HalloweenI’ve just come from the girls’ bathroom at Science Hill school where I applied fake eyelashes onto my stepdaughter Gabrielle. I also dusted purple eye shadow on her eyelids and ran red gloss on her lips while she showed me her purple press-on nails. Admittedly, it was a surreal moment when we looked in the mirror and she’d turned 18, but I shook it off and proceeded with teasing her hair.

All this in the name of the most cut throat Halloween costume contest and parade in the county.

I am now sitting in my car in the parking lot waiting for the parade and contest to begin. I have, umm, 58 minutes before this happens.

Each year, hundreds of parents gather for this time-honored event to watch their children march around the school in good weather and wind around the gym in cold. The costumes are absolutely amazing, with kids dressed as everything from Easter baskets and bowls of macaroni and cheese to farmers complete with cardboard tractors and pilots complete with planes.

Halloween costume design and construction is, luckily, Gabrielle’s mom’s domain, as neither my husband nor I have a craftsy bone in our bodies. Each year, the planning starts in July and continues feverishly on until the weekend before P-Day, involving multiple trips to get supplies and hours spent cutting, spray painting and decorating. While Gabrielle’s mom Lisa is the right-hand woman of the project, I step in at the very end to get Gabrielle ready on the day of.

I have never talked to Gabrielle about how much she covets one of the medals that are handed out to the contest winners, but I’m guessing from the sweat and tears she pours into her costume construction it’s pretty high up there. So far, though, she hasn’t gotten one, which has prompted her to design costumes on an increasingly grander scale.

Last year, she worked on becoming a piece of sculpture inspired by one she’d seen at the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden when we took her to Washington that spring. She called it Cubi IV and it was an ultra modern, silvery piece that — esoteric though it was — really did look like what we’d seen in the garden. On the back, she pasted a photo of the real sculpture and described its meaning in academic terms. The costume really was a masterpiece, and she had a good chance at winning.

Which brings me to why I’m sitting in my car 58 minutes before this shindig starts.

See, last year we neglected to consider that the costume contest preceded the parade so when I showed up at 2, Gabrielle was waiting desperately at the front door of the school as I walked breezily in with her costume.

“I missed the judging,” she said, fiercely battling tears as her chin wobbled.

“What do you mean?”

“The judging was at 1:30, the parade is at 2.”

I looked at that kid, dear readers, and felt this just-as-fierce desire to make things right.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Get it on, and I’ll go talk to the teacher.”

She shook her head but limply pulled the sculpture over her ashen face.

We walked into the gym and I could see there had already been considerable discussion regarding the whereabouts of Gabrielle’s costume (and stepmom), and her classmates looked at me alternately with embarrassment and severe distain. Trying to shake it off, I went to the teacher to see if anything could be done. She also shook her head sadly — the rules were the rules — and Gabrielle bravely walked away.

How did I feel at that point? When I went to sit in the bleachers to watch the parade, I also fought the urge to bawl. Why in the world hadn’t I considered the time? Why couldn’t I have come a little earlier? I sat like a lump and realized that if they were handing out ribbons for worst stepmother in the world, I’d handily win that contest. Most importantly, I realized that, of all the costumes Gabrielle had made and the contests she’d entered, this would be the one she would never forget.

I feel like I can write about this now only because Gabrielle has turned the page and come up with an even brillianter costume this year. She is a fortune-telling machine in which she sits inside a giant golden box dressed as a gypsy and hands out fortunes (for the very fair price of 25 cents). It’s not just a good costume, it’s a great costume and, as the minutes tick down to show time, I pray, I fervently pray, she comes home with that medal.

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