A few days ago, it occurred to me that my daughter, who is 2 and a half, wouldn’t remember Halloween. In the past six months, since her memory has started to form, I have encountered over and over the need to “introduce” her to things she has already experienced — birthday parties, changing seasons — but does not remember. She has no memories of last year, but she will never again forget each holiday or occasion and its trappings. She is already preparing for her best baby friend’s second birthday, even though we have just celebrated his first.
This is a particularly joyful way to approach life, and so I have looked forward for weeks to telling her all about Halloween. I bought her a book version of the classic Charles Schulz film, The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. “Look,” she said to her uncle moments after opening it, “pumpkin book!”
She loves the falling leaves, she loves the idea of picking pumpkins in a pumpkin patch, and she knows that at school there will be a party and a parade. She understands and approves of all of these concepts. She wants to collaborate on preparations.
And so yesterday I floated the most interesting part of Halloween: the costume. Her previous two Halloweens were successful in that we chose costumes for her. At 8 months old, she was Hannibal Lecter. The second time around, she was a vampire. She was the only 20-month-old at her school in a “scary” costume, and she was literally the best vampire I have ever laid eyes on.
“One of the fun things about Halloween is that you get to dress up in something special, called a costume,” I told her gently.
She gave me what is her stock response to everything these days: “Why?”
“Because it’s fun to pretend to be something else, anything you want. Like, I could be a dog for Halloween, or a school bus driver,” I said, hoping to entice her by listing things and people she likes.
“You could be Penny?” she queried slowly, seeming confused. Penny is our dog.
“Sure, if I wanted to,” I said.
Penny is a Chihuahua. “Mommy’s too big for Penny,” she said.
“That is correct.” We moved on to discussing the parade.
Hours later, at bedtime, she asked, “Can we talk one minute?” She does this every night and I have noticed she always uses it to discuss things weighing on her heavily. I waited for the inevitable discussion of an upcoming birthday party or weather event: “Raining outside?” But instead she asked, “I have to be somebody for Halloween?”
“Sure, if you want. Everybody at school will wear a costume, it’s fun,” I said, trying to keep it simple because I was tired and it was already past eight. It’s best not to open up any worm cans this late.
“I can be baby Julius?” she asked, referring to her just-born cousin.
“That would be funny,” I said.
“He can’t walk, I can walk,” she said.
“This is true, it’s time for sleep, you have a lot of time to decide still,” I said, trying to close off the conversation.
“I want to be Zelda in a hat,” she said finally, looking up at the ceiling, pulling her monkey close to her.
“Okay, good night,” I said.
But after I left, I sat down and thought about the enormity of what I was asking her to understand, and I’m still not sure how to explain it. Because all of her questions seemed to be asking the same thing: Why should she want to be something other than what she is, when what she is is barely formed but already marvelous? Why indeed?
Children, studies have shown, form their imaginations before 2 years of age, but many kids don’t really distinguish between “pretend” and reality until much later. We may recognize that a toddler putting her doll to bed is “pretending,” but to her, it’s all work. And I can see, from observing Zelda, that this is true whether or not she knows that her baby is “alive.” (Alive, is, of course, a very complicated concept that I studiously avoid because she doesn’t yet know about its opposite.)
Why should my toddler want to pretend to be something she isn’t? The truth is, she’s given me a clear answer: She doesn’t.
“It’s fun to wear weird clothes sometimes,” I said, and she side-eyed me.
“That’s very funny,” she concurred.
“I’m gonna dress like a spider,” I said.
“Only a tiny spider,” she countered. “I don’t like big spiders.”