One year at Halloween, my mother found herself low on time and money but high in creativity. And so, 30 minutes before trick-or-treat time, she threw together a gypsy costume that made me feel less like a tramp and thief and more like a princess.
It was a great lesson in how to make something out of nothing with just a little imagination.
The plan had been, since my father was on strike from GM that year and money was more than tight, to recycle an old surgeon's costume my older sister had worn to a raucous work party the year before when she still hung out at home. But we didn't check the logistics out until late that afternoon, and I could have cried when I tried it on: the surgical coverall was way too long and dragged the ground. The little mirror that was supposed to go above my eye and look like a surgical light had a broken strap, and the stethoscope was so warped and twisted it looked more like an errant hangman's noose. 15 minutes of fussing, fidgeting, and pulling did nothing to make me look acceptable to go out in public.
I pulled the costume off, grabbed one of the "Cricket in Times Square" books I'd been devouring, and crawled into bed so I wouldn't hear all my friends knocking on the door and having fun.
"So, you're not going out? You could just go out in your normal clothes. No one would care. Put on your overalls and say you're a farmer."
"I don't want to be a farmer. I already have to wear those ugly overalls to school. I don't want to wear them as a costume. I guess I'm not trick-or-treating this year." And I sighed as only a very put-upon 3rd-grader can. I had been hit hard by the cracks in the family foundation that fall; my sister had just met the boy she was going to marry a year later, and between work and him she was never home. She had always taken me out for tricks and treats, but this year, if I was going at all, I had to go with my friend's parents and little brother, which felt like tagging along. I missed my sister, I missed having enough disposable income to have my own Halloween costume, and wished, for the millionth time in my young life, that I had a mother with a sewing machine instead of a portable hard-hat hair dryer.
"Suit yourself, then." And Mom disappeared to clean up the remains of the Campbell's chicken noodle I had slurped down for dinner. I felt very sorry for myself as I tried to focus on Chester, Tucker Mouse, and Harry Cat while trying to tune out my envy of all the kids in the neighborhood with store-bought or hand-sewn costumes about to bring home pillowcases full of fun-size Snickers bars.
Wordlessly, mom ran back into the room we shared. She began opening dresser drawers, tossing some objects she found aside and putting others into a little pile on the dresser. She was smiling, and I stopped reading.
"What are you doing?"
"I have an idea. Give me a minute."
She went through her jewelry box, pulling out old rings, earrings, necklaces. She went to her closet and produced a long red, ruffled skirt and her favorite winter leather boots, which had a rubber high heel. Heaven forbid my mother not wear a heel, even in a blizzard.
"How about you go as a gypsy? You can wear my skirt and your frilly white blouse from last Easter with my boots. We'll put 2 or 3 pairs of socks on you and stuff something in the toes so that they'll fit good enough. I've got a red scarf for your hair, and you can wear my gold hoop earrings and my big mood ring. What do you think? Hurry now, we don't have much time."
It was the ultimate 15-minute makeover. Mom wrapped the red scarf around my head and tied it in a jaunty little side knot. I slipped into her clothes and slid my feet into her shoes; it was a better fit than I thought possible. Her treasured real-gold giant hoops dangled from my ears and jingled pleasantly against my face when I shook my head. She decided that gypsies wear a lot of makeup, so I was slathered in blue eyeshadow, a generous swipe of blush, and bright red lipstick. Every finger was covered by a ring, and every toy bracelet I'd ever gotten as a prize at a birthday party or school carnival lined one arm. I suspect some of the adults I saw wondered why on earth anyone would dress their 8-year-old like a hooker. And by today's standards of political correctness, I was pretty offensive to the real gypsies of the world. But I felt gorgeous.
When I joined my adopted trick-or-treat family, they all loved my costume. At most of the houses on our street, our neighbors commented on the cute little gypsy girl (though one person thought I was a pirate, and I used this as inspiration years later when I wore many of these same items to my senior-year costume party as a pirate wench.) No one knew that it had been pulled together from bits and pieces just minutes before the witching hour.
I did not bring home a pillowcase full of candy that year (it was the Tylenol Killer Halloween, and everyone gave Frisch's coupons and pennies instead) but I did bring home a sense of pride. My mother, who didn't sew or knit or crochet or glue-gun and relied on plastic masks for Halloween disguises, a woman who usually didn't even have to put down her cigarette to get me ready for trick-or-treat, saved the holiday with a creative home-made costume. And taught me the power of makeup and accessories to boot.