Halloween Costume Challenges Treated with Homemade Love

I was riding in hired car to the airport yesterday when a young Spider-Man and Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin movie hopped in with their mother. They were on their way to a school Halloween fair.  Sharing the ride with me kept the fare cost low for us both. Spider-Man, whose name I soon learned was Julio, really wanted to dress as Mickey Mouse but as there were no Mickey Mouse costumes at the store, he had settled for Spider-Man until his mother could finish making him a Mickey Mouse suit.

Wearing their homemade turtle shells, my sons pose for a Halloween photo beside the street’s sewer opening, where the cartoon turtles lived.

The costumes were cute, in that commercial sort of way, but I know the one his mother is crafting will be much better simply because it is homemade and is assembled with love.

I recalled to the mother the year that I had created Ninja Turtle costumes for my three sons. The fact that I could stitch up turtle shells from felt was in itself a fabrication feat.  Now I wonder exactly how I managed it given my limited skills as a seamstress.  And yet, year after year, I seemed to pull together my sons’ costume choice for Halloween.

With Matthew dressed as “The President” my sons are ready to depart for trick-or-treating.

Some years were simpler than others, like the time my oldest son, Matthew, then seven, decided to masquerade as ‘the President.’ He wasn’t interested in impersonating any one particular person who had held our country’s highest office but rather as himself, dressed as, well, the President.

That meant pulling from his closet the one and only suit jacket and dress pants he owned–probably bought for another special holiday or celebration–shining up his shoes, putting on a white dress shirt and tie and handing him a trick or treat bag.  As a finishing touch, he also carried with him a copy of the Constitution.

A disposal painter’s suit, snow boots and Dad’s work gloves transformed my son into an astronaut one Halloween.

The year he landed on being an astronaut was a little more complicated.  We borrowed a helmet and had a big pair of snow boots and his Dad’s work gloves to wear, but what to do for the suit itself?  Finally, I figured  it out. I visited a paint store, picked up a disposal painters suit and stitched on the front and sleeve the Space Shuttle patches bought at NASA’s souvenir store at Edwards Air Force Base when I attended a Space Shuttle landing. The adult size even in small, swallowed my nine-year-old son, but hey, spacesuits aren’t skin tight. He was happy and looked very authentic.

That particular costume was much easier than the Halloween my son Tim chose to be a pumpkin. Fortunately, some bright orange shiny polyester fabric stitched pieces together into a rotund shape with openings for his arms and legs did the trick. We stuffed him with inflated balloons to plump him up and fill him out once he had slipped it on.

My son Tim strikes a Halloween pose in his pumpkin costume before leaving to trick-or-treat.

The pumpkin was less of a creative challenge than the Darkwing Duck request that came from my son, Marshall, one year.  That may have been my finest fitting.  Darkwing Duck was a heroic cartoon character that had captured five-year-old Marshall’s attention.  DD has long since faded into hero obscurity but he was a dapper masked defender dressed in a wide-brimmed hat, short, double-breasted purple jacket with big gold buttons and flowing purple cape. (Don’t ask me why a duck that can fly needed a cape.)

Darkwing Duck with his first-grade teacher at school on Halloween. See how my son’s chin is lifted so he can see out the mask?

In one of my most inspired design moments, I constructed a hat from felt that even a milliner could respect, stitched up a cape from purple fabric, cut big round buttons from bright yellow felt and tacked them on to a purple sweatshirt along with a makeshift collar, and tied a purple satin band that kept slipping out-of-place, over my son’s eyes so that he had to keep lifting his chin to look down through the holes.  He was a fine masked marauder that year. I was grateful when, in the years following, he was content to masquerade as a hockey player by wearing his own hockey sweater and carrying his stick.

Whatever happened to those Ninja Turtle shells I don’t know. I suspect they eventually fell apart with so many hours of play in the days after Halloween. So did the astronaut suit.  Darkwing Duck’s cape lasted longer but it too eventually disappeared.  I’m not completely certain but that pumpkin outfit may still be folded in the bottom of the ‘costume’ box waiting for another Halloween opportunity.

