When my son was in the second grade, he contracted pneumonia and spent the first two weeks of October 1995 either in his bed, or on the sofa with his Pokemon cards. I was worried that he was losing valuable brain cells, so, I thought that since he was into this Pokemon thing (which was I still don’t know what), and since it was Japanese, I thought that maybe he would be interested in something like the movie Seven Samurai.
At the very least the subtitles would help with his reading comprehension. So, after I explained the plot to him, I popped in the tape and we watched it, together, pausing only when I had to get him a refill of juice, some canned fruit or his antibiotic.
When the infection subsided and he was back to being his old, inquisitive, imaginative, self, he made the announcement over meatloaf at our dinner table that he had finally figured out what (who?) he would be this year for Halloween. No popular culture claptrap for him. No Jason mask. Nothing pulled-off-the-shelves-at-Target. His costumes were based on whatever his interests were at the time. What would he be morphing into this year?
A virus? No.
A genetically modified strain of bacteria? No.
A 13th-century Samurai warrior!
OK, I was, at first blush, kind of proud that obviously he had liked my movie selection and that it had made a positive impact on him. But on the other hand? Pass the Pepcid. See, I made his costumes. OK, maybe not made. More like, concocted. Put together. Garnered.
One year, he was a World War I doughboy, which he based on a sepia tone photograph of his great-great grandfather that sat amongst the other photographs of dead relatives on the plate rail in the dining room. (He used the gas mask we just happened to have in the back of the front closet. Don’t ask.)
Another year: A cub reporter, circa 1936, an idea he got from listening to old radio shows on tape in the car when we drove to a rented cabin for our week in the Wisconsin woods. For that I used a vintage fedora from my friend’s father, a reporter’s notepad that I borrowed (OK, stole) from the office supply cabinet at work, a Kodak camera we had in the attic and my mother’s London Fog trench coat (reprised a year later when he was the Green Lantern).
Thirteenth-century Samurai? How the hell was I going to pull that off?
Trick-or-treating in our neighborhood was like on-sale candy that stuck together in the bottom of a plastic pumpkin—it was a dud. There was only two trick-or-treatable affairs on our calendar. Our friends’ family-friendly but with plenty of adult beverages and un-supervised-kid-wildness, costumes-optional pumpkin slaughter. The other? The highlight of the grade-school social season, hosted by the de facto head of the stay-at-home mothers cabal. (She had her french-tipped fingers into everything school-related.)
We didn’t live in the close-knit, conservative, all-Catholic-all-the-time, neighborhood that surrounded the school, we lived on the other side of the tracks, literally and figuratively, and I worked outside the home, so I could only volunteer for playground duty twice a week—which caused the über-mothers to question my commitment to the school (and to mothering).
So if my son wanted to become a 13th century samurai, then not only would I make it but, it would be the best damned costume in the history of the mother-making costume world!
My son and I took a trip to the museum. The replica Japanese tea house was on the second floor and so was the collection of Samurai armor. We looked at shapes. Forms. Key pieces. For the Darth Vaderish helmet with large Stag beetle-like pincer thingies on the top, I had a hard hat in the basement that I could spray-paint black. For the leather-like strips down the back? This foamy paper stuff, cut into strips, stapled and hot-glued maybe with some drapery cording here and there . . .
He came up with the idea of black sweat pants wrapped with black medical tape around his shins, and black socks worn with black flip-flops. The breast plates with peplum? For those I needed something sturdy yet pliable, something that looked embossed, armor-ish. Rubber flooring? Too stiff. Carpet padding? Nah. I’d kill whatever brain cells ones I had left by spray-painting it black. And then . . . right there. At one of our routine trips to the hardware store. In the automotive aisle. Car floor mats. Perfect!
For weeks, I hot glued, stapled, cut. We had fittings. Alterations were made for optimum movement and easy access to accommodate personal needs. We topped the whole ensemble off with large Stag beetle pincers that I made out of foam core then hot-glued onto the utterly awesome helmet and accessorized the look with a psuedo katana – the only item purchased at a bona fide costume shop.
Überific Mother greeted us dressed as Morticia Adams to her husband’s Gomez. Boring! They had no clue as to what my son was. I explained the whole Samurai scenario, and halfway through, I could tell by her glazed eyes that I had lost my audience. She wasn’t the only one who didn’t get it. None of the kids did, either.
My seven-year-old samurai stood out in a cliched crowd of store-bought, cheap, throwaway, soon-to-be-forgotten Homer Simpsons, Britney Spearses and Brett Favres. Three hours later, when I picked him up, his helmet bore some nicks and his breastplate had come loose.
“So, how was it?” I asked.
“OK, but, nobody got what I was,” he said, winded. “And I gave up trying to explain.”
I winced. Maybe I should have talked him out of historical antiquity and steered him towards something a little more mainstream? I had expected my mothering stock to go all 1990s dot com, instead it had only inched up a fraction of a point.
“So, next year?” I said.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking . . .”
“Um, how about an archeologist?”
“You’re thinking pith helmet . . . ?” I said.
“Huh? No. I’m thinking leather jacket, hat, bag . . . Indiana Jones, Mom!”
Ah, yes. I should have known. We just got the entire set on tape. OK. I already had the hat, the bag would be no problem, neither would the jacket . . . but the whip?
Heavy is the hand that carries the plastic katana.
Mel Miskimen is the author of Cop's Kid: A Milwaukee Memoir