I remember my earliest night terrors: dreams about witches and cauldrons, no doubt informed by my lifelong fear of “The Wizard of Oz.” I’ve always been a sensitive, anxious soul. And because I have such a vivid imagination, I can’t consume anything legitimately scary: no murder-mystery podcasts or “Dateline” episodes, friends. “Absolute zero,” as my 4-year-old would say.
Most spooky childhood memories involve darkness — that great unknown plaguing us all. My mom has always left for work before sunrise, and I used to wake up early to see her off. As a little kid, I’d creep downstairs and wait as she gathered her coat and keys, giving her a hug before she slid out into the cold. “Where do you go in the night?” I’d ask her, which — as a working mom myself — must have felt about as good to hear as an off-tune violin solo cranked up to 100.
Everything was fine while Mom was there . . . but that lasted 30 seconds, until the click of the door echoed and I was standing at the foot of the steps on my own. Oh, the things I imagined peering at me from the stillness of the kitchen. Monsters, of course. Ghosts. Bats. Rabid animals.
And the witch. Who else but the Wicked Witch of the West? In my imagination, she was always snaking a few green fingers around the corner wall leading from our living room, making her way over to me in the darkness. The witch would be hunched and deliberate, but gained speed when she got a glimpse of her vulnerable prey.
I ran up the stairs like my hair was on fire.
All kids do this, I’m sure. The world is a big, unknowable, confusing place. So many of the things that scared me could be easily explained away, but I’m not the type to take explanations at face value. My parents are comforting and practical people. When I cried about a witch or monster, I’m sure I got the standard “there’s no such thing” response . . . which may have placated me in the moment, but always left questions.
Oliver is reaching this age where imagination and uncertainty collide. Like his mother, he loves a good story and has the ability to easily talk himself into a frenzy. He’s woken up calling out many nights (heck, most nights), though typically not because he’s scared — just thirsty, bored, hungry.
On Monday, though, my husband and I heard the persistent cries of a kid who wasn’t trying to get attention . . . just connection. Spencer went in and talked to him around 2 a.m. I heard his soothing voice myself and fell back asleep.
Minutes later, Ollie was at it again. Spence padded back over. This time I cracked an eyeball, asking my husband what the deal was when he returned.
“He said he heard a wolf howl,” Spence whispered. “He thinks there’s a wolf in the house.”
Hmm. That was a new one.
It’s funny how kids’ minds work. To my knowledge, the only “wolves” he’s been exposed to lately were the friendly characters at Great Wolf Lodge — hardly scary, though apparently they made an impression. And the occasional sound of a wolf howl in the water park signals that waves are starting up in the big pool. Ollie can’t yet swim, so we kept cautioning him to be careful.
We thought he’d gone back to sleep, but I should have known better. We soon heard a loud thud as Ollie ran from his bedroom to ours with his night-light giraffe, dropping it in the process. The crash scared him (and us) enough that we were all wide awake, listening in the dark.
I understood his feelings, given my own long history of fearing what goes bump in the night. I pulled him close and whispered every consoling thing I could think of — rational things, like how wolves can’t turn doorknobs and wouldn’t have any interest in watching “PAW Patrol,” so they’re better off in the woods. Mom and Dad lock all the doors, and our neighbor is even a police officer (you know, in case that’s also a wolf deterrent). Anything in my playbook.
It was little comfort to an imaginative and analytical 4-year-old, but it calmed him enough to get us through until morning.
Getting ready for the day hours later, Spencer tapped something on the fridge. I walked over and saw the 2019 motivational calendar with November’s image folded back: a “fearless” wolf, inviting you to “always do the things you’re afraid to do” (um, OK. Inspiring, thanks!).
I’d deliberately folded the calendar in half this month, only showing the grid lines so I can help the kids follow along on the days of the week. Oliver had apparently noticed and been flipping through it the night before.
My next stunt is one I’ve pulled before: telling Ollie I’ve posted a sign that “no wolves are allowed,” similar to the scary leprechaun deterrent earlier this year. The thought was obviously comforting to him.
What can I say? He’s his mother’s son — a true believer in the power of words.
And during a full moon, you know . . . it doesn’t hurt.