My kids must hate me. It’s either that or they trust me blindly. Here’s why: Every year as Halloween approaches, I ask them what they plan on dressing up as, and it is a tradition for them to come up with a costume that will be impossible to find. Even in the Age of Amazon. So I must make it from scrounged parts myself.
This year, our youngest, light of our lives, said that she wanted to be a Hobbit. “Oh?” I said. “Like a female Hobbit in a dress?” She looked at me like I was an Ent who had lost a few too many branches in the Battle of Isengard. (I have no idea what that simile means; ask a Tolkien scholar.) “No, I want to be a Hobbit like Frodo or Bilbo. But I don’t want a store-bought costume; I want to you make it.” Of course, I thought. Because that would be the hard way. Did I mention that this was 12 days before Halloween? My kids love to wait until the last minute to brainstorm their costume ideas with me.
It’s my own fault. I raised the bar too high with our oldest, the boy. When he was younger and would ask to be something that only a select group of his friends would recognize, I should have said, “Here’s a black garbage bag with a neck hole and two arm holes ripped in it and filled with pillows, kid; you’re going as an olive.” But I didn’t do that, because I’m a nice guy. So I would spend hours racking my brain figuring out exactly what it was the boy wanted.
Example: One year, he announced that he wanted to be Ash Ketchum. I can tell by the stunned looks on your faces that none of you has had an aspiring Pokémon trainer in your household. Ash Ketchum is a character from the original “Pokémon” TV shows and video games, a 10-year-old whose dream is to one day be considered the world’s greatest Pokémon Master. He has worn various outfits over the years, but my boy wanted to look like this:
I took an old St. Louis Cardinals cap, covered the front above the bill with white felt, cut out and glued a black logo, made a blue vest for the boy, and found him some green fingerless gloves.
Which brings up the problem with many of my kids’ costumes: There is a balance between having a costume that nobody else has and having a costume that nobody else recognizes. No one wants to be the 701st Elsa from “Frozen” to come to someone’s door with a trick-or-treat bag, but trust me when I say that your child will quickly tire of answering the question, “What are you supposed to be?” That whole Halloween, nobody knew what the boy was. “Are you a baseball player?” they would guess. He’d reply, “Yeah, right, lady; I’m a baseball player with fingerless neon green gloves and a Poké ball in my left hand. Sheesh, doesn’t any adult watch my favorite show?” (Answer: no.)
One year, our eldest daughter, the patient one, went as a mummy cheerleader. “Because why?” I asked. “Because no one else in a cheerleader costume will also be a mummy, Dad,” was her cool response. You can’t argue with a 9-year-old’s logic. To her credit, this child of ours has put up with more “mainstream” (i.e., available at Walmart 1 week before Halloween) costumes than the others. She has graciously gone as: a Disney princess (I can’t remember which one; does it matter?), Tinker Bell, a black cat, and a bumblebee. She is also a more go-with-the-flow person than the others: this year, to help a friend who temporarily finds himself wheelchair-bound, she dropped her other costume idea and is going as a doctor who will push him up and down city streets so he won’t miss out on the candy.
Did I mention the candy yet? It’s the main reason I tolerate Halloween. My strategy for stocking up on Halloween candy is to buy twice (or five times, let’s be honest) as much chocolate as we need, and then when the hordes of trick-or-treaters don’t materialize at our front doors like I promised my lovely wife, Jen, I act shocked and appalled and say, “Oh, darn! Now you and I will have to eat all of these Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And Kit Kats. And Twix. And York Peppermint Patties.” And so forth. It never gets old. Then she gets mad at me for enabling our bad habit. But secretly, she’s the worst offender and will eat more than me. Which is why she gets mad.
Back to our boy: He often is an early adopter for costumes. When the Harry Potter books came out and the world went Hogwarts wild, he didn’t want to be Harry. That would have been too easy. He wanted to be Draco Malfoy. Nowadays, you can find a Draco costume in stores or online, but initially, only the Harry costume was available. So, nice dad that I am, I bought the Harry costume and proceeded to stitch, by hand, the Slytherin colors over the Griffindor colors on it. Then I made a “Potter Stinks” button for him and, because I was going insane with love for my child at that point, whittled a piece of found wood into the shape of Draco’s wand and painted it. (Frankly, I owed him the effort; when he was a newborn and then a year later when he was 1, we dressed him as a clown and a pumpkin, and somehow his tiny developing infant brain absorbed this knowledge and still resents us for it.) Wouldn’t you know, everyone still thought he was Harry.
