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California

At Halloween, keeping a neighborhood tradition after the nest is empty

Halloween traditions

For Halloween, Mathew Nisenbaum is the “Ghostbusters” Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

 

(Susan Hoffman / Huntington Beach Independent)

I gripe a lot about life in suburbs these days. It’s too hot, too boring, too far from everything and too expensive to maintain. But Halloween, like a thumb on the scale, tilts me away from regrets.

The run-up, the rituals and the hordes of exuberant kids — from toddlers to teenagers — leave me grateful for the comforts of a neighborhood where the faces may change but the celebrating stays the same.

I almost passed on the holiday this year.

I had been sick all week and wasn’t up to scouring the stores for candy bargains or digging around in the garage for our dusty bin of decorations. There were no children around to nag me about carving pumpkins or steady the ladder while I hung a witch from the eaves or argue over the proper way to drape the porch with gauzy spider webs.

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My oldest daughter was celebrating quietly in Oakland. My youngest, in San Francisco, is still scarred by last year’s revelry — when a costume mishap landed her boyfriend in urgent care and left her smeared with blood. And my middle daughter was busy assembling her 1980s party costume, which required a frantic dash to the thrift store when she realized that her fashion-forward mother doesn’t own a fanny pack anymore.

But on Halloween morning, there I was, hunting for fresh batteries to replace corroded ones so our welcome mat could issue its blood-curdling scream and our skeleton’s motion sensor could set it to rattling when trick-or-treaters appeared.

I did it not for my grown kids, but for the two little children who live next door.

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Every year, weeks before the holiday, their dad starts wrapping the house in strings of bright orange lights. They ring their yard with scarecrows, skeletons and black cats.

As far back as those children can remember, our house has been decorated too. In their eyes, it’s less a custom than a rule. So I hauled out my ladder and my tools.

I was putting the finishing touches on my modest display when their friends began assembling in their frontyard. I heard the neighbor girl whisper, part boast, part promise: “That lady next door has the best candy.”

When I turned around, a flock of girls in princess costumes were staring at me.

I dashed inside and surveyed my supply of bite-sized chocolate candies, then hustled to the store to bulk up. I realized I have a reputation to uphold.

I’m no longer the mom walking three little trick-or-treaters door to door. I’m that lady with the endless supply of Skittles and Snickers bars.

::

I have always had a soft spot for Halloween.

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It’s a holiday that runs counter to so much of what we routinely tell our kids: “Don’t talk to strangers.... Candy isn’t good for you.... You’re not leaving the house dressed like that.”

It’s a chance to see our neighborhood as we would like it to be. To leave a bowl of candy unattended on the porch and trust that trick-or-treaters will obey the sign and “Just Take One, Please.” To stop griping and fear-mongering on Nextdoor online forums. To turn off the burglar alarms and forgo the deadbolts.

And it’s a chance to appreciate what our neighborhood has become.

Forget the white-bread image that Northridge had when we moved here almost 30 years ago. Now it’s one of the most diverse communities in Los Angeles County — home to families from all over the world.

I saw a kaleidoscope of cultures, kids and parenting styles in the jumble of trick-or-treaters who made their way to my front door.

There are the kids who grab a fistful of candy and never say thank you. The ones who spend forever staring into the bowl, trying to decide which piece to pick. And the ones who double dip and then apologize; there’s always a sick sibling at home.

There were dads recording every moment with their cellphone cameras. Moms shouting, “Don’t forget to say thank you!” from the sidewalk. And parents whose nervous demeanor let me know those kids wouldn’t get to eat anything until it was inspected at home.

They came in waves for almost three hours: Toddlers out for the first time, parents kneeling beside them. Grade school kids dressed as characters from movies I’ve never seen. Raucous groups of teenagers, jostling for space, arguing over candy bars.

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I turned off the porch light at 9 p.m., but the stragglers kept coming — some from neighborhoods where the streets were not so safe and the bounty not as good.

One group I recognized from years before, in costumes their siblings had worn before them. Dad looped around the cul-de-sac in a battered minivan while mom walked the kids from door to door. I let them choose as many pieces as they wanted.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT


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