ANOTHER TIME

Raising Quinn meant that November 1st was always just the beginning of costumes. The point of Halloween for her had never been about candy, although she liked it, the point was always to become someone else. A lot of people like dressing up but she retained her costumes or parts of her costumes and wore them into the year. For Quinn almost anything had the potential to become a costume. Once she donned the outfit they were no longer costumes but alter egos. She had many.

Quinn dressed up to turn a chore into an alternate reality. On more than one occasion when I had sent her into the basement to sort the laundry on a Saturday morning I’d discover her dressed in an old dress of mine with her head covered in a scarf, wrapped in a makeshift shawl and kneeling on the cold basement floor, the laundry still unsorted.

“What are you doing?” I would ask wondering why this simple task was taking so long.

“A crust of bread for a poor old washer woman?” she’d plead, as she slowly lifted an article of dirty clothing from one basket to the next. The gesture implied that she didn’t have the strength to carry on.

“Oh for goodness sake,” I’d say. “Just finish up. It’s cold down here.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” she’d croak in an old lady voice. “This is where I live.”

Sitting and reading the Sunday paper you might look up and find her decked out in an outfit that resembled an Italian troubadour, mustache and all. She’d dance a bit and sing old fashioned ditties while twirling a cane and never coming out of character. The character went away when she was good and ready to change.IMG_1336

She’d show up at the dock ready for a swim as Jackie O. complete with glamour glasses, a head scarf and a handbag waiting for the swimmers to look up and notice.

When she was very small she was usually some type of fairy. She wore wings but she rarely flew. She liked to crawl into small places and make them her home: the crawl space, the deck trunk or under a desk. Whenever we traveled and went into a public restroom I could gauge the quality of the bathroom by Quinn’s reaction. If it was nice she would say, “This is our house.”

“That’s your room,” she would say pointing to my stall,“and this is mine.” When we were washing our hands she would add, “This is the kitchen.” If the bathroom was luxurious it was often hard to get her out. She would lounge on one of the couches which represented the living room. I’d have to remind her that Rob and Jackson were waiting for us at the table. When we left the bathroom it instantly ended.

Her characters were never limited to our personal lives but expanded into the larger world. For her ninth birthday all she wanted was an authentic Gryffindor robe. The four of us traveled to Abracadabra on West 21st Street to make the purchase. This in itself isn’t so unusual but Quinn threw away the package before we left the store.

“Oh, you’re not going to wear that?” Jackson protested.

She ignored him and attached the clasp as the long black robe draped over her slight frame and engulfed her. For an added effect she pulled on the hood.

“You’re honestly not going to let her walk around like that,” Jackson said imploringly to Rob and I.

“It is a bit warm,” I suggested.

“Oh what do you care?” Rob asked both of us snapping Quinn’s picture and on we went.

It was a warm September afternoon and she walked the streets and rode the subway as a character from Harry Potter but also looking something like a Druid. It was Manhattan-no one noticed.

Another time she went to Thanksgiving at Rob’s sister’s house dressed as a pilgrim wearing a bonnet, a gray, floor-length dress and a long, white apron. I can only imagine it took some effort to transcend the actual situation and pretend she was in Salem instead of a room full of loud Italians eating lasagna.

As a family we loved to go to Old Sturbridge Village. We liked to stroll the dirt roads through the living museum and talk to the interpreters stationed along the way. We stopped in each building and listened to the actors talk about their day in old New England. The interpreters dress in period costumes and make the 1830’s come alive for the visitor. As interpretive villages go they do a pretty good job. The docents do everything from killing and cooking chickens over an open fire to firing muskets and working as the local tinsmith. Some stay in character and some speak as historians. Tourists snap their picture as they explain the operations of grinding corn in an authentic gristmill or how banks used to function. Visitors often ask the interpreters to pose for a snapshot.

Quinn spent parts of these visits quiet and pensive as she detached herself and imagined living in this village. On one trip she spied a girl’s dress from the era inside the expansive gift shop. I remember it was pretty expensive, so it was going to be a Christmas present. She wore it a lot and liked to trudge across the frozen lake alone with a basket in hand because the conditions were often tough for a young pioneer girl.

The following summer on our now almost annual trip to Old Sturbridge Village, Quinn packed the dress, a prairie bonnet, small handmade basket, a pair of ankle moccasins and her American Girl doll dressed in a similar outfit. In the morning while we were distracted with showers and camera bags she dressed up as Laura Ingalls Wilder or something close to it. She asked me to braid her hair and then gently placed the old fashioned bonnet over her head.

“I am not walking around with her,” Jackson cried as we were getting ready to leave for the museum.

