In honor of Halloween, here is an excerpt of my memoir draft– this section is actually pretty self-contained. But, to give you some set up this is after the second divorce when it’s just my mom and me, and before my step-dad comes along. Kind of a calm-before-the-storm chapter. (Mom or family, if you read this, I know you haven’t read any of this yet, so let me know privately if there are any gaps in time or wrong years… haha.)
Chapter 7 – Empty Boxes
My mom sat on the floor in the Lincoln Log House living room surrounded by empty liquor boxes, appropriate material for this year’s Halloween costume. I was always marveled by what my mom could do. I sat on the couch with anticipation of what would become of those boxes.
One of the greatest things about being an only child with a single mom, I thought, was the undivided attention. She was assistant troop leader in Girl Scouts (Jasmine’s mom was the leader), she was PTO president, chaperoned all the field trips, DJ’d school dances, and was an overall hit among my girlfriends because she was so young. They all thought my mom was pretty and thought it was cool that she was a disc jockey who liked rock music. I agreed that my mom was beautiful, and sometimes, I wished I could have bangs like she did so I could curl and poof them up, too. When she got a spiral perm, I also wanted one, but instead, she gave me a temporary perm one night. After I took a bath, she put my hair in lots of little braids. As my long blonde hair dried, it made my hair curly. I couldn’t sleep that night because I was so excited to have wavy hair. When I woke up in the morning, she took out all my braids, leaving long, silky, soft waves throughout my hair.
When I hung my coat up at school that morning, Chris Breuer pet my hair and said, “Wow. You look like a princess.” It was the first time a boy ever said anything nice to me, although I kind of wished it was Richard Fortescue who said I was a princess. That day at recess we played She-Ra as usual, but I really felt like the Princess of Power with my long, wavy locks. What boy wouldn’t have wanted to rescue me from the throngs of Hordak and his thugs with hair as pretty as mine?
But as my mom had to work more after the divorce, she didn’t have as much time to do all the school things. I started to spend a lot of time with friends, or at home alone, because she started working so much. But when she was home, she was totally dedicated to me. This was especially the case when I had a school project to do (she made me a killer coal mine diorama in third grade), or better yet, when I requested a creative Halloween costume.
“Mom! Why won’t you tell me what it is? ” I asked from our waterwheel printed couch.
She lit a Kool’s Menthol, inhaled, exhaled gray smoke, and said, “Because I like surprises, so should you. Just wait. You’ll love it.”
I stuffed my feet in between the cushions to keep my feet warm and tried to watch television on what I called, “The Top Television.” A few months prior, a nasty thunderstorm destroyed our big console television set, so we got a new, smaller TV. But since we did not have a stand, we put it on top of the other TV set. But even though the episode of General Hospital looked interesting, my mom’s cardboard art grabbed my attention away from the Quartermaines. She measured and cut the cardboard, stopping every few minutes to take a drag from her cigarette. I couldn’t wait to see what she’d come up with this year. My mom was a master of cardboard artistry and her skills earned me awards at every Halloween party we went to.
“Will it be better than last year’s?” I asked impatiently.
In third grade, our life was still surrounded music so Mom drew up plans for the perfect Halloween costume for the little daughter of Cuddle Up & Tony T. She had found big pieces of cardboard, probably from a refrigerator box, and cut out two matching shapes, like big eights. Then, she measured and cut a perfect circle in one of the eights. That would be where my head peeked out. She cut out long strips of cardboard and molded and folded them around the two eights and taped them together with duct tape. You could now tell that this would be an acoustic guitar. She cut an arm hole in each side.
“Here, try this on,” she ordered, placing the big cardboard guitar body over my head. I naturally stuck my arms through the holes.
“Peek-a-boo,” I said as I popped my head out of the hole. The costume fit perfectly.
Next, she created the guitar’s neck and secured it to the body with more duct tape. Once the shape was done, she carefully peeled sticky wooden-looking contact paper off its waxy backing and stuck it along the front of the guitar, trimming where she needed. On the back and sides of the guitar, she used a solid, dark brown contact paper. After she was done covering the guitar, she used a gold marker to draw lines and dots to resemble the frets. She then strung six kite-looking strings down the neck and body of the guitar.
“Ma, this really looks like Dad’s guitar. But bigger!”
“You’re going to look so cute,” she said as she puffed on a Kool’s. She stepped back to admire her work.
When the Halloween party came in third grade, I was not only a guitar, but also a country-western singer. My mom came up with that brilliant idea so that, when I had the guitar off to eat or play, I would still be in character. I wore jeans, a western shirt with a bandanna around the collar, and cow girl boots. Every year, at Tobyhanna Elementary Center, we’d have a Halloween parade where all the students would march down the street and then across Route 940 to meet our parents at Blanche Price Park, where Tobyhanna Township Volunteer Fire Company threw a party. That morning, my mom drove Theresa and me to school because one, my guitar costume would not fit on the bus and two, Theresa couldn’t walk.
