When my sixth-grade teacher announced the theme for the 1962 annual Halloween parade, I cringed. My discomfort was obvious as she wrote with orange chalk on the blackboard "An American Street."
The reason for my pumpkin-related stress? The year before had been "grocery items," and all my friends had come to school cleverly dressed as boxes of Kellogg's Rice Krispies or candy bars. What was I? A coffee bean.
My mother was a certifiable genius. She graduated from high school and entered the University of California, Los Angeles, when she was 15. She then proceeded on to Wright MacMahon Secretarial School, our local producer of the finest lightning-speed typists. She became president of every charitable organization whose meetings she attended, was den mother of my brother's Cub Scout troop, and could toss together a cunning centerpiece from dust bunnies gathered off the kitchen floor.
But when it came to dressing her first-born daughter in costume, something snapped. It was all about leotards, tights, tutus, and slippers. And not the familiar pink ballet ones.
I had shattered her dream of my becoming a ballerina when, week after week, I twirled off-balance in an uptown studio, until finally I slammed nose-first into the wall so violently that she was forced to heed my pleas for mercy.
Undaunted by her protégée's clumsiness, my ever-resourceful mother thereafter took the apparel she had fantasized I would wear with the Bolshoi Ballet to Bryan's Cleaners to have it dyed according to the Halloween hue she had harbored for weeks as a mental costume blueprint.
The coffee-bean concept had no doubt percolated from her daily cup, and so she brewed her plans: brown leotard, brown tights, brown tutu, brown ballet slippers. And the crème de la crème – a sterling silver coffeepot resting atop my head, anchored by thick, brown, scratchy ribbon tied torturously under my chin in a bow.
When it came to Halloween haberdashery, all thoughts took a wrong turn in my mother's head.
Little sister Kay's class, meanwhile, enjoyed themes such as "famous nursery rhymes." And so there she was, Polaroid-pictured alongside me, cute as a fairy-tale button in her dress and apron, a plush spider in one hand and a bowl for curds and whey in the other.
I stood next to her, tummy protruding, armpits wet from having to steady the polished pot. I vowed then and there never to do this to my own progeny, to frame this photograph as a reminder of a parent's best intentions gone spooky.
In 1962, I knew I was heading down a highway of horror when I went home to deliver the year's costume category.
"Perfect!" Mama exclaimed as she opened the bottom drawer of her dresser to reveal an endless stash of leotards and tights. "I'll get these dyed green for the stem." Her steel-trap mind had locked within seconds onto "Flower Street."
Off to school I went that blazing-hot Oct. 31, although I longed to rest at home in the shaded garden among my mother's daisies.
If I stood stock-still when she backed out of the driveway, would I go unnoticed, camouflaged among the camellias? But as I gazed at my mirrored reflection in the front hall, I knew the answer was no: I couldn't hope to blend in, not anywhere in nature.
There I was, head to toe in a kind of putrid olive green (the result of a challenging dye job). Atop my head and securely tied with green ribbon under my chin blossomed a monstrous, shocking-pink, tissue-paper flower. Escalating from the headdress, that year she had tethered to my wrist yet another flower the size of a regulation volleyball.
"Why is she wearing that weird color?" Kay asked when we picked up our neighbor for the short carpool ride to school. She basked once again in the ordinary, her class theme this year being "make-believe." She sat demurely, not wanting to muss her princess dress or bend her magic wand.
"Because she's a flower," my mother patiently explained. Gesturing to the length of my torso, she added, "And that's the stem."
Janet, our preschool passenger, had just stepped into the car scooping her bewitching cape in after her.
"Humph," she muttered with a snicker. "Some lumpy stem."
When the alphabetical parade in my class began, there was Cathy Anderson, dressed as a cowgirl to represent "Rodeo Drive"; Steve Barrett, a cool surfer dude, for "Malibu Boulevard"; and tall, thin Vickie Carroll manipulating the occasion to show off her newly purchased lime miniskirt for "Green Street."
Cheater, I thought as I sucked in my tummy.
Despite my complaints, my mother later congratulated herself on her cleverness. "It's always an advantage to stand out in a crowd."
I didn't see her trying to gain the edge by parading in public wearing green stretch fabric from head to toe.
Even after I grew up, I carried mental baggage in this area. I never slipped into dress-up clothes for any adult costume party.
Once I had children of my own, the inevitable news came home from school: The third-grade Halloween parade theme was "under the sea."
All those memories came back to haunt me. But I knew immediately what to do: hustle my youngest daughter, Kaitlin, into the car and make a beeline to the store to buy the little mermaid Ariel's outlandishly priced flipper.
My act of costume consumerism saved her – although, now that I think about it, a red leotard and tights would have made the perfect lobster.