She looked so happy all we could do was tell him to get over it.

“Well don’t walk anywhere near me,” he declared. But after an hour or so she was getting a lot of positive attention and he stopped thinking about it as a bad thing.

At the end of our second day we walked through the covered bridge dodging the horse dung and began the slow shaded climb up from the lake towards the visitors center and gift shop. A woman with two young daughters going in the opposite direction stopped Quinn.

“Can my daughters take a photo with you?”

Quinn had spent the last two days in a sweet dream, living in another era. This woman was validating her authenticity.

“Of course,” she said.

Quinn posed politely framed by a girl on each side of her while their mother said, “Say cheese.”

“Thank you so much, “ the woman gushed. “How long have you been working here?”

“I don’t,” Quinn said.

“Really?” the woman said a little disappointed.

“Sorry,” I jumped in and then added. “But you made her day.”

“Well you fooled me,” she said before thanking us and moving on.

“Do you think she’ll still want the pictures?” Quinn asked as we walked away.

“Absolutely,” I assured her. “She can say anything she wants about those pictures, you’re the real deal.”

Quinn smiled and walked a bit a part from us the rest of the way. There were still a few more minutes left to be of another time. Her family who looked like three clumsy tourists hitching a ride to her wagon shouldn’t ruin it.

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WHO KNOWS WHO’S WHO?

bencooper

Ben Cooper costume illustration

When I was growing up we had a go-to dress up box that was pulled out every time we put on a play or marched in a parade and on Halloween. My mother was a master of making simple original costumes that didn’t come out of a package. She created jewelry-laden gypsies, downtrodden hobos with bandana sacks at the end of their sticks, Paul Revere and Peter Pan, all from scratch.

Me as a gypsy in the 4th grade

Me as a gypsy in the 4th grade

My favorite costume was in second grade when she made me into a Brownie spirit. She sewed brown felt over an old pair of sneakers that drew into a point at the toes and fully dressed me in brown. She topped it off with a refashioned stocking cap.

Our town had at least two costume parades each year and we loved them. During the annual Frontier Days celebration my mother used the thin white cardboard that arrived inside our father’s dry cleaned shirts and made prairie bonnets for me and my sisters and the next door neighbor girls. My brother had a raccoon skin cap and she helped dress the neighbor’s boy as Davy Crocket, an outfit my brother had worn previously. We all wore long skirts with aprons and carried baskets and were the most authentic looking early pioneers marching along the main street. At the end of each parade they held a costume contest and we never won. The children who did win were never better dressed than us so we wrote off our loss to poor judgment. The last parade I walked in I was alone without sisters or neighbors. It was the Fourth of July parade and I went as Lady Justice. My mother fashioned a toga with white sheets and draped a wide ribbon diagonally across my chest with “Justice” written over it. She placed two eye slits through another ribbon for my blindfold then laid a wreath of leaves on my head. I held a sword in one hand and a small scales of justice in the other. She instructed me how to march. The winner of the best costume was a young girl dressed as a bride. The girl’s mother kept apologizing to my mom for the award.

“Your costume is so terrific, I don’t why they chose my daughter. She was a bride… because it was all we had,” the woman said with a nervous laugh.

My mother shrugged it off feeling that everything she did in our town was like casting pearls before swine. It only bothered me.

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Years later when it was time to dress our son for his first trick or treat Halloween, Rob was surprised to learn that I had never heard of Ben Cooper. He talked about Ben Cooper like he was a real person or better yet, a member of the family but I knew the type of costume he meant: the one with a plastic mask held on by an elastic string in the back and a polyester one piece suit that was screen painted to look something like the character you were representing. You stepped into it and held it on with two strings attached at the neck. Ben Cooper always put the face of the mask on the suit. Just in case you don’t recognize my face, I have an extra face painted on my stomach. I was having none of it. As an art teacher I knew there was no excuse; I needed to uphold my mother’s costume tradition.

For my son’s first costume I capitalized on his red hair and made him a leprechaun creating green elf shoes after my mother’s sneaker and felt model. We put gold chocolate coins inside a plastic cauldron for his treat bag representing his pot of gold. When we knocked on the neighbors’ doors he handed them a coin. He was an instant celebrity.

jack as goucho marx

The following year it poured and we skipped trick or treating and went to the local town celebration held inside the high school gymnasium. We hadn’t anticipated that there would be a costume contest yet Jackson won first place overall and received twenty-five dollars for being a wizard. Rob was now fully on board. Whatever I decided I was going to turn Jack and Quinn into, Rob prowled the stores for props to enhance my handmade costumes.jack as penguin_0003

The next year Jackson went as a young King Tut and won first prize again. I didn’t notice all the losers crying in his wake because I had a forty-year-old score to settle. I mean if you want to compete don’t put on a Ben Cooper Costume for goodness sake.

