HOW FEAR CAN TAKE ROOT
STORY BY Heather Kirk-Davidoff ILLUSTRATION BY Lindsey Balbierz
On the Halloween when I was 9 years old, I went trick-or-treating dressed as a black cat, in a black leotard, black sweat pants and a headband with two black paper ears taped to it. My brother, Seth, two years older, trick-or-treated with just his friends for the first time that year. All of them were dressed in robot costumes made from aluminum foil and boxes spray painted silver.
When we both returned home, Seth and I emptied our pillowcases full of candy onto the living room floor. I felt a little glum; Seth’s pile was much bigger than mine. Walking the neighborhood with my mom had slowed me down, I realized. She had to stop and talk with so many of our neighbors.
I remember Seth gloating as he unwrapped a jumbo-sized Tootsie Roll and took a bite. Then his eyes grew wide as he pulled the half-eaten candy out of his mouth. There was a sewing needle buried inside.
The rest of the events of the night are a blur in my memory. I know the police showed up at some point in a squad car with flashing lights. I remember they took the half-eaten Tootsie roll as evidence. I remember my brother looking small and scared as he sat on the couch in our living room answering the same questions over and over. He didn’t remember who gave him the Tootsie Roll. The boys had covered a lot of ground that evening and often didn’t notice the candy that was dropped into their bags before they ran to the next house.
Neither the police nor the Tootsie Roll ever returned to our house. It seemed like whoever had wanted to harm my brother was going to get away with it. For years after that Halloween night, I looked at all of the adults in my neighborhood with some suspicion.
My mother, for her part, was convinced of the culprit’s identity. Some months earlier, she had quarreled with a neighbor who claimed our cat was attacking the birds at her bird¬feeder. In a world where everyone seemed to do their best to get along, this woman stood out in my mother’s mind. Would she actually attempt to avenge those birds by attacking my brother? It seemed plausible enough that my mother never spoke to that neighbor again.
Fast forward 20 years. My family has gathered at a rented house on a lake for vacation. After the kids are in bed, the adults relax on the screened porch. We’re relaxed, trading stories and laughing. Somehow, the Tootsie Roll incident comes up, and we’re able to laugh a bit in hindsight.
Then Seth, laughing, says, “About that night – there’s something I should probably tell you. I actually put that needle in the Tootsie Roll myself. My friends dared me to do it. We just wanted to see what would happen.” He laughs again and looks around the room.
At first, no one laughs. Then we all do. We laugh and laugh until tears are streaming down our faces. In light of Seth’s confession, our fears and suspicions suddenly seem ridiculous. We’re embarrassed at ourselves, but we’re relieved as well. Our old neighborhood wasn’t populated by malicious people, as it turns out. The scariest thing that happened there was just a joke.
Seth’s prank has now become a family legend. I’ve told my kids the story many times, often in response to some story they’ve heard about the dangers of Halloween. There’s nothing to worry about, I tell them. And I mostly believe that. So many of our fears have no basis in fact – they are built on lies and half-truths that grow in authority as they are passed from person to person.
But as my kids have gotten older, the Tootsie Roll episode has become a cautionary tale. It is so easy to provoke people’s fears. It is so easy to become afraid. One indication that someone might want to harm us can under¬mine hundreds of encounters with neighbors who are helpful, friendly and polite.
So go ahead and laugh, I tell my kids. Laugh at how foolish we all are. But never exploit another person’s fears for your own entertainment.*
Heather Kirk-Davidoff is a mom, foster mom, and the Enabling Minister of the Kittamaqundi Community Church in Columbia. She blogs at groundedandrooted.org.