Monday, May 11, 2009


The Sept/Oct issue of SOMERSET STUDIO ran a collaborative feature called "Black Cat Moon," in which the following was included in greatly abbreviated form as part of a story about childhood Halloweens and one particular year. My intention was to post it before Mother's Day as a way of acknowledging my artist mother and how many of her obsessions became mine. Some things don't change. There is no longer a garage with a magical dresser but there are stashes of fabrics, ribbons and trims, new and used, waiting to be called to active duty. Thank you, Barbara. All holidays will always belong to you.


At Valentine's Day it was, of course, about the cards we took to school and maybe pieces from her artist's stash of doilies, papers and ribbon that would add to the splendidness of our class Valentine mailbox. We wheedled for construction and crepe papers and glue to make our pretend fireworks at the Fourth of July. The Christmas whining escalated as we became more and more dizzy with dreams of our presents and started to argue over who got to lick the frosting bowl, who got to put the sprinkles on the decorated cookies, that kind of thing. But Halloween brought out our most demanding and bossy character flaws as we each told Mom, down to the tiniest stitch, just exactly how our costumes HAD to be.

There were three of us. I was the oldest, 12 for that Halloween of 1957. Mike was three years younger and Laurie two years younger than Mike. The fact that our mom was an artist, with a college degree and everything ( the shelves next to her favorite reading chair were filled with her art books on any topic from tole painting to Goya) was not a gift we took for granted, exactly, but one we did try to exploit for our own purposes. I can't remember Mom ever saying, "No, that's too complicated," or "I'm too busy." In fact, the years in which any of us picked a simple costume, she'd try and talk us into a more complicated, more challenging interpretation. Once she even tried to sew me a pair of tights for a dance recital and I knew she was disappointed when the available materials let her down. She imaginatively put in zippers at the ankles for a more snug fit. They were a disaster, the only costume I knew that got the best of her.

If I had known 1957 would be my last year of trick or treating, that by the next October I'd be more interested in a boy-girl party with a scavenger hunt and the possibility of making out, would I have picked a different costume, something more glorious, showy, something more take-a-final-bow? No, probably not. I was very clear that I wanted to be a black cat and, because I too liked a creative challenge, I had figured out that I had almost everything I needed to do it myself - black ballet slippers, tights, leotard, an eyebrow pencil to draw whiskers on my face and a plastic headband onto which I could glue ears. I really didn't give much thought to a tail, it didn't seem that important. In fact, I figured I was doing Mom a favor. She still had to make a turtle costume for Mike and a one-of-a-kind princess gown for Laurie.

As background, let me tell you our house was small. My sister and I shared a bedroom which was remodeled - carpentry only - a couple times, which made more space for bookshelves and a closet with storage drawers underneath, but left even less floor space so we had bunk beds until I moved away when I was 18. The same carpenter who was kept busy adding bookcases to every possible part of the living room and my parents' room also built a storage island/eating space in our tiny kitchen. It was one of the areas that was just Mom's, home for art and craft supplies. Her only other storage was an old dresser in the garage. That is where she kept patterns and fabric - deconstructed formals from Eastern Star rummage sales, buttons and bits saved from other cut-down clothes, yardage from sales, things that were given. She kept a wooden box of sewing supplies, needles, threads, snaps, hooks-and-eyes and a ceramic doll figure, smooth and shaped like a bowling pin, which she called a "Darn It" for it was used to give form to a sock while it was being mended. My sister and I loved the Darn It, a piece our mom had painted and glazed when she worked for a ceramics manufacturer after I was born. It was from this chest of drawers that sequined gossamer would appear, unfaded black cotton for Zorro or a cat costume, a length of lace for a Spanish mantilla, fringe by the yard, felt, millinery flowers, vivid Hawaiian prints. The reality was that the chest had just the four drawers but they seemed to hold so much more than could rationally have fit into such a space. As I think of my mother in this light, I wish that words like rational, ordinary, sensible and linear could have left my life and vocabulary sooner. That they have left at all, no matter the years, is a miracle, I have no doubt.