I would laugh it off to friends and strangers alike who complemented the costume as I casually fanned the prize envelope around.

“Oh it’s just a silly competition,” I would say.

It wasn’t the money it was the “First Place” written on the outside of the envelope that I needed.

The next time Jackson went as Rip Van Winkle. He was called old man of the mountain by the teenage judges, but of no consequence since we grabbed the top honor once again. Quinn went as a witch so she was pretty much overlooked in a sea of little witches and being two she didn’t seem terribly fazed by the fact she was never really in contention.jack as goucho marx_0001

The subsequent year I was working during lunch on Jackson’s costume when a colleague stopped in my art room and asked what I was doing. I was painting skeleton bones on black leggings and a sweat shirt with glow in the dark paint.

“Wow, that’s a lot of work,” she said. “I bring my daughter to the store and tell her she can be anything she wants. It takes about fifteen minutes.”

“Ben Cooper?” I asked.

“Or something like it.”

“Well I really like to do this, “ I said continuing to paint bones.

“You must, “ she said.

A few days later she returned and found me sewing the skull part of the costume to the sweat shirt.

“Still at it?” she asked sitting down.

“It does take time,” I said.

“Does Jackson appreciate it?”

“Of course he does,” I said a little too defensively.

“That’s good,” she said. “Because it’s his costume.”

The morning of Halloween as I was applying the white pancake make-up to Jackson’s face before school he started to cry. “I don’t want to wear this on my face,” he exclaimed.

“You have to,” I said. “You won’t look like a skeleton without it.”

“I don’t want to be a skeleton!”

“Of course you do. This is my best costume yet!”

“No!”

“You’re sure to win first place tonight.”I assured him.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said.

“Which part, the costume or the winning?”

“Everything.”

Quinn was happily flitting around us as a fairy casting good spells with her wand. Some of her magic must have landed on me. It was Halloween and there was no time to get another costume or improvise one since I had to get to work. I knew the time to change my ways was at least a year away. So I did what all people do when they’re in a pinch with a first grader; compromise.

No make-up was applied for the school costume parade and we skipped the entire town event that evening and let someone else win. He agreed to wear the make-up for trick or treating and the four of us went out for about an hour and called it a night.jack as penguin_0005

The next summer while walking through the New York Aquarium gift shop he discovered a plastic penguin mask held on by an elastic.

“This is what I want to be for Halloween,” he exclaimed waving a black and white mask that projected a three dimensional beak.

“Oh, I can make you a great penguin,” I said. “You don’t need a mask.”

“No I want to wear this!” he said slipping it over his head and waddling around in a circle.

“No you don’t,” I said with a laugh.

“I think he knows what he wants,” Rob said.jack as penguin_0004

With that simple purchase on a hot July day in Coney Island I passed the baton to a new generation. Although I still played a hands on role in their creations and Rob continued to be prop master they started driving the bus and the costumes became their own. When we moved to the lake house Jackson went to the school Halloween dance dressed as Phantom of the Opera. It wasn’t a big hit among his friends since he had to keep explaining to people who he was supposed to be. The next year he was in sixth grade and he dressed himself up as Groucho Marx. Rob suggested a pith helmet which we owned.

“Groucho wore one as Captain Spalding in Animal Crackers,” he explained.

Jackson donned the helmet and a plastic cigar and set off for the dance. Jackson walked around tapping his cigar and doing a great Groucho impression. “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.”

A girl at the dance stopped him and asked, “Who are you supposed to be?”

“Groucho Marx.”

“Who’s that?”

“A comedian.”

“What’s a comedian?”

Jackson as Groucho and Quinn as Frankenstein

Jackson as Groucho and Quinn as Frankenstein

That’s a story that’s had a lot of play in our house over the years. Fortunately the teachers had heard of Groucho since Jackson again unexpectedly came home with first place in the costume competition.

Hopefully my involvement in their early costumes continued to inform their choices about how to make a great costume just as my mother’s had influenced me. Their love of costumes has been sustained to this day. Jackson dressed up for Halloween each year in college and continued to win contests. I’m happy to report none of the other contestants cried.

Jackson in college with his costumed friends all members of the TV show the A-Team

Jackson in college with his costumed friends all members of the TV show the A-Team

The original A-Team

The original A-Team

Please revisit my Halloween Post from last October: PUMPKIN LOVE