only in the Middle East, in Ukraine, and close to home with a mass shooting in Maine — but she saw a world of make-believe, where the blood wasn’t real, the dead were still walking, and the ghosts were glow-in-the-dark and not posters of children to mothers I knew.
We parents are lucky. As someone who tried for four years to have our daughter, I know that. I also know that in times of crisis, when I can’t sleep because of the news – which looks less like news and more like Jewish history being undone – I am lucky that I have to wake up early, make breakfast and lunch, get the kid to school, deal with 1,000 emails from that same school, work, pick her up, make dinner and live in that “Groundhog Day” of “Did you go to the bathroom/brush your teeth/ wash your face/get dressed/undressed?” I don’t have as much space to wallow in the war, to mourn, to fundraise, to fight (mostly on social media), to worry about that awful state of the world, because I have to parent, even at a time like this.
“What about this?” my daughter said, pulling a long black hooded dress off the rack. The label read “Spider Vampire,” which was a cross between a Wiccan Wednesday and a brooding ball gown. It was less evocative of death and gore and more a portent of the moody years to come.
I bought the costume, because it’s the best compromise we can come to. We will participate in a ghoulish pagan ritual that celebrates the dead even as I mourn it, we’ll collect copious amounts of candy even though I’m too depressed to eat it, and we’ll walk hand in hand to trick or treat as long as she’ll allow it.