One of the few Halloween costumes that we purchased was the buckskins and coonskin hat for Matthew’s Meriwether Lewis outfit.

Certainly, there were Halloweens when we paid for costumes, the year they went as the Ghost Busters for example, or when Matthew required buckskins and a coonskin cap to become Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark).  For most Halloween holidays it took a trip to the fabric store or rummaging through our own closets to come up with what I regard as their most memorable masquerade outfits.

I hope Julio’s mother finishes his Mickey Mouse costume in time for trick or treating this upcoming Tuesday night. If she does, I’ll bet that’s the one both she and her son will remember when Halloween comes around in the years ahead.

Fourths Full of Fireworks, Family and Friends

This morning was quiet when I awoke.  The stillness wouldn’t be that unusual for a holiday morning except for the fact that this was the Fourth of July, the U.S. day to celebrate its independence. When I was a kid, that meant starting the day off with a bang, literally, as my brother and I hopped out of our bed, threw on some clothes and raced outdoors to light what would be the first of many firecrackers that day.

My son, Marshall, ready to celebrate with his string of Black Cats.

Times have changed as setting off individual fireworks have been banned in many communities, such as my own, leaving it to the pro pyrotechnicians to provide a choreographed aerial night display. For the most part, it’s a good thing although I do miss seeing kids faces light up as they swirl the glowing wands of sparklers. And I loved the ground fountains that burst up with sizzling flares of color.

But the silence of the morning made me think of all those wonderful Fourth of July holidays past here in Bellingham.

A fireworks show on the front yard of our house.

I smiled remembering nights when my own middle-school aged sons gathered up their collection of fireworks, call us all out to the street in front of our home and set them off to their own choreographed show, complete with patriotic music blasted from a boom box that had been turned up to full volume.

Then there was the family barbeques at our friends’ home who lived then on a local lake.

The kids line up for hot dogs right off the grill.

Food was plentiful, with everyone bringing baked beans, deviled eggs, hot dogs and hamburgers, salads, pies, cookies and ice cream, all pretty much considered to be ‘traditional’ American Independence Day favorites.  Moms and Dads would talk and drink beer while we watched the kids leap off the end of the dock into the still chilly lake water. A few others would hop into the kayak and paddle a short distance out from the shore where they would still be within sight of parental eyes.

The kids take a break from swimming and kayaking to eat a Fourth of July picnic.

And then, of course, as night began to fall (nearly 10 p.m. here in the Pacific Northwest), the homemade fireworks show would start with the explosions from Roman candles being directed out over the water.  When it was over, we bundled up the leftovers and our sleepy-eyed kids and headed home.

Firing off the Roman candles from the dock.

Later, when our friends moved to a home on the bay, we did the same thing sitting on the beach, watching the sun sink as he dug into the delicious apple and cherry pies that had been baked especially for the occasion. Of course, we always had a fire going so that we could make s’mores–those wonderfully gooey treat of melted chocolate and toasted marshmallow squeezed between two layers of graham crackers. And the fire also kept us warm because Fourth of Julys here can be chilly, if not rainy.

A festive pie for the Fourth of July.

I recalled the more recent holidays when our sons, now grown, were not home to celebrate or, if they were, preferred to head off with friends to watch fireworks than join the ‘old folks.’ One memorable Fourth was spent out on a boat in the bay enjoying the company of friends from the annual summer music festival and viewing that night’s light show from the water. Quite an experience. Still another found us sitting nearly directly beneath the big blast over the harbor as we sat with another couple on the terrace of a shore side restaurant, savoring the food served up for the special evening while overhead the ‘bombs’ were bursting in air.

The Fourth of July on the boat in the bay gave us a spectacular view of the fireworks show that night.

