Less than a month after we adopted our daughter from a Siberian region of Russia, we took Eugenia to the inevitable autumn destination of families with small children – the Pumpkin Patch. Almost four years old, but just 29 pounds at the time, she looked around, wide-eyed, unsmiling, trying to take it all in. She finally dug her yellow rubber-booted heels into the mud, screaming when we attempted to load her and her two baby brothers onto the tractor-driven, open-bed hayride. We lifted her down from the prickly bales, comforted her, and waved to our neighbor and his little girl, continuing on the ride. Eugenia didn’t even know enough English yet for us to explain to her what the big, scary machine was. It was another year before we tried that again.
Later that month, I weighed the potential landmines of the upcoming holiday. My husband and I decided not to take the kids trick-or-treating (the boys were barely a year old and didn’t know the difference, and it was just too soon to try it with our new daughter), yet we did want to dress the children up and take them to visit a friend in the hospital, hand out candy at the door. But how to dress Genia? When I’d first visited her at the Russian orphanage, I had taken a couple of Barbie princesses, which she adored. Now that she was finally home with us, a princess costume seemed a safe bet. I bought a dress that was silvery blue, with shimmery lace. Eugenia stared as I slipped it over her tiny shoulders.
“Te krasevaya!” I told her. You’re beautiful. The flat little line of her mouth turned up at both corners. The princess dress was a hit.
So much so that Eugenia insisted on being a princess for Halloween again the following year. And the next. And the next. After the blue dress came a pink one, and after that…I can’t remember. It’s a blur of beads and boas, tiaras and long trains. I smiled and called her “my Russian princess.” She always looked, she always is, kraseva. I was proud. But I was also perplexed. I extolled her beauty — she clearly longed for me to. But I also told her how smart she was; how loving, how kind. I didn’t want her to think of herself one-dimensionally. How long would this obsession with perfection last, anyway?
A few weeks ago, I was driving to the store when Eugenia piped up from the back seat: “Do you know what I want to be for Halloween this year, Mama?”
“I want to be a witch!”
I grinned, trying to keep my enthusiasm in check. I didn’t want to look too eager, to jinx things.
“I think that’s a great idea, honey. You’ll make a fine witch!”
Part of my delight came from the fact that, during my years as a religious conservative, I’d been warned away from anything remotely Halloweeny, witchy, or dark. I’d been to churches that held Harvest Festivals – basically, Halloween parties neutered, stripped of witches, ghouls, goblins, and such – mostly done in the spirit of witnessing to the community about what a good, clean All Hallows Eve could look like. Sugarcoated by more than gooey caramels.
The problem was, I hated having to be good all the time. That is, I hated having to appear good all the time; constantly being good wasn’t even an option. Here is my confession: I rather like the darkness. Which is not to say I like badness. Above all other virtues, I value kindness, generosity, compassion, peacemaking, and forgiveness. But richness also lurks in anger and grief, in loneliness and heartbreak. Selfishness and a controlling nature undoubtedly make me harder to love; but it’s in these very places that hard truths about what I fear, about what makes me unique, reside. To deny them is to deny myself, to deny the very experience of being human. As Jung said: “There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
Sometimes when we’re out with the children, I’ll beg my photographer husband to take photos of the kids. He usually will, but if it’s mid-day, with the sun directly overhead, he’ll shake his head.
“This light is terrible,” he’ll say. When the light is too direct, he says, parts of the photograph turn out too bright; the portions in the shadows, too dark. It turns out that side shadows and side-lit scenes are far more interesting, have more dimension. More beauty.
The day Eugenia and I bought her witch dress, black hat, green make-up and warty costume nose, she announced to the cashier: “I’m going to be a wicked witch!” Then she thought about it a moment. “No,” she reconsidered. “I’m going to be a good witch.”
Luckily, it isn’t either/or. She’ll be both in her lifetime, just like me, just like everyone else. Dark and light. Sinful and holy. The trick is in learning to love her –and myself –equally, whichever the incarnation. Witch and princess. Both krasevaya. Both something to celebrate.