Tuesday, April 21, 2015

That Time My Basement Became a Sweatshop

[As we are only two days away from The Big Show, I thought I'd run this article, which was in the SoRo Circle, but I forgot to share here!]

One of the things I love about James Madison Middle School is the spring musical. The principal, Whitney Johnson, started the theater department a few years back and in April, their third production, The Little Mermaid, will be performed. Kids can learn so much from being part of a cast or crew - teamwork, conquer a fear of public speaking, not to mention, have a lot of fun. And JMMS makes sure that if you want to be involved, they will find a place for you. 

As an old theater nerd myself, I was glad the girls wanted to try out. They came home from the tryouts smiling. Maggie decided against the counsel of 6th grade girls and sang Let It Go while Morrigan, ever the individual, opted for Carry On My Wayward Son.

When the morning of the Release of the Cast List came, my excitement rivaled the girls’. Any part, from Sea Urchin 7 to Ariel would be a-ok with me, though I was pulling for one with an interesting costume. To their delight, the girls were cast, along with Joshua and Nickolas, in one of their first choices, Flotsam and Jetsam, the evil eels. Clearly fun parts to outfit!

The first text was to my brother, the girls’ Uncle Dominick, who conveniently happened to be visiting over the holidays and is, as an added bonus, a professional costume designer. (You know those Muppets in Sesame Street Live? He makes those.) With great enthusiasm I told him about the play and the girls’ parts and asked if he would help make killer, in all senses of the word, eels. Without a moment’s hesitation, he was in. It was only after this whole exchange that the realization came that I had conscripted my brother’s labor while he was on vacation, and away from his husband, to do the job he does all year. 


Luckily he was very good natured about it and assured me he was happy to be involved. When he arrived a few weeks later, he came bearing some supplies and ready to work. Now, in my mind, Dominick, my Mom, and I were going to work on this for a couple of days and produce something much better than my costuming skills would have produced, but not too complex. It was only later that what Dominick had in mind became clear.

We went to fabric stores and hardware stores to procure all the components. Lots of components. This was going to be a production. 

We set up our base of operations in the lower level of the house. It seemed only prudent to remove the chaos from the main living area. Indeed after a few long days of work, there was so much glitter in the basement, it looked as though we had massacred fairies. 

By this point, massive guilt had overtaken me, coming to grips with the enormity of the project and realizing that none of us were going to escape that basement all week. I was running a sweatshop. But then I looked around at what was going on in my forced labour camp. Dominick and I were introducing Mom to all sorts of new music, which she was delighted by since Dad is stuck in the 1990’s. Note to Dad: move on from Collective Soul and the Dandy Warhols. The kids would come down and hang out. Morrigan especially liked playing Skyrim with her Uncle, well versed in the game, at her side providing tips on who to kill and rob. (It’s a nice wholesome game.) I was able to relive my youth as Mom, joined by her protege son, wove an occasional tapestry of obscenity. Granted, it was usually after an injury - but not always!

We were getting close to done when the kids went back to school, Tim to work, and Mom and Dad headed home to Indiana. With mostly hand sewing left, we relocated to the family room, better tv there, and completed the finishing touches. That last day was a long one, but it was delightful. Dominick and I have lived far apart for 15 years with me in Roanoke and him in Minnesota. Family get togethers are expensive and hard to coordinate. It had been ages since we had a whole day to ourselves to talk about everything.

Dominick worked up until the morning of his departure, swearing that adding eel teeth was the very last thing he was going to do. Taking the last few hours of his visit off from sewing, we went downtown, had lunch, and shopped. We chuckled about how out of control the project had gotten and staunchly refused to do a hard estimate of the number of hours involved. I promised that he was safe coming back to Roanoke and next time I would even let him out of the house. But he just laughed and told me it was truly fun. “Some families make puzzles, we sew giant eels.” 

I waved goodbye at the airport, knowing when he got home, Dominick was likely to need a vacation after his vacation. But I was smiling as I swept up the sparkles and sequins, thinking how lucky I was to have a brother willing to sacrifice a week for his nieces and how this week was likely to become The Week Katie Enslaved Us All in the Veldman family lore. 

Post Script: If you are free April 23rd, 24th, or 25th, come check out The Little Mermaid. All these kids are sure to bring down the house!

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