More recently, we’ve headed over to a friend’s home late in the day for a potluck on their deck.  After dessert, we settle into one of their patio chairs, usually with a blanket close at hand, and wait and watch for the big fireworks spectacle, sponsored here for years by one of our local markets. They have an excellent vantage point from which we can see it all, including the show also being staged in nearby Blaine, just up the coast and the individual efforts from the Lummi Nation across the bay.

Happy Fourth of July. Long may our Star Spangled banner wave.

While the colorful aerial pyrotechnics are fun to watch, it’s mostly the company of the friends and family we are with that really make the evenings fun and memorable. It’s that feeling of fellowship, of sharing a special day with people special to you, some who you may only see on this day once a year. And that’s what I remember most about this holiday. I hope your Fourth of July is equally as memorable and as full of family and friends as it is of fireworks.

School Festival Created Halloween Fun & Family

A friend of mine was telling  me the other day that she was going to be the fortune-teller at the Halloween Festival at her son’s school.  I smiled and then recalled to her my own sons’ Halloween Festivals when they were in public elementary school in Los Angeles.

I had just come across some photos that I had taken at those festivals so they were fresh on my mind.  In fact, I’ve written about the festivals before. Here’s a link to take you there in case you missed it: http://wp.me/p2ohfO-4BE.

My friend, Pam, dressed as a 'friendly' clown and staffed the ghost castle game at the Calahan School Halloween Festival.
My friend, Pam, dressed as a ‘friendly’ clown and staffed the ghost castle game at the Calahan School Halloween Festival.

Ours wasn’t an elaborate festival but simple, old-fashioned fun with games handcrafted by parent volunteers that provided entertainment for the kids.  Many of them had been designed in coordination with the teachers (an amazingly talented bunch). In addition to the fun they provided, the games actually taught the kids something about chance and probability, physics, calculation or science. That aspect didn’t necessarily register on the kids, of course, but they still had to use some of the skills and thinking processes associated with those academic areas in order to play the games.

Games at the Halloween Festival were designed to teach the kids concepts such as chance and probability.
Games at the Halloween Festival were designed to teach the kids concepts such as chance and probability.

Parents too had a great time.  The festival, held on a Saturday before Halloween, drew families to the school to create a true sense of community within the larger Los Angeles school district, one of the largest, in fact, in the country. This served us well when the Northridge earthquake–measured at 6.4–rocked our school which was located near the epicenter of the quake. Although our school–Calahan Elementary–miraculously didn’t sustain the greatest damage, student enrollment dropped by nearly 100 overnight when families homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged so badly that they could no longer live and work in them.

Parents staffed the games at the school's Halloween Festival while the kids tested their skills.
Parents staffed the games at the school’s Halloween Festival while the kids tested their skills.

The Halloween Festival had built a true caring spirit for the school and families who were part of it. When those students disappeared from our school, their absence left a huge hole and psychologically difficult for the students who remained.  When the district then wanted to move two of our teachers because the school population had shrunk, the entire school rallied in an effort to prevent that action.  Our protests wound up as front page news of the Los Angeles Times and resulted in our teachers remaining at the school until things could be stabilized.

Principal Parade
The principal led the kids in a costume parade around the school grounds. Although he usually dressed in costume himself, this particular year he didn’t. Students still had a great time following him around the classroom and playground.

That kind of ‘togetherness’ is a lesson from which our country’s current political environment benefit.  Calahan had at least 18 different home languages with kids whose families came from all over the world.  The Halloween Festival, in particular, did more to break down any cultural, political or language barriers that existed between us because it took all of us parents, working together, to make it happen. Everyone had something to contribute and contribute they did.  Now, years later, students, teachers and parents keep in touch through our school group Facebook page or e-mail. And Calahan kids who have come after us, often ask to join just because they too have a fondness for the school. It truly was an exception in a district where schools were mostly detached from those who attended them and from each other.

I dressed as a witch on year and took photos of everyone who came in costume to Calahan's Halloween Festival.
I dressed as a witch on year and took photos of everyone who came in costume to Calahan’s Halloween Festival.