And so the designing began. Mike's turtle outfit took considerable engineering, research and a few prototypes. He had chosen that costume for he loved turtles and tortoises, being allergic to furry pets yet having such a tender heart for other creatures that we did have three desert tortoises as pets. They lived in our patio: we packed them in a large box of dry leaves so they could hibernate during the winter. They ate strawberry ice cream at birthday parties and would run, the tortoise version of run, when Mike called them. Laurie's princess gown, with tiara and scepter, was more a matter of fitting. Mom loved finding acres of old formals which she could take apart, cut down, and put back together in completely new ways. She didn't ever remake them into formals, but oh, the mileage they provided as costumes. There were gowns in three different shades of blue that became a satin bodice, layered net skirt with taffeta underskirt and puffed lace sleeves. I believe we had a real rhinestone tiara, another treasure pulled from a Masonic jumble sale. Instead of a mask, Laurie wanted to wear makeup, which Mom applied while I arranged her princess hairstye. Mike and I had turtle and cat headgear from the same patern, a sort of bathing cap shape that tied under the chin, his was green and earless, mine black with ears lined in pale pink felt. A full-body cat suit with a stuffed and wired tail replaced my simple leotard vision. As Mom sewed it, my cat even had a bit of white tuxedo shirt on her chest like Poe, my grandmother's cat and likely inspiration for my disguise. White gloves worked for Poe's white front paws. The only thing we kept from my version were the ballet slippers. I became a not furry but definitely cat-shaped being, whiskers and all. And when all the parts of the holiday were over, components and remnants of what we wore were returned to the dresser to await future transformation.

As Mike's turtle shell took form it became clear that, beloved as it was, it would not be especially comfortable, sitting down would be a challenge and he'd need help at school to put it on, but that was true for most of the elementary kids. Discomfort didn't matter. His cardboard and paint shell was transforming him into his favorite animal. Thinking back on it, I wonder that we never wanted to be anything or anyone scary. I can imagine the fun Mom would have found in creating the Creature From the Black Lagoon or the Mummy or the green-skinned witch from THE WIZARD OF OZ. She told us the story of attending a high school costume party as a pack of cigarettes, which had been her own creation. I imagine her hoping we'd come running up, shrieking things like, "the Empire State Building," "Mount Rushmore," "a submarine!" Serious challenges. My brother recently shared a story of the year he wanted to be Zorro and how, in his memory, he had been so demanding about the mask and how it needed to be perfect. I remember such moments on other occasions, wanting to go back and do it over, being more thankful and having, somehow, a more mature appreciation of our mother's remarkable creativity and the happiness it brought her. I have to trust that she knew our gratitude, that she had some sense of the power of those experiences to stay with us and that as we aged, we would come to value even further the gift she was.


Erin in Morro Bay said...

Fun to read the entire article. And what a universal truth - there is no way we can ever appreciate the things our moms did for us until we reach a certain age. I'm sure, that on some level, whether still with us or not, they know - just as I hope I will when my two daughters finally "get it".
Wonderful and perfect story for Mother's Day.

Anonymous said...

I'm betting that your Mom would have kicked ass on PROJECT RUNWAY.
Funny how families used to cram into shoe-box spaces and never complain that "this room is too small..."
It all just "works" because we say that it will.

Lifting a teacup to you, your sibs and that Fabulous Mom. I'm guessing that Heaven has AMAZING estate sales...

Marylinn Kelly said...

I'm betting that heaven has amazing garage sales and that See's Candy can be eaten without weight gain or an increase in blood sugar. Someday I'll write about the birthday parties...thanks for your commen

Sharon said...

What a great "Mother" story full of sweet memories and costumes. And I bet she made some beautiful crepe paper dresses. Remember those? I figure by the date you were 12 that we are near the same age.