Last year, our youngest came up with a very original costume that was easy, instantly recognizable by all age groups, and yet amazingly also not worn by anyone else: Sherlock Holmes. It was awesome. We went to a thrift shop, bought a woman’s long skirt with a houndstooth pattern for 3 dollars, cut a slit up the side and tossed it over her shoulders like a cloak, found a Holmesian deerstalker cap for 5 bucks, stuck a magnifying glass and pipe in her hands, and voilà. That could not have been easier or cheaper.
I should explain that I had an unusual relationship with Halloween costumes as a child: My mother worked, for several years, at a party supply store. It had Halloween costumes year-round but also stocked anything you could possibly want for any holiday you could think of. Need an Uncle Sam costume in July? They had it. How about Honest Abe in February, or gag gifts for dear old dad in June, or a racy “Adults-Only” gift area? Yes, yes, and yuck. What creeped me out the most was the wall of rubber masks. There were probably hundreds of masks displayed on this back wall, including every popular President, horror-movie characters, and bizarre clowns. I hated it. On days when I was sick from school or otherwise had to go to work with my mom, I would hide out in the break room drinking soda from a vending machine that still stocked bottles or I would wander the aisles of the store and try to avoid eye contact with the wall of masks.
Strangely, I remember only two of my own costumes from childhood: One year, I went as a monk. Who knows why. My mom dyed a robe brown, put a rope belt on me, and bought a glue-on bald spot for my head; the label on the glue bottle promised that it would not do damage to the hair upon removal. That day ended in disaster when one of my friends thought it would be funny to remove my bald spot. Maybe he thought it was being held on by magic or tape or something, but he essentially ripped off about a hundred of my hairs while grabbing the bald spot off my head.
The other costume I remember, even more vividly, is from the year that my older brother and I dressed in identical outfits. This never happened. Mostly because I always wanted to be like him, and he never wanted to be associated with a child 4 years younger than him. But my mother convinced us that we should go as matching hobos. I’m not sure why dressing as a homeless person from the 1930s became popular, but it was huge in my neighborhood when I was a kid. From the party supply store, we found a plastic crumpled hat (because actual crumpled hats were rare?), a plastic oversized bow tie (did hobos wear ties?), and a plastic oversized cigar. My mom then painted facial hair on us and had us wear some of our dad’s ripped-up clothes such as sweatshirts and flannel. He was not happy about this, since these were the clothes that he would actually wear when he returned from his office job and fell asleep in front of the TV while watching “Barney Miller” or “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
Oh, how I loved that stupid plastic cigar. I played with it all week leading up to Halloween. I imagined that it made me look cool somehow, not based on anything I had seen in the real world. On Halloween, I brought it to school, waved it around like a sword, and made plans for its post-Halloween usage. That afternoon, my brother, sisters, and I went trick-or-treating. At some point, tired of holding the cigar, I put it in my back pocket. At the end of the night, when we arrived home with our candy bags, I reached back for it and it was gone. Gone! I cried like a baby that night, so my mom made my brother trace our every step searching for that stupid cigar. We never found it, and I returned home a crushed little boy. My brother sized me up, looked at his own cigar, and did what any big brother would do: lorded that thing over me and teased me mercilessly. I wept softly every time I saw his cigar for weeks after that. Ah, brothers.
So. The Hobbit costume. We found a green cloak, a white dress shirt, brown pants, a leather satchel, and the one thing that will allow every self-respecting adult to recognize what she is: a ring on a necklace around her neck. Our youngest child tested it out at a Halloween party the weekend before the big day; everyone knew what she was. Nailed it. And, theoretically, she will have a harder time losing a ring attached to a necklace than, say, a stupid plastic cigar in her back pocket.