While Halloween is a scary holiday for some, for me and the kids who grew up at Calahan Elementary, it conjures up sweet memories of fun and family.  I hope it will do the same for my friend.

Remembering Our Ancestors on Memorial Day

This weekend, millions of Americans are celebrating one of this country’s oldest and biggest federal holidays–Memorial Day.  Originally named, Decoration Day, it was created after the Civil War to honor those who had died in our military service. Today, in cemeteries across the United States, veterans’ and other organizations place small U.S. flags at the graves of those who served in our armed forces.  My Dad, along with those of so many others, is among them.

My mother's family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.
My mother’s family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.

Americans also use this day to decorate the graves of their loved ones and to gather together in cemeteries large and small, to honor those generations who have gone before them.  The U.S. doesn’t have, as do many other countries in the world, a day specifically designated as ‘ancestors’ day. Probably one reason for that is because so many Americans don’t even know their ancestral heritage. I am fortunate in that I have the history of my mother’s paternal family dating back to the 1500s. And I know my family in Sweden, from where both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather emigrated during the late 1860s. I have been to visit my family there several times and one year, took with me, my aunt, who, was the second oldest in my mother’s family and who had fond memories of her Swedish-born grandmother and grandfather.

My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather's farm in Sweden.
My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather’s farm in Sweden.

During that trip, now many years ago, we first met my Swedish cousins and went to the home places of both her grandparents. What a thrill for both of us. Shivers shot down my back when I first heard my cousin’s father voice because his sounded so much like that of my own grandfather–who would have been his uncle–,who died when I was only three. We were both excited when the farmer who then occupied the farmhouse where my great grand father had grown up, invited us in and proudly showed us the book that had come with the farm, documenting its history and those who had once owned it. Later on that same trip, we found his name registered with many others who had left Sweden during that time, when we visited the Utvandrarnas hus, or the House of Emigrants in Vaxjo.

My aunt points to my great grandfather's name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.
My aunt points to my great grandfather’s name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.

Then upon walking around field where my great-grandmother’s had once stood, our family’s Swedish friend and host for much of our stay, motioned for us to “Kommer här.”  He was standing next to a thick green bush and when we joined him, he parted the center of the bush with his arms to reveal a small, tarnished bronze plaque attached to a metal pole. The inscription on the plaque took my breath away. It said, in translation, that “Here in this place once lived 1858-1867 Carl Axel Carlsson and his wife who emigrated to North America”.

My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.
My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.

Carl Carlsson was my great-great grandfather. I still get chills even writing this as I did upon first seeing this. My aunt was nearly in tears. For her, this was a completion of a journey for my great-grandmother who was old enough to remember her Swedish childhood when she left with her family. At age 70, the same age as my aunt was then, great grandmother had written a letter to her family in the old country, expressing her desire to  see Sweden once more but knew that she never would as she was now too old to make the long trip. My aunt felt as is she had made the trip for her.

The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.
The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.

A few years later, my aunt decided to honor her grandparents by designing a new headstone for their graves engraved with the provincial flowers from their respective Swedish homes and an inscription that commemorated their immigration to America. All her brothers and sisters, and their spouses, gathered at the little creek-side cemetery in the Missouri countryside for a private installation ceremony that my aunt had planned. They placed flowers and an American flag on the headstone, they listened as my aunt recounted the story of our visit to the homes in Sweden and her vivid memories of her grandparents. Then they sang a hymn that had been a favorite of her grandparents:  Shall We Gather at the River. Tears welled in my eyes as they sang. Afterwards, I surprised my aunt by presenting to her an exact, framed replica of the plaque that we had discovered in Sweden and a photograph of the Carlsson family taken shortly after they had arrived in this country. It was now her turn to be in tears.

 Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.
Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.

