Haunted by Halloween Haberdashery

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When my sixth grade teacher at Pasadena's Mayfield Junior School announced the theme for the 1962 annual Halloween parade, I cringed. The pain in my face was palpable as Mother Concepta etched with orange chalk on the blackboard “A Well-Known Street in Los Angeles.”

The reason for my post-traumatic pumpkin stress was understandable: the year before had been “grocery items” and, all my friends had come to school cleverly dressed as Kellogg’s Rice Krispies or a Snicker’s bar. My best friend Erin even got to dress in a groovy yellow tent dress with boss boots and a Miss America-type banner over her shoulder that read: “Mustard.” What was I? A coffee bean.

My mother, to her credit, was a certifiable genius. She graduated from high school and entered UCLA at age fifteen.  Following college, she proceeded on to Wright Mac Mahon Secretarial School, Beverly Hills’ producer of the finest lightning-speed typists. Throughout my college career, while my roommates pecked away at the library lab, she typed all my research papers. I would hop on the Harbor Freeway with sheets of binder paper on the front seat, and by the time I finished peeling an orange at the kitchen sink, my twelve page assignment was error-free, three-hole punched and resting in a colorful folder.

Her first job was the esteemed position of executive secretary to the president of Lockheed Corporation where, when she married my father, she earned $85 a month to his $65. After giving birth to my brother in 1942 and leaving her employment, she became president of every charitable-organization meeting she attended, den mother of Billy’s Boy Scout troop, and could toss out a cunning centerpiece from dust bunnies gathered off the kitchen floor. But when it came to dressing in costume her first-born daughter—the fetus she had implored the Holy Spirit for nine years and nine hundred novenas to position in her womb—something snapped.

It was all about leotards, tights, tutus, and slippers. And not just the familiar pink Saturday-morning-ballet-class ones. I had selfishly shattered her dream of that possible future as week after week I twirled off-balance in an uptown studio on Huntington Drive in stylish San Marino, until finally I slammed nose-first into the wall so violently that she was forced to heed my pleas for mercy. Undaunted by her protégée’s clumsiness, my ever-resourceful mother thereafter took the prima-apparel she had fantasized I would wear with the Bolshoi to Bryan’s cleaners to have it dyed according to the Halloween hue she had harbored for weeks in her mental costume-blueprint.

The coffee bean concept had no doubt percolated from her daily wake-up cup, and so she continued to brew her plans: brown leotard, brown tights, brown tutu, brown ballet slippers. And the crème de la crème—a sterling silver coffee pot resting atop my head, anchored by the thick, brown, scratchy-ribbon tied torturously under my chin in a bow.

Little sister Barb’s class, meanwhile, enjoyed themes like “Famous Nursery Rhymes,” and so there she was, Polaroid-pictured alongside me, cute as a fairy-tale button in her aproned dress with petticoats, a stuffed animal spider in one hand, curds-and-whey bowl in the other. I stood next to her on Mun and Charlie’s front porch, tummy protruding, breasts budding, armpits wet from having to steady the polished pot. Had mine been the nursery-rhyme grade, I know Mama would have dyed those tights yellow-gold and—sprinkle of pixie dust!—transformed me into Tinkerbell. I vowed then and there never to do this to my own progeny, to frame this photograph as a reminder of a parent’s best laid intentions gone spooky.

There was only one year when Barb didn’t escape embarrassment so easily. I suppose the nuns were trying to tone down the ghoulish tendency when they decided her grade would represent “The Saints.” Her friends were transformed into St. Peter holding a staff and a rock, St. Christopher bedecked in the medals that, much to the sisters’ horror, boys offered to girls that year as tokens of affection—a precursor to the fraternity pin, St. Joan of Arc robed and carrying a cross. My sister, Kay? St. Catherine (my mother’s name) of Laboure (a saint no person had ever heard of) wearing the authentic habit of her order of nuns, the one with the Sally Field, Flying Nun, white, winged hat. She had to spin sideways to get through a doorway. What nerve synapse took the wrong turn in my mother’s head when it came to Halloween haberdashery?

This particular year, it was time once again to imagine the worst, having digested Mother Concepta’s assignment. I was heading down a highway of horror when I went home to deliver the 1962 street-smart costume category.

“Perfect!” Mama exclaimed as she opened the bottom drawer of her dresser to reveal an endless stash of tards and tights. “I’ll get these dyed green for the stem.” Her steel-trap mind had locked within seconds onto “Flower Street.

It was fighting a losing battle to protest. Off to school I went that seething hot October 31, though I longed to rest at home in the shaded garden among my mother’s daisies. If I stood stock still when she backed out of the driveway, would I go unnoticed, camouflaged among the camellias? But as I gazed at my mirrored reflection in the front hall, I knew the answer was no: I couldn’t hope to blend, not anywhere in nature. Head to toe in a kind of sickly, not-quite olive green (the result of a challenging dye job), sans tutu, my stomach stuck out like I’d swallowed a bag of fertilizer and two cases of beer. Atop my head and securely tied with green ribbon under my chin blossomed a monstrous, shocking pink, tissue-paper flower. Escalating from the headdress, this year she had added the embellishment of yet another flower the size of a regulation volleyball tethered to my wrist.

“Why is she wearing that weird color on the bottom?” Kay asked when we picked up our neighbor for the short carpool-ride to school. Her scarred, saintly experience now far behind her, she basked once again in the ordinary, her class-theme this year being “Make-believe.” She sat demurely, not wishing to muss her princess dress or bend her magic wand.

“Because she’s a flower,” my mother patiently explained and gesturing the length of my torso added, “and that’s the stem.”

Janet, our pre-school passenger had just stepped into the car scooping her bewitching cape in after her.

“Hmmph,” she snickered. “Some lumpy stem.”

There was slim chance of my being normal that Halloween.

When the alphabetical parade in my class began there was Cathy Anderson, dressed as a cowgirl to represent “Rodeo Drive,” Steve Barrett, a cool surfer-dude, for “Santa Monica Blvd,” and tall, thin Vickie Carroll manipulating the occasion to show off her newly purchased lime mini-skirt and fab poor-boy top for “Green Street.” Cheater. I sucked in my tummy until I thought I was suffering an attack of appendicitis from the abdominal pain, and felt the hot asphalt burn right through my ballet slippers. Despite my complaints, my mother later congratulated herself on her cleverness.

 “It’s always an advantage to stand out in a crowd.”

I didn’t see her trying to gain the edge by processing in public wearing green stretch from head to toe.

One breaking-free, high-school Halloween—when themes were buried in the graveyard behind me—I paid my forty-nine-year-old mother her final trick-or-treat tribute. I raided her closet and came out dressed like her, topped off with the blue-rinsed, curly wig I had purchased and added for effect. She sat sipping her gin martini, laughing on this of all nights. Clearly she was celebrating having relinquished control of Halloween habiliments, doubtless burned out from the stress of years of crafty costuming.

As an adult, I still carried baggage in this area. I never slipped into dress-up for any costume cocktail party. Once I had children of my own, the inevitable news came home from school: the third grade Halloween parade theme? “Under the Sea.”

It was a bad trip come back to haunt me. I knew immediately that I would hustle my youngest daughter, Kate, into the car and make a beeline to the Disney Store to buy Mermaid Ariel’s outlandishly overpriced flipper. My act of costume consumerism saved her, though a red leotard and tights would have made the perfect lobster.

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