Friday, October 30, 2015

Ghosts and Citronella Candles - A Parenting Lesson from My Father


When I was in the second grade, Halloween fell on a Saturday which meant that as a family, we could escape the city for the weekend for our cottage in Westhampton Beach. The best part of this was trick-or-treating with my best friends who lived next door. After that, we went to a party at the elementary school complete with apple bobbing, hanging marshmallows, and a terrifying haunted house courtesy of those larger than life sixth graders. My neighbors dressed as bunnies. I dressed as a bumble bee. Another friend was a “ballerina fairy.” Such was the simplicity of little girl costumes.

That was the last Halloween I spent with my father. He died that winter. I still remember his walking with my friends’ mother, keeping a safe distance and a close eye on the little girls collecting their pennies (yes, pennies), candy corn and pop corn balls at each neighbor’s house.

The ballerina fairy, who had been left in the care of my parents for the weekend, refused to wear a jacket over her costume. A litigator, my father knew better than to negotiate with a child. Without raising his voice, “Claire. Just. Put. The jacket. On.” Then he walked away. She hurumphed but put the jacket on. For some reason, this is one of my most vivid memories of his “parenting style.” It’s probably because I struggle with it. Perhaps I’d say, “Claire, the temperature is falling, put your coat on, please.” I would open the door for the inevitable, “I’m not cold.”

Jack Lowe parenting lesson #1 — Don’t open the door for discussion. We don’t negotiate about coats with seven-year-olds.
Even years later, when something just had to be done (say snow boots with that Betsey Johnson miniskirt in high school), those of us who watched Claire’s coat battle would say, “Claire. Just. Put. The Jacket. On,” and dissolve into giggles.

Even then, I knew there were ghosts everywhere. Many houses on the street were already closed up for winter, haunted with the summer before, suspended in time until the days grew longer and the owners returned for another season. Ghosts hid in the unraked leaves crunching under our sneakers, in the tunnel underneath the giant rhododendron in the front yard, in the little red shed with the spider web covered windows out back. What I didn’t understand were that the ghosts, figments of my imagination, would persist and co-exist in my life as memory and dreams. When they used to hold just enough power for me to fear them, now they hold the power to ground me. They come when I least expect them, but most need them. Halloween holds magic for children — it’s different than other holidays because they invent it for themselves as they dress-up and decorate homes. They are the characters, not some abstraction in a red suit. This year, my own daughter will dress up as Laura Ingalls Wilder. She’s been waiting for this for weeks. Our yard has a “friendly” ghost hanging from a tree that has the effect of scaring me every time I see it out of the corner of my eye.

This morning, as I went to wake six-year-old Ellie, the smell of her citronella shampoo took me back to that house. My mother lit the evenings eating on the porch with yellow citronella candles in metal buckets. I remember that Halloween and can only hope that she’ll remember this one some day. That smell is the ghost of that house and those days, just back for a brief visit. Happy Halloween!


  1. Wow, I think it's been years since I've smelled a citronella candle, but boy does that scent come back quickly and bring a lot of memories with it - mostly at my grandparent's house in Northern Michigan in the summer. Great lesson from your dad, too.

    Found your blog via your essay in Mutha Magazine - congratulations on your new baby!

  2. Cat,
    Thanks for your kind words and comments. Citronella is the smell of summer nights. KT