Last Memorial Day, my brother and I drove the two hours to the same little Missouri cemetery. We placed flowers on the graves of our family members buried there, stopped by the spot where their two-story wood frame farmhouse once stood and remembered our family, my aunts and uncles, their parents and grandparents, just as they did on that day in the cemetery.  The framed plaque hung in the entryway of aunt’s home for years. When she died a few years ago, I was given the plaque. It is now displayed in my entry hall where it reminds me everyday of the trip we made together, the family we loved so much, and of a heritage of which I am proud.

 

Small Town Salutes American Vets

In small towns all across the United States, Americans will be celebrating our Veterans’ Day holiday on Tuesday, November 11.  For schoolchildren, it will be mean a day off from classes. For federal employees it will be day off from work.  Mail doesn’t move. Banks are closed but the stock markets are open. And sadly, major retailers have turned the day into one of the major shopping sale days of the year. I think that’s hardly what President Woodrow Wilson, who first proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day, or President Dwight Eisenhower who, in 1954, expanded the holiday as a day to honor all military veterans, had in mind when they made the holiday an official American observance.

American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.
American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.

But in small towns all across the United States, the original intention of the holiday–to celebrate and recognize all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces–is carried out in parades, ceremonies, flag-flying, grave decorating, speeches, band concerts, patriotic performances and special dinners for veterans.  In my small, hometown of Parsons, KS., (population 10,164), the local Veterans’ of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, hosts a simple, but moving program for anyone who wants to attend.  I happened to be visiting my father, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, on two recent Veterans’ Days–in 2011 and 2013–and accompanied him to the program.  At the time, I didn’t know that the 2013 program would be his last.  Now, the memories and photographs I took on that day, hold even more significance for me.

The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

World War II veterans are dying at a rate of approximately 55 a day.  Of the 16 million who served in World War II, only a little more than a million survive. My Dad was among a handful of them in attendance at the 2013 VFW ceremony. Those who were there that day, proudly rose to their feet when the VFW’s color guard strode in with the American flag.  I was surprised at how touched I was to watch some of these old soldiers and sailors struggle to push themselves up from their chairs to stand and salute the flag.  I could tell that my own father was saddened that he could not join them because he was seated in a wheelchair and not strong enough at the time to stand up.  But he removed his cap and placed his hand over his heart as the flag passed by.  And again, when each branch of the military’s own flag was introduced and carried into the room, the veterans, young and old representing that branch, proudly arose to be recognized by the others in the audience.

Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2013. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.
Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2011. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.

The program was appropriately patriotic but not war-mongering.  No one among these assembled veterans, I think was a fan of war.  I know my own Dad certainly wasn’t. He felt great concern for the safety of the young troops serving in our country’s current conflicts.  He believed that no one should have to experience what they, as veterans, had to endure. Interestingly, at the reunions I attended with my father for his Army outfit, the young soldiers who came to meet their predecessors expressed the opinion that my Dad’s generation went through much more than they, as modern-day soldiers, have ever had to face, even if deployed overseas.

My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.

At the Parsons program, the local post commander, dressed in full military uniform introduced the day’s speaker, neither of whom I really remember. Their speeches came nowhere close to being as stirring as sitting and talking and acknowledging the veteran’s who were in the room that day.  The local high school band played a few selections, a little off-pitch, of familiar patriotic music before and during the program.  They struck up Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” by as everyone filed out to the parking lot outside for the twenty-one gun salute and the playing of the plaintive tune, ‘Taps.’

The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.
The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.

On both the Veterans’ Days when I was present, the red, white and blue of the American flags flying on the poles lining the gravel lot, flapped in the wind and stood out dramatically against the bright blue of the sky. Many of the flags flying that day at the post had been donated by local families who had received them upon their own veteran’s death.  I now own one of  those flags.  And while I haven’t yet the heart to part with it, I think that it may one day fly with those flags in a private salute to my Dad who, during his own 92-year lifetime, saluted so many others.

My Dad's favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad’s favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran on the front side, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.