Reflections on My Grandmother’s Costume Shop While Anxiously Making Masks by Melissa Hart

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basket of sewing supplies, including spools of thread and orange-handled sewing scissors

Step 1. Cut two fabric rectangles, 6 ½” by 9 ½”, for the mask. Cut four fabric strips, 1” by 16”, for straps. The scissors are Fiskars, the only brand my grandmother would ever touch. A bouquet of them bloomed, orange-handled, in a jar beside her sewing machine at home. Weekends, I fled my college dormitory with its endless margarita parties and slept on the daybed in her sewing room next to the dressmaker’s bust, size 12, and the plastic bins marked “sequins,” “fringe,” and “faux fur.”

Once, I had to hoist a full-length gorilla costume from the bed and drape it on a door hook. Other evenings, I exhumed Egyptian togas or Renaissance dresses heavy with embroidery and glass jewels. The masks on the top of high cabinets—a Chewbacca head in for repairs, a terrifying foam-and-cardboard Easter bunny head—gave me dreams so vivid and strange that I’d awake unsure of both where I was and who I was.

Whole minutes, I blinked at the weak coastal sunlight streaming in from the window and illuminating the silver blades of the Fiskars. Ronald Reagan had just passed his torch to George H.W. Bush. AIDS was ravaging the country, and my older brother—a chef in upstate New York—had succumbed to the disease. Outside the sewing room door, my grandmother’s slippers tapped; I imagined her thick fingers twitching to get to her sewing.

Step 2. Fold in raw edges; sew straps down the middle. Pin straps in the corners of one rectangle. Place other rectangle on top, and pin with right sides together. My own thick fingers fumble with the pins, ancient and rusty, stuck into a three-lobed pincushion that must once have resembled a flower and now boasts the color and texture of a cat’s hairball long after the expulsion.

My grandmother grew up in the Great Depression, daughter of circus performers turned vaudeville comics and jugglers. When she was a toddler, they lost her for hours. An acrobat finally discovered her napping in the elephant barn.

Her parents were also aviators; summers, she flew with them from theater to theater on her mother’s lap in a biplane painted with their show business names. The rest of the year, they abandoned her to a great aunt in Kansas City so she could attend school. On the family farm, 90 miles north, a trio of other aunts taught her to sew crazy quilts—heavy blankets made from worn-out clothing scraps and pieced together with wild, multicolored chicken-scratch embroidery.

My grandmother graduated high school and worked for a time as a secretary, then married a fastidious and exacting World War II soldier who left off commanding liberty ships and commenced commanding her and their two small daughters. She was not allowed to work. They were not allowed to cough. For years, he bound my mother’s left arm to her chest, telling her southpaws were the work of Satan.

This was the early 1950s. My grandmother had no savings, no home of her own. She was stuck, pinned in a beautiful house in the hills above the Monterey coast. She was allowed to volunteer as a costume seamstress for a community theater company on Fisherman’s Wharf; she never dreamed that those first silk and satin assignments would change her whole life.

Step 4. Sew around the perimeter of the mask, ½” from the edges, leaving a 2” gap on one side. Turn the mask right side out. My grandmother’s sewing box is round brown wicker embroidered with faded pink roses. In it, a jumble of old needles and stitch-rippers and stray rhinestones and gold tassels, along with her smallest Fiskars sharp enough to cut to the truth of any matter.

After her parents retired from their work as U.S.O. entertainers and moved to Monterey themselves, her mother shook her head at the domestic disaster my grandmother had gotten herself into. “I raised you to live in a big world,” she said. “What the hell are you doing with your life?”

My grandmother filed for divorce. She became a single mother, purchased a building on Lighthouse Road with a check from her parents, and opened up a costume shop. These weren’t the cheap paper and plastic outfits bought in drugstores the day before Halloween for ten dollars; they were handmade, hundreds of them, researched from history books and pop culture magazines and sewn by machine in an alcove between the shop’s lobby and the dressing room.

An actor from the Wharf Theater—former hoofer in MGM musicals—purchased the space adjoining hers and opened up a dance studio. They maintained their properties and their romance for 40 years. Each time he proposed, she refused to marry him. He could stay every night in the beautiful house with her and her girls, but she would never again commit herself for life.

Step 4. Pin three folds on the front of the mask. Topstitch all around, ½ inch from the edges. My grandmother owned numerous sewing machines over years. She left me the last one, a five-stitch Singer. A few years before she purchased it, her father had built a homemade airplane in his backyard to fly over the Salinas Valley. He took it up with a younger pilot, and the plane exploded midair. After the funeral, my great-grandmother moved in. She established herself at one corner of the kitchen table and began sewing crazy quilts while my grandmother sewed at her shop.

On road trips to Monterey in my mother’s VW bus, we stopped at the costume shop and greeted my grandmother at her sewing machine beside a glass display case of fake mustaches and latex cigars and false eyelashes, and the piece de resistance—a battery-operated light saber before anyone else had them. She embraced me awkwardly, with a bemused groan instead of a kiss, and then I was free to try on her costumes.

Racks of them lined the back room, organized by era. Leopard-print loincloths and latex caveman-clubs hung at the start, progressing through Cleopatra sheaths and Renaissance gowns and capes, and Victorian hoop skirts and pioneer calico, and roaring twenties flappers and poodle skirts, all the way up to aliens and Chewbacca and a white Princess Leia dress complete with a dual-bun wig.

In costume, I slipped into the empty dance studio and paraded past the wall of mirrors. In the next room, sounds of the sewing machine—bursts of stitching and anxious conversation between my grandmother and my mother.

My mother left my abusive father and came out as a lesbian in 1979, losing custody of me in a homophobic courtroom in a homophobic county down south. Her younger sister collected DUIs as others collected abalone shells washed up on the Monterey beach. My grandmother took orders for Smurf costumes and Ninja Turtles; she bemoaned kids and their gum, adults and their cigarettes, declared the weeks before and after Halloween her own personal hell. And still, she sewed.

Step 4. Iron the mask, pressing folds down firmly. I inherited my grandmother’s iron, as well: broken on one side and revealing the inner workings of the machine. When I was 30, a stage four cancer diagnosis elicited my grandmother’s bemused groan. With our family around her hospital bed and no costumes in sight, she performed an E.T. puppet show with the red-lit pulse monitor on her index finger.

In the years since I’d graduated from college, she’d witnessed the death of her mother at the kitchen table, and the dissolution of her 40-year romance with the actor. She’d watched her younger daughter collect DUIs like others collected abalone shells washed up on the Monterey beach and flee the state to drink in obscurity elsewhere. She sold the costume shop and the beautiful house and moved to Southern California to live next door to me. The sunny alcove downstairs, surrounded by backyard roses, became her sewing room, and then her hospice room.

You do the work you know how to do until you can’t do it anymore, she told me, regardless of what life throws at you. You provide entertainment where you can.

She left me her sewing machine and her iron. I turn off the news and set up the ironing board. I gather up leopard-print and calico scraps of fabric, and thread the sturdy needle. I sew.

Meet the Contributor

Melissa Hart with cat and bookMelissa Hart is an author and journalist living in Eugene, Oregon.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Diane Cordell

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