Grandmom and Theresa, who used to just visit on weekends, moved from their house in Willow Grove to the Poconos. Theresa was one grade ahead of me, in fourth and right before she moved, she had a bad accident. She was at a roller skating birthday party, fell, and was run over by another skater, maybe two. Her leg was broken in several places and she had to wear a full leg cast, from her ankle to her thigh. She sometimes used a wheelchair because it was hard for her to use crutches (I thought she was just too lazy to use them.) Since she was in the full cast, Theresa was devastated about Halloween. But lucky for Theresa, her mother was the very person my mom got her craftiness from. My grandmom wrapped Theresa from head to toe in white bandages and made her into a mummy, but she left the cast the way it was, signatures and all. On the day of the Halloween party at school, none of the kids in my class believed Theresa had really broken her leg.
“It’s just part of your costume! I don’t believe you!” Ricky Thomas said, tapping her cast to make sure it was real.
“Stop it! It’s not fake! My leg is broken,” she snapped back.
“Can I play with your crutches,” asked another boy.
“No, I need those!” she said.
I ran around with Jasmine and my other friends while Theresa sat between my mom and Grandmom in the fire hall. When they announced the winners of the costume contest, Theresa’s spirits were raised. She had won “Funniest Costume.” And I was gleaming too, taking home the prize for “Most Original.”
Scissors slicing through cardboard snapped me back to the living room in my new house, without a dad, with just my mom, and she was crafting my costume for the fourth grade contest. My mom had the cardboard pieces all cut out and was duct taping them together to form a large, rectangular box.
“Just tell me, Ma. What’re ya making? Please! Tell me.”
“Don’t you like surprises?” she asked, as she got up and headed to our adjoining kitchen.
“Maybe on Christmas,” I replied, noticing she was cutting pieces from our Entenmann’s Banana Crunch Cake. She brought over two pieces using paper towels as plates, handed me one, and sat back down in her arts and crafts pile. She bit into her cake, took a sip of coffee, and went back to work.
“Moooom. I asked you a question!” I begged.
She gave in. “Okay, okay. You’re going to be a bar.”
“Yes, a bar. What do you think?”
I swallowed my mouthful of cake and thought about it.
“A real bar? Like Woody’s? What will it look like?”
“Oh, just you wait. It’s gonna be really cool,” she said.
While she was working, the phone rang. My mom was gone for a while. The phone rang again, and she was gone a little longer. When she came back, I asked who it was. She said it was an old friend. I asked who the second one was, and she said an older friend. She continued making my costume, but she didn’t seem herself. I shrugged it off and continued watching TV.
It took Mom a few days to complete the costume and I was getting impatient. But, soon enough when I came home from school one day, before me stood a miniature replica bar. It even looked like it was made from real wood, thanks to the same kind of contact paper my mom used for last year’s guitar. There were holes in either side for my arms and a big hole in the top of the bar for my body, so when I put the costume on, it appeared that I was working behind the bar. She had me try it on.
“Wow! I feel like a real bartender!” I said, imagining myself behind the bar at Woody’s, where I’d sometimes go with my mom.
I would help the owners, Marlene and Lois, put sour cream into little containers to go out with baked potatoes. Sometimes, I would sit and play Q-bert at the table video game machine. Other times, I would try to blend in with the adults at the bar by drinking Shirley Temples, wishing my feet would reach the the golden bar on the bottom where everyone else rested their feet. I’d steal pieces of orange slices and eat them, sucking out all the juice while I stared at a 99 Bottles of Beer poster and try to pronounce and memorize all the brands. When my mom got off work and was allowed to have a drink, she would always let me have a sip of her Kahlua and Cream, which tasted just like chocolate milk.
“Can you teach me how to make some drinks?” I asked, jumping around inside my costume.
We both laughed. Before the annual parade, my mom super-glued on all the finishing touches: bar napkins, ash trays with real butts and ashes, beer cans, shot glasses and real dollar bills and coins. She also made up a menu where she had things like beer, shots, wine, soda, hamburger, and French fries listed. There was even a shelf on the back of the bar costume with more items glued to it. The top of the bar was labeled, “Donna’s Bar.” On Halloween day, just like the year before with the guitar, I had a costume under the costume, this time a white dress shirt, black slacks, and suspenders, with tons of promotional beer and liquor buttons pinned on. Once again, I was at hit at all the parties I went to. Other moms and dads wanted pictures with me. I once again won, “Most Original.” Jasmine won funniest for her “Clubbed Sandwich” costume.
I had a Halloween costume inspired by Woody’s that made me so happy. But later that year, the bar my mom worked at also changed my life.