To a one and a half year old, the entire world is a frontier, perfect for exploration and discovery. Yet at the same time, the world can be a scary place, filled with fantastic monsters and gruesome creatures.
My grandson is a perpetual explorer, searching for the new and the interesting. Every day, he finds a new insect, sees a different bird, discovers a new path into the woods. At first, all large birds were ducks, whether owls or penguins. Now he notices even the smallest bird, points them out and says “bird.” He reserves the term “ducks” for water fowl. He squats to observe beetles scurrying through the autumn leaves, nudges the tightly coiled wooly caterpillar, and pokes at scuttling spiders. He carries around earth worms, putting them down where he can watch them, prodding them to squirm. He laughs at the antics of squirrels. Outdoors is a new and entertaining world.
Inside is still another realm—with locked cupboards, forgotten drawers and secret rooms. The toilet is an interesting device and tearing up toilet paper is extremely satisfying. The whirling clothes in the washing machine are amusing. The dog crate makes a good hiding place (even if Dude is already in it). Crawling under coffee tables is challenging. There are so many places that can be roads for cars—windowsills, chairs, molding, tables. Life is one adventure after another.
Yet on some adventures, one can encounter strange and frightening beasts. At the beginning of the month, the girls next door helped me unpack my Halloween decorations. We set out the bowl of glowing eyeballs, draped shrunken pirate heads over the family room fireplace, and put batteries in three Hallmark toys that sang when one pressed a button. My grandson is familiar with this type of toys. At Easter, I bought a duck that sang “If you’re hippity-hopity” to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it.” It’s still out because my grandson liked it so much. I expected him to enjoy the Halloween ones as well. One was a tree trunk with two small owls that jumped up and down to the tune of “the Addam’s Family” theme song. One was a cauldron of singing frogs. One was a ghost that danced to “I Want Candy.” The first two elicited peals of laughter. My grandson wanted to press the buttons over and over again. The last one made him back away from the whirling specter and cry a soft fearful sound. I turned to place the ghost on a shelf when I heard my grandson scream again—this scream was more piercing, more dire. The younger girl had found a rubber mask in the box and had put it on. She had gone from being the adored older playmate to being a gruesome death head. The mask was a black hood and a gray face with sunken eyes and yellow teeth. No one had ever worn the mask as part of a costume. It had been a prop when I taught Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of Red Death” to reinforce the final scene when the mystery guest is seized and found to be nothing but an empty costume. My grandson ran into my arms, screaming and sobbing. The neighbor removed the mask and he calmed down but he wanted nothing to do with the empty mask. I decided the plastic skulls for the front yard could wait until a day or two before Halloween.
But even more innocuous creatures can be scary. My grandson goes to Circle Time at our town library every Tuesday morning. The Tuesday before Halloween, the group finished early (more about that in another blog). Gleeful, the children ran out of the story room and play with the toys. My grandson went straight to the train table where he immediately commandeered a blue engine and a blue tank car. He carried these around as he checked out the play kitchen and puppet theater area (which the boys seem to think is a nifty tunnel with an opening for spying on the other children, not the backstage to a theater). Suddenly an adult size Pat the Bunny appeared. (We had read the Pat the Bunny zoo book during circle time just minutes ago.) My grandson, marching out of the kitchen area, stopped. First his eyes grew big, then his breathing changed ever so slightly. I squatted down behind him and put my arms around him. I could feel his heart racing. He was familiar with rabbits. This was not a rabbit. This was not a mom or dad or grandma. This was a giant creature walking in the children’s section of the library. He stared at the creature. “See Pat the Bunny,” I whispered. “Should we go see if she has a tail?” He nodded and took my hand. We stay about four feet away and move to where we could see the bunny’s back. “Oh, she has a giant tail.” We observed the tail for a moment. We watched the Bunny standing still. Some of the girls get close and even touch the bunny but one little boy became hysterical. “Let’s go to the train table,” I whispered and my grandson jetted off to the table, away from the bunny. At home we read Pat the Bunny before nap. My grandson nodded his head at the page with the bunny. He touched the fur. Then he closed the book and got Good Night Moon. It had been a long morning.
I waited for Halloween before getting out my glowing skulls and pumpkin lights. Rain was predicted that evening so I almost didn’t bother. We are on a small cul de sac, and our house is a set back (flag lot) so consequently we get just a few Trick or Treaters. But I knew the two families in front of us really enjoyed the decorations last year so I get them out. My grandson found the skulls funny. He laughed and patted them on the head. The pumpkin lights elicited huge smiles and giggles. When the first string of pumpkin lights turned out to be defective, he scolded me as I carted them away. He is delighted to find there are more in the basement. I open a second box of decorations in the garage to see if there was anything else I should put out. When I pull my mechanical ghoul from the box, my grandson’s eyes grow large. Then the creature turned on, turning green and saying in its eerie voice: “Welcome my creatures of the night.” My grandson squealed. Quickly I turned the creature off and set it on top of the box. We get out orange lights and drape them in the bushes.
As we work, I am thinking about the ghoul. Can I help him with this fear? Last year his mother got the best photo of him sitting under that ghoul. I take him inside to the family room and show him that photo. “No,” he said adamantly and pushed my hand and the photo away. I set it back on the shelf. A minute later, he is standing on his tiptoes, looking at the photo. “No,” he said again, shaking his head. Back outside, he disappeared into the garage and I find him, looking at the ghoul. He shook his head again. I take the ghoul and set him on a stake outside. A few feet away, my grandson watches. At first he stayed four or five feet away. Then he moved closer. I turned the voice back on. My grandson watched the ghoul glow, speak and go white. Then he voluntarily moves closer and closer. The ghoul speaks and he stops but does not retreat. By the time dusk falls, my grandson stands in front of the ghoul and screams with laughter. He poses in his Halloween costume in front of the ghoul. We visit the ghoul the next day and it is the last thing I take down on Saturday. Later that day, he goes into the garage to visit the ghoul.
The world is a scary place, even for grown-ups. Sometimes we stick to the familiar because the new takes us out of our comfort zone. We stick to routines because change can be disruptive. We fear the unknown and this causes us stress. We forget to be adventuresome because we are too busy working. Perhaps this is why we become parents and grandparents, good aunts and great uncles. Watching our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews grow up, we remember what we already know. When we remember the journeys we have already taken in life, we can conquer our own inner ghouls.