On a dark and kind of windy night a woman in fleece pants and an old FFA sweatshirt sat alone in her farm house in the middle of nowhere eating leftover noodle casserole, waiting for little munchkins dressed as goblins and witches to pile out of pickups and knock on her door while the news anchors on the TV told her stories she already knew about the bustling, busy, over-stretched and opportunity filled boomtown where she once went to school and now works.
As the sun disappeared over the clay buttes and the stars popped out one by one, she munched on a bite sized Snicker bar for dessert. Her Halloween costume from the weekend’s festivities still lay in a crumpled heap, a massacre of fuzzy pink flamingo in the corner of her tiny house. Two days later and she was still recovering from the celebration of one of her favorite holidays. Turns out pink flamingos can’t handle five beers and two shots in the matter of three hours.
“Sweet Martha”, the girl thought to herself as she unwrapped another piece of candy. “What happened to the good ‘ol days when coming down from a sugar high and planning your costume around the necessity of a snowsuit were your biggest worries on Halloween?”
She contemplated this for a while, because she could. Because no little Lady Gagas were knocking on her door and her husband had left her here for a week alone to her own dinner plans…and she was already failing. It was day one and she had resorted to leftovers and candy. Yes, she had time to herself. Time that, in another life, would have been spent planning her Pippi Longstocking outfit with her best friend up the hill who would be putting the finishing touches on her picnic table costume. They would have been loading up in the pickup with their little sisters in turtlenecks and scarves shoved into witch’s capes and stuffed garbage bags that looked like pumpkins. Twenty years ago she would have been visiting the neighbors who lived within a fifteen mile radius of her little house in the coulee. Twenty years ago she would have been thrilled to curl her tongue into three loops, or throw her body into a cartwheel, or recite a poem about a goblin with the Picnic Table for their neighbor down the highway. “A trick for a treat,” she would say as she clapped her hands together.
Twenty years ago she would have performed. She would have thought this out. They would have expected it, the girl and her Picnic Table friend. Because the stakes were high out here surrounded by gravel roads, trees windswept and bare, dark, starry skies and howling coyotes. It was Halloween for the love of Butterfinger! Halloween in the country and, well, twenty years ago those girls didn’t mess around.
No, it didn’t matter that there were only five stops, only five houses to visit on Halloween night. That was of no concern. The girls didn’t know about sidewalks and knocking on doors and running wild through neighborhoods. The ribbon of pink road, the miles of fence posts, the grazing cattle, that was their neighborhood…and it would take them days to walk it (especially in her dad’s oversized boots and with all that silverware stuck to the giant cardboard box her friend was wearing.) So their dads would drive them down the road to farmhouses lit up with lanterns and pumpkins with faces. Houses that smelled like dinner on the stove when they drove in the yard. Houses where their friends lived. The same friends who rode the bus with them for an hour every day to get to school.
Yes, twenty years ago those best friends lived for this holiday–the planning, the creativity, the stories and piling into the warm ranch pickup with their squishy little sisters, caramel apples, mom dressed as witches, dads dressed as monsters and, well, the treats…
Ah, the treats. The woman in fleece pants opened a box of Nerds and closed her eyes…
First stop was the neighbors to the south who would have a bowl on their kitchen table filled with pre-packaged goodies for all of the girls: stickers, small games, skittles, candy corn, chocolate shaped as pumpkins and, on your way out grab a scotcharoo why don’t you.
Second stop a half a mile down the road: homemade popcorn balls in orange and green. Glow sticks, apple cider, and a PayDay for the road.
Third stop on the highway: Time to perform. A trick for a treat and a long visit with a retired teacher who loved them and gave them pencils and made them hot Tang and sugar cookies. And they loved her too…and knew better than to say anything about the prunes she placed in the middle of those sugar cookies.
Back to the gravel to finish off the night with caramel apples and a handful or two from the bowls at the doors and then on to the Picnic Table’s house to dump out pillowcases full of treats and trade and sort and count.
The woman tilted her head back to finish off the Nerds and then got up off of the chair to take a peek outside.
“There will be no puffy gremlin visitors tonight,” she said quietly to herself.
Because times were different. Twenty years ago this landscape she lived on was dotted with young families working to make a living out on family farms thirty miles from town. Twenty years ago the country school was still open and playing host to Halloween parties with green punch, piñatas and those to-die-for popcorn balls.
Twenty years ago the woman in fleece pants wanted to be Pippi Longstocking…
But somewhere in those years, between eight years old and twenty-eight, people got older and moved to town and no more babies were brought home to those farmsteads that smelled like dinner when you drove into the yard. Moms who once dressed as witches became grammas to babies in other states and the hair on the young dad’s head grew gray or fell out.
And there was a time in there, it occurred to her, that perhaps her dad thought all was lost. When the last of his daughters packed her pumpkin costume away in the toy chest in her old room only to pull out of the driveway to get on with growing up, that he may have believed that he and those five neighbors may be the last to make it out on this landscape where the coyotes howl and the moon is bright.
There was a time like that for him, when there were no picnic tables or Pippis to drive around and the knocks on the doors on Halloween went from ten to five to none…
But she was back. Here she was. And so was her picnic table friend. And their other friends who once walked the sidewalks in town as kids were now holding the hands of their own children on Halloween. Here they all were, back home because it seemed, the times were changing.
The woman saw it first hand after a day of work in town, she understood that the nostalgia came from the stop she made in the local department store on her way home to help her momma hand out candy to kids trick-or-treating in town. She needed to get a taste of the magic she was missing as a childless adult on this holiday, so she stood by the door unsure of what to expect from the children in her once sleepy hometown that had come to life in the midst of an oil boom.
And what she saw was bowl after bowl of candy diminishing before her eyes as a stream of princesses and Spider Men and bumblebees and pirates paraded through the doors, smiled and opened their treat bags hour after hour. She had never seen so many adorable, sparkly, smiling children out and about at one time. Her friend’s children were dressed as army men and Buzz Lightyear, her nephew as a lion, children she worked with in 4-H were witches, children of families she had never met before wandered in all dressed up and excited…all adorable, all doing what children should be doing on Halloween, all here, in Western North Dakota, on Main Street Watford City laying roots for their futures, making memories here in the woman’s hometown.
So, on a dark and sort of windy night a woman in fleece pants and an old FFA sweatshirt sat in her house reminiscing about a childhood full of Halloweens on a landscape that was dotted with friends and neighbors and black cows. She remembered this. And then remembered a time when she wanted nothing more to be back in that place…and a time when she thought it might never be possible.
So although that woman knew that she wouldn’t hear a knock on the door of her little farmhouse from a witch or a gremlin or a picnic table tonight, she smiled as she popped another Snickers into her mouth knowing that out there her community was changing. New goblins and firemen and zombies were walking the streets of her hometown, finding themselves bonding over skittles and costume ideas. And for one night those children in sequins and cardboard boxes and masks spoke louder than all of the truck traffic, worries, gossip and news stories that move and swell along a Main Street that is changing every day in a town that is pushed to its limits.
Yes, there, on Halloween, on the scariest night of the year, were the children– building strength, camaraderie and hope.
Hope that there is an opportunity for people to make it again, to really build something, to make it possible again for children to grow up in the hills among the hay bales, to eat a neighbor’s popcorn ball, to sit and sip hot cider, to perform a trick for a treat..
To live a good life.
To have a Happy Halloween.
Whether on sidewalks or better